Qualifications in France

This morning I set off my weekly kinésithérapie session a little earlier than usual so that I could post something. A man who has had an appointment at the same time as me for a couple of months was just approaching the postbox. I offered him a lift to save him a bit over 10 minutes walk. We naturally began to chat. Apart from Bonjour we had never spoken before.

At the end of our respective sessions he invited me for a coffee so I drove us both down to the square to do so. Whilst talking he asked what I did? I explained to which he said it was more exciting than his job. So I politely asked what that is? He works for the Pôle Emploi, not actually seeing people looking for work but heads a department that checks qualifications and the kind of details that are required for many posts. That got us talking about non-French working here.

When it got down to brass tacks I took what he had said and added that from what I understood, that there are 196 nation states in the world, 195 of whose citizens find it hard to find work they are qualified to do because their qualifications are not French. He confirmed that as broadly true. What about the Treaty of Rome through all of the treaties and agreements since within the EEA/EU/EFTA areas? He said that his department has no brief on those, just French regulations. I said that those are actually legally binding by the terms of the international regulations, thus his mandate must include more than just French regulation. He shook his head and said they know nothing about that where he is.

We discussed qualifications, to which he made it clear that from school qualifications through skills and formal trade qualifications to university ones there are first French standards then the possibility of equivalence in some but not all fields. I made the example of being married to somebody with a Swiss Francophone university education up to a doctorate which was, ironically, published by a Paris publisher. If we had stayed in the UK she would certainly have had at least a personal professorship, that was already clear and when she resigned she was told to induce her to stay, if not a chair or full professorship. Here when she tried for jobs she was offered only an entry level lectureship. I asked for an explanation. At her level she would need to have a qualification from an école normale supérieure (that is to say, higher education establishment that is outside the framework of the public university system and considered well above university level) in order to get a senior position in his opinion. This is unique to France and a couple of other Francophone countries, even then their qualifications are heavily scrutinised here. I made a point about the best one in France, ENS Paris, coming well down below 70 in the international ranking for teaching standards and who knows where after the top hundred for research. So doesn't that mean that France is denying itself the sometimes best people by having this barrier?

His response was that from school education through the system by having this uniquely French system of qualifications it protects France's employees. I told him that there are two serious contradictions in there. Firstly, if France brought in the world's best people then that would stimulate the sectors that hired them and development would benefit through innovation and greater competitiveness by knowing and using international standards. That is simply economic sense. It would also increase opportunities if the stimulated sectors were thriving thus new posts created. He agreed in principle. The second point was that the protectionist approach encourages the 'black' work that undermines the survival of qualified French people in many areas. That is definitely a problem, he admitted.

I then added that I have known and still know people qualified here in France with jobs elsewhere, particularly in the UK, whose qualifications were no barrier to them getting jobs. At the highest level there is somebody I know who has a French doctorate and is now the chair of one of the top half dozen institutes in our discipline in the USA. He cannot come back to France because his English wife, who also has a very high level job in the USA, would have to take a junior position (In fact both are close to retirement so it is now very unlikely). Did he not find it strange that such anomalies happen? His response was simply that there was good reason for protecting high level jobs and that since the man is at the top of his professional level surely they could afford his wife staying at home to look after the family and house! I could only shake my head in disbelief. So I switched over to the subject of women in the UK, Germany and so on with civil engineering and construction qualifications and whether they would find work if their qualifications were accepted? He doubted it in this part of France since those are 'traditionally' areas of men's work as too many other jobs, although he does know of some French female carpenters (menuisier and charpentier, plus one who is a maître-charpentier who employs several other women in woodworking).

At more or less that point I changed the subject to the weather. I was feeling fit explode. I am not sure just how far he knows what he is talking about in terms of legislation and regulations, but in a very naive way his attitude is both dismissive and sexist. I do not like knocking France, I happily live here but I also wish they would help themselves. Opening the door to accepting people bringing high skills in particularly would help to resolve some of their economic problems and stimulate employment. The free movement of all levels of worker also brings innovation through exchanges of ideas and methods. Thus, I find it ironic that one of the founding countries and stalwarts of what is now the EU is stuck in this time warp although it was one of the countries that enthusiastically promoted the open borders policy. The politicians seem to be incapable of seeing further than the ends of their noses and whilst I would expect a 'blame the unions' excuse, in fact if the unions were presented with the advantages of an open policy that would help their members they would soon be on board.

Back at home I thought to myself: I wish somebody would give them a good nudge and wake them up. The trouble is that thinking about political leadership, I see nobody capable of being woken up.


Unfortunately, Brian, nothing in your conversation surprises me at all. We know it's like that, I've seen it from the inside in many establishments. I can't think of anyone strong enough in French politics to really address the deep-rooted problems in France. They're all just out to make a name for themselves and collect as many mandats as possible to assure the most comfortable retirement possible :-O