Blame the state; it’s France’s worst employer

Most companies will at least pay lip service to the necessity of treating their employees well. In times of high unemployment however, it will mostly just be lip service. But in France, one employer is worse than any other: the French state, which is still the country’s first employer.

French people typically enjoy an occasional rant against the “privileged civil servants”. Attacking the civil servants is even a national sport of sorts. The rant is largely understandable for two reasons:

  • The quality of public services is generally low and probably on the decline;
  • The stability and safety of a civil servant’s career creates a lot of resentment in an economy in which 84% of all jobs created are short-term contracts. The protective long-term work contracts (CDI: contrat à durée indéterminée) are the privilege of older-generation French workers while the young have to make do with precarious short-term work contracts (CDD: contrat à durée déterminée). The existence of these two contracts has led to the development of two classes of workers and contributed to amplifying inequalities. The job market is particularly rigid and the unemployment rate particularly high in France.

But however flawed the civil servants may be, one should blame the right culprit: the French state is in many ways the country’s worst employer:

  • it resorts to countless illegal short-term contracts (when the same job is performed by a series of short-term contracted employees, under French law, a long-term contract should be created instead);
  • it automatically promotes its mediocre employees;
  • it systematically punishes the young in favour of the old: like in the army, civil servants are ranked. The older they get, the more they are paid (regardless of how they perform). But for a few years now, the last generations have not been promoted as fast as the older generations had been. So the generational wage gap has increased dramatically;
  • it wastes its talents by ignoring them.

Depending on the state departments, these practices are more or less true. The department that employs the highest number of civil servants is the centralised department of education. L’ “Education Nationale” employs about 800,000 teachers and is the worst of all departments in terms of human resources management. Like a Soviet-style institution, this department can lead one to believe it is wasting its resources on purpose, just to punish them. Indeed, it prefers to have someone who lives close to a school spend hours commuting to another. Rather than to have the same teacher teach 18 hours in one school, it prefers to have three teachers teach 6 hours in 3 different schools and spend three times as much time commuting.

Sometimes, good teachers are stuck in administrative limbos and forced to sub for two decades before they are offered a stable position; they are thus prevented from developing long-term projects with their students.

Geography isn’t everything of course, if only skills or experience were taken into account for the sake of the students. But the department knows approximately nothing about its human resources, about who’s talented and who’s not, who likes doing what, the kinds of experience they have, and so on and so forth.

Today, a proper exploitation of employee data should help improve the efficiency of student-teacher matching but this department has an IT system that has barely changed since the 1990s and that doesn’t even do what it could do if it were used efficiently. It is both obsolete AND misused.

Teachers are rarely if ever controlled. They receive automatic grades that don’t depend on performance.

Today, the state is finding it increasingly hard to recruit, in spite of high unemployment. Math teachers, for example, are particularly hard to find. Numerous positions are not filled. The academic level of those recruited has fallen dramatically.

Even the recruitment of department of Education administrators is worth looking into. They are rarely recruited because they are passionate about education. Mostly it is either because they had mediocre rankings at the Ecole nationale d’administration (well-ranked ENA students never choose education) or they are former teachers who see the department as their only way out of teaching.

French taxpayers are indeed not given their money’s worth, often not for the reasons they have in mind, but because the resources they pay for are misused, ignored, often mistreated and dehumanised. Is the only solution a progressive privatisation of those services? It shouldn’t be, but that’s what the France of Sarkozy and Hollande seems to be choosing…

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