French candidates face 'Young & Poor' voters

A ratings agency in France evaluates how presidential candidates plan to tackle the country's dire youth employment problem.

Kai Ryssdal: It's the first round of presidential elections in France this weekend, Sunday. Nicolas Sarkozy and nine other candidates are on the ballot. Immigration's a big deal for voters. The European debt crisis as well.

Also unemployment -- specifically for 20- and 30-somethings. That unemployment has given activists over there an idea: A grassroots ratings agency to evaluate the candidates' plans to deal with joblessness. It's called Young & Poor's -- Standard & Poor's, get it? And it says none of the candidates are anywhere near a triple-A rating.

John Laurenson reports from Paris.


John Laurenson: Twenty-eight-year-old Ophélie Latil is, unfortunately, a typical case.

Ophélie Latil: I made two years internship. Unpaid internship, of course.

But it wasn't your normal unpaid internship. Ophélie says she was managed five workers who were all in their 40s. And she had a special skill the company needed: She was the only one who spoke Croatian. But apparently, even this wasn't enough.

Latil: I was working all day long, on the weekends, in the evenings because I was thinking I would be hired and, of course, at the end they said you are very good so could you have six months of internship again?

Ophélie refused, saying she needed to earn some money. To pay rent. To buy food. So she left. And another intern took her place. One in five young French people are out of work. Even more are on internships. That leaves almost half of French 16-34 year olds without paid work. Which is why Ophélie came up with the idea of Young & Poor's, with co-founder Gaetan Mortier.

Gaetan Mortier: We were recently looking for a new initiative to put pressure on the presidential candidates and we thought the best idea would be to create a ratings agency, but not working for shareholders but rather working for citizens.

Jacques Cheminade speaking

Presidential candidate Jacques Cheminade replies to a question on TV asked by Young & Poor's. Most of the candidates refused similar invitations. For sociology professor Louis Chauvel, who sits on the panel of experts that decides Young & Poor's ratings, these refusals are revealing.

Louis Chauvel: In the U.S. there is a debate about generation limbo -- well-educated, young, graduate-age, 25- to 30-something -- who are not able to find their own place in society. In France, we have had this kind of problem for the last 30 years with absolutely no answer, no consciousness and no capacity of French political leaders to tackle this real problem.

Chauvel and the other Young & Poor's experts have given a D rating to Nicolas Sarkozy. A timid recovery spurred by his free-market reforms was crushed by the world recession. And Young & Poor's says deregulation has left young workers more vulnerable to employer abuse. Sarkozy's Socialist rival Francois Hollande has a B rating. He promises to implement a new government job-creation scheme.

To get its message out, Young & Poor's even takes its protest to the street. Ophélie, Gaetan and the others on Paris' most prestigious avenue, the Champs Elysées, try to persuade shoppers to boycott a store that replaced a woman on maternity leave with an intern.

Young & Poor's has been up and running for a month. So is it making any impact on voters? Well, the most popular candidate with young voters is Marine Le Pen. Young & Poor's gave that anti-immigration candidate a D-rating.

In Paris, I'm John Laurenson for Marketplace.

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