In France, there are two tales of one city |

In France, there are two tales of one city

Molly Moore

PARIS – As teenagers in a middle-class suburb of Paris, Pierre Kosciusko-Morizet and Nicolas Dhelft shared the same circle of friends, attended the same parties and watched the same movies.Today, seven years out of business school, Kosciusko-Morizet, 28, is president of one of the fastest-growing online sales companies in France. At a time when youth unemployment here is more than 22 percent, the young French executive, who started his career at a bank in Richmond, Va., has added 50 workers to his payroll in the past six months – most of them English-speaking engineers and technicians.In contrast, Dhelft, 29, has worked only eight months since graduating from a liberal arts college with the dream of becoming a research director. He has received government welfare or unemployment benefits for most of the past four years, something he feels “a little bit” guilty about but believes the government owes him.The story of the two friends who came of age on opposite sides of the French economy illustrates a generation torn between a need to embrace the globalized world of the 21st century and the fear of relinquishing the government security blankets of the 20th. The struggle has erupted in the streets of French cities during more than a month of protests over a job law that has come to symbolize the country’s economic, social and political disarray.Under growing domestic pressure, on Monday the government withdrew the law, which allowed companies to fire workers under the age of 26 anytime during their first two years on the job.But both Kosciusko-Morizet, who supported the law, and Dhelft, who opposed it, agree that it is not French regulations but a national mind-set that needs to change.”Companies like mine someday will be the future of France,” said Kosciusko-Morizet, sitting in his plate-glass crow’s nest of an office overlooking the mammoth warehouse where 115 employees of process online sales of items including CDs and vintage wines. “But I don’t see France really ready right now. It’s not the laws – it’s the mentality.”Dhelft, a slight man with close-cropped hair and a sparse beard, grew up not far from the opulent Versailles palace in the suburban Paris town of the same name. He is typical of the many French youth who follow their hearts through college with a curriculum that is decades behind the current job market.When he graduated with a degree in sociology, he discovered he could not even get a job interview at one major research institute without a reference from inside the company. The small, nonprofit groups he preferred had no jobs to offer. He enrolled in graduate courses and since finishing in 2003 he has made an admittedly less-than-aggressive effort to find a job – seven or eight interviews.”I could be sending out 10 resumes a day,” said Dhelft, sitting at a Paris cafe, nursing a coffee as well as a wrist he sprained playing handball. “But it’s not in my mentality. I’m more laid-back, and I’m not convinced sending 10 resumes a day would get more offers.”When he turned 25, Dhelft became eligible for welfare because he had never held a job. He received 350 euros a month, about $425.Last year a nonprofit association where he interned in college offered him a seven-month job filling in for an employee on maternity leave. Dhelft earned 1,300 euros ($1,585) a month, and after the job ended he qualified for unemployment benefits for seven months at 750 euros ($915) each month. When the association called him back last January to substitute one month for an ill employee, Dhelft received partial unemployment pay – 250 euros ($300) – for the month he was working.When his employment payments run out at the end of April, he will qualify once again for welfare because he won’t be working or collecting unemployment.Dhelft, who lives with his parents and volunteers as a handball coach for children, said of the government payment, “I don’t feel bad taking it.” He paused to reconsider, and conceded that perhaps he felt “a little bit” of guilt, but added, “I would feel more guilty if my parents had to pay everything for me.” His mother is a homemaker and his father is an engineer for Peugeot, the French automaker.Having his parents and the government payments as a financial crutch is “a double-edged sword,” Dhelft said. “You are protected, but you tend to be too protected to do something.””I disagree with those who say French young people are lazy and don’t want to work,” Dhelft said. “They want to work, but they want to work the French way – with a 35-hour week and a steady job. People want to be able to plan for the future and think ahead.”He’s watched the successes of some of his friends a bit wistfully.”Some, like Pierre, had a very straight path with no problems and are very successful,” he said. But that route wouldn’t work for him, Dhelft said. “I don’t like business in general.”Even so, a friend has told him about an opening at a bank. Three years ago, Dhelft would not have considered it. “I’m ready to lower my expectations,” he said. “I don’t have dreams anymore. I have to put aside my pride and dreams and make a living.”My goal is to work at least a few years.”When Kosciusko-Morizet was growing up in the western Paris suburb of Sevres, he dreamed of flying his own plane. He assumed it would be far too expensive and difficult.But as chief executive officer of, he discovered “you don’t have to be a millionaire to fly a plane,” you just need $6,000 for the lessons. Today he flies.Kosciusko-Morizet uses that discovery in his crusade to persuade French college graduates to shed their fear of missing out on a lifelong job and plunge into entrepreneurship.”They just don’t think about it as something they can do,” said Kosciusko-Morizet, his face sandwiched between brilliant copper hair and a thick reddish beard. “They think you have to be born rich, you have to have connections. They think it’s too hard.”It’s not too hard – I was not rich. I didn’t have that many connections. I think it’s a great way of life and a great adventure.”But Kosciusko-Morizet had the educational jump-start that set him apart from hundreds of thousands of other French students. He graduated from Ecole Hautes Etudes de Commerce, the most elite business school in a country where professional achievement frequently is determined by the status of the diploma.And he is not without connections. His father, a career government administrator, is now mayor of his home town, and his great-grandfather was ambassador to the United States in the 1970s.After graduating, Kosciusko-Morizet worked for a year at Capital One Bank in Richmond, Va., honing skills he then took home to France. Just as the Internet bubble was bursting, he and four friends – despite warnings that their timing was abysmal – started an online sales company in France.In the first two years, the number of transactions the company handled doubled every 2 1/2 months, and the business has continued to expand. Kosciusko-Morizet said now handles 20,000 transactions a day – small by eBay standards, but significant by French ones. He estimates that in the past six years, it has helped 10,000 people launch new or second careers in sales. In November, he moved the company into a open-air warehouse once used to make huge balloons.But fighting the French mind-set and labor laws designed to protect workers, rather than enhance commerce and competition, has been frustrating. To fire an employee “is expensive and it takes time,” he said. “You hire 115 people and fire one, and you’re seen as a bad guy. You’re firing a guy who has a right to work.”Although Kosciusko-Morizet supports the government’s new law, he doesn’t think it could help his company: “You don’t need two years to know whether an employee is good.”And he is not without sympathy for those like his friend, Nicolas. “It’s important to have safety nets and social protections,” he said. “You don’t want to stop helping people who have difficulties, but you don’t want to hand them too much. If you do, they will have less motive to find a job.”Kosciusko-Morizet said he tries to convince new graduates that running a business doesn’t mean they have to give up the lifestyle so cherished by the French. “I don’t think work is the most important thing in my life,” he said. “I believe in family. I love music. I sing. One of my dreams is to become a singer.”Vail, Colorado

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