French-German Border Shapes More Than Territory
By STEVEN ERLANGER
SÉLESTAT, France — This ancient town in the center of Alsace boasts the extraordinary Humanist Library, dating from the 15th century. But less proudly, Sélestat also has an unemployment rate of about 8 percent, much higher than towns just across the border in Germany.
Emmendingen, a German town of 27,000 that is only slightly larger than Sélestat and barely 20 miles away, has an unemployment rate of under 3 percent. Among those under 25 years of age, the unemployment rate in Sélestat is 23 percent; in Emmendingen, it is 7 percent.
The divergent economic circumstances of these two towns are striking, particularly given the cross-border cultural ties in the region. The reasons for the disparities, much debated, have emerged as a focal point of the French presidential campaign.
Fighting for his re-election, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has said with characteristic bluntness that the French should become more like the Germans. In a recent joint television interview with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, he raised Gallic eyebrows by mentioning the word Germany or German at least 15 times, or about once a minute.
But the issue for Mr. Sarkozy is job creation. Unemployment in France is at a 12-year high and rising. Germany’s unemployment rate, at 7.4 percent, is at its lowest point since reunification in 1991.
If re-elected, Mr. Sarkozy proposes a national referendum to approve a more flexible labor market, featuring a German-style apprenticeship. He wants to allow more part-time work, like the Germans, and to subsidize more jobs for youth and raise the value-added tax to reduce the cost of social-welfare charges for employers, as the Germans do, too.
His Socialist opponent, François Hollande, rejects most of those ideas, preferring more traditional Socialist responses like more state spending on education and job creation. Many French admire the Germans but do not want to emulate them.
“We appreciate their rigor and discipline, but that’s not all there is in life,” said Alexandre Boer, 52, who works here in Sélestat with young people facing long-term unemployment. “We’re not in 1945 anymore. That was also the German model.”
Mr. Sarkozy and Mrs. Merkel have had a strained relationship, but it has improved markedly in the pressure cooker of the euro crisis, and Mrs. Merkel once had plans to campaign for him. But she appeared to back off recently when it seemed that her open support might hurt Mr. Sarkozy more than help, by wounding French pride and making him look like a supplicant.
Nevertheless, Mr. Sarkozy is betting that the problems in the French economy, where youth unemployment is 23 percent nationwide and exports are declining, are so profound that voters will overcome their deep-seated reluctance and be more receptive to at least a variation on the German model. But it is not always clear what that would entail, and whether the French would ever stand for it.
One thing is abundantly clear, however. The German economy has powered far ahead of France’s, and the gap is widening every year. Germany has maintained its industrial base and competitive edge, both technologically and in terms of cost, while France lacks a large sector of medium-size industrial enterprises and depends much more on services. The French share of global exports has steadily fallen, while the German share has steadily risen.
French salaries have increased in real terms while German salaries have fallen, making French workers more expensive and thus less productive and competitive. French social protections for the unemployed are also much more lavish, especially after the Germans pushed through the so-called Hartz reforms, which largely limited unemployment benefits to 12 months. In France, the duration is 23 months for those under 50 and three years for those over 50, many of whom never work again.
In part to pay for those benefits, the cost to business of an hour’s labor is 11 percent higher in France. But there is less job security in Germany, and more Germans do part-time work. The Germans do not have a centrally fixed minimum wage, as the French do.
The practical results of these trends are visible in these border towns, where the shape of industry — largely small- to medium-size metal-working companies or factories — is similar. For example, there are 10 times as many job offers a month on the German side as on the French one, said Norbert Mattusch, who works on cross-border cooperation for the German Federal Employment Agency in Freiburg.
While some Germans cross the border to work in France, few French do the same, except for seasonal labor at the large amusement park nearby, Europa-Park, the largest in Germany and the third-largest in Europe, which draws many French-speaking customers.
“We have job openings right now for 70 drivers of heavy trucks,” Mr. Mattusch said. “But the big problem is that the French don’t speak German,” so they cannot qualify for the jobs, and young people here no longer speak the Alsatian dialect, once used on both sides of the border. The mayor of Emmendingen, Stefan Schlatterer, says that “there is a job here for anyone who can count to ten,” but one needs to count in German.
Salaries on the German side are higher for similar work, goods are cheaper, the cost of hiring a full-time employee is lower and the relationship between German workers and their bosses is more supple and flexible, freer of the centralized regulations, ministries and unions characteristic of France.
Emmendingen, a German town of 27,000 that is only slightly larger than Sélestat and barely 20 miles away, has an unemployment rate of under 3 percent.
But while the French may admire German rigor, they are reluctant to make some of the same sacrifices, including longer hours and less job security.
Boris Gourdial, director of the Freiburg branch of the German Federal Employment Agency, said that mentalities were different, despite shared history and proximity. “The French work to live and the Germans live to work,” he said, a cliché that still resonates.
His French colleague, Roxane Pierrel, who runs the employment office in Sélestat, smiles politely. She points out that the French have more children than the Germans and more women are in the work force, which swells the numbers looking for work. But she acknowledges that the Germans are doing better at job training for young people, especially with a nationwide apprenticeship system that Mr. Sarkozy wants to introduce more widely in France. “The systems may be different,” she said. “But all the enterprises on both sides of the border are looking for competence.”
Many labor experts single out the German apprenticeship system as a major competitive advantage. It takes young people out of the university track at 16 and trains them in industrial skills, as they simultaneously study for a technical degree and work for a salary. They often get full-time jobs with companies that have invested in training.
Unlike in the rest of France, there is a vestigial apprenticeship system in Alsace, which was at different times a part of Germany. But it is closer to a French “alternance” model of vocational training, which also combines education and work, but is less widespread among companies and less popular.
Many French parents and their children still regard a vocational degree or apprenticeship — instead of a university degree — as a sign of stupidity or failure, Ms. Pierrel said. “We have to convince young people, since it’s not well accepted in the family,” she said. In France, “it means being a bad student. In Germany, it doesn’t devalue someone.”
But she is beginning to see a change, she said. “Companies here are working with schools to promote apprenticeships,” and more young people see the advantage of a salary at a decent job as preferable to unemployment.
Marcel Bauer, the mayor of Sélestat and its 21,000 people, also sees a change. He says he is proud of the local apprenticeship system, which he thinks should be developed in the rest of France. But unlike in Germany, where the states and localities can set many of their own rules, in France, he said, “the national Education Ministry wants to keep all control.”
Mr. Bauer also bemoans the constant labor warfare in France. “German workers accept that they must make efforts in a crisis, and work less and earn less to keep their jobs.” But “with us,” he said, “it’s an immediate battle and a strike and people in the streets.”
Mr. Bauer, mayor since 2001, has also been promoting more bilingual classes, so local students will learn some German. He has been trying to promote more regional partnership with the Germans, including with Emmendingen’s mayor, Mr. Schlatterer.
Both mayors speak emotionally of the importance of French-German cooperation. “I feel the center of the European idea is the really close partnership between France and Germany,” Mr. Schlatterer said. “When France and Germany are close to one another, Europe works.”