Modern Mind-Set Pays In Out-of-Date Market

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

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, 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 new 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 résumés 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 résumés 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.

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