The public sector
An above-average percentage of France’s workforce is employed in the public sector, so what makes it so attractive? Kate McNally explains the French system and the benefits it offers
How different jobs are categorised and the changes that could occur
The public sector in France is considered by many as hallowed ground. Those working in the public sector on a permanent contract – public servants, known as fonctionnaires, and contract agents – enjoy almost foolproof job security, well-protected rights, above-average holiday entitlement, generous sick pay, plus a good pension at the end of their stint.
France has a large percentage of the country’s workforce employed in the public sector – around 25%, currently some 5.4 million people, significantly higher than the European average. However, President Emmanuel Macron has stated his intention to cut 120,000 public sector jobs by 2022, as part of efforts to reduce public spending and the nation’s debt.
So what parts of the economic and social fabric of France are included in the public sector? How do you get a job working for the state? And is the status quo likely to continue?
PUBLIC SERVICE ‘SECTORS’
There are three principal sectors of public service – state government jobs ( la fonction publique de l’État); local and regional authorities ( la fonction publique territoriale); and hospital services ( la fonction publique hospitalière).
LA FONCTION PUBLIQUE DE L’ÉTAT
This sector is the largest, with around 2.3 million public servants, representing almost 45% of the public sector workforce, active in more than 260 different types of jobs. By far the majority work for the ministries, essentially the education ministry (teachers represent a large proportion of this sector), and the transport, interior and defence ministries (8% work for the military). Others occupy roles in central administration and devolved services.
LA FONCTION PUBLIQUE TERRITORIALE
With approximately 1.8 million employees, this sector accounts for around 35% of public sector workers, working in just over 240 different types of jobs.
Three-quarters are employed by local authorities ( collectivités locales), which are responsible for delivering a large chunk of public services (hygiene, transport, childcare, sports facilities, etc.). The other quarter work in public administration roles.
LA FONCTION PUBLIQUE HOSPITALIÈRE
The hospital sector accounts for just over 20% of the public workforce, the vast majority (over 90%) being hospital employees, predominantly nurses and carers, as well as those employed in elderly care homes and other social-medical establishments. There are about 200 jobs identified in this sector, and unlike in the rest of the public sector, medical staff in hospitals are governed by specific statutory provisions as opposed to a general statute of public service.
Within these three sectors, there are three categories of employment: • Category A and A+ includes the higher level professions such as planning, management and training (for example, a government official, an engineer), as well as the teaching profession. • Category B represents middle management roles and qualified technicians, for example a regional authority employee, building inspector or nurse. • Category C includes more manual roles requiring specific skills, such as a cook or an electrician.
Equally, there are different types of contract or statutes:
Titulaire – as titulaire in a post, you are a fully-fledged fonctionnaire and therefore benefit from the best rights and entitlements. It basically means that the employee is entitled to a certain grade of employment within their particular ‘ fonction publique’ – they can apply for other jobs of the same grade, even in a different role (i.e. moving from
HR into communications), and will have priority over someone applying on a lower grade, even if the other person has more experience in that field. Equally, if they are moved to a lower grade function for any reason (job cuts or lack of resources), they are guaranteed the higher pay of their titulaire post.
Contract agents ( agents contractuels) – many public sector employees enter the system as contract agents, until they become titulaire in a post. As a contract agent, they have a permanent work contract and enjoy equivalent salaries and benefits as a fonctionnaire, however they can be required to move or change jobs to meet the needs of their employer. For example, a teacher, at the beginning of their career, may be assigned to a different school at any time to fill a vacant position (often working in two or three different schools), until they have accumulated sufficient points to access a position as titulaire.
Temporary workers – temporary workers are employed on a fixed contract, and have the same rights and obligations as permanent employees.
Similar to in the UK, public servants are remunerated via a basic indicative wage calculated in line with a fairly complex grading system, with sliding scales, designed to reflect seniority, management levels, qualifications and skills, as well as the complexity of roles and the tasks involved.
On top of this wage, they receive a variety of additional indemnity payments calculated according to where they work (i.e. geographical weighting), number of children, as well as bonuses awarded for technical expertise and responsibility in their professional role. The majority of these bonuses and rewards only apply to fonctionnaires working in the État and territorial public services – those working in hospital services, including contract workers, are subject to a more structured indemnity system relating to work conditions and hours.
Recent reports suggest that, on average, wages are higher in the public sector by a few hundred euros per month than in the private sector. However, this varies depending on the job. Notably, it appears that managers in the public sector are paid less on average than their counterparts in the private sector, while lower skilled workers earn more in the public sector.
Similarly, retirement pensions for the same job are currently higher in the public sector.
HOW DO YOU GET A JOB IN THE PUBLIC SECTOR?
There are a few standard requirements to gain entry into the civil service, including French citizenship and a clean police record. You also need the requisite qualifications and degrees (or equivalent) appropriate for the level of job (or entry exam, see below) that you’re targeting.
The principal route into the public sector is via the civil service entry examination, known as a ‘ concours’ in France. Those who pass the exams with the best results are selected to fill the employment quota.
Again, there are different types of entry exam: • The concours externes are open to candidates, currently operating outside the public sector, who have a degree or equivalent qualification. In the case of the exam for Category C positions, sometimes candidates are required to have relevant trade-related qualifications as a pre-requisite to sitting the exam (for example, a childcare assistant).
The concours internes are only for people already employed in the civil service, either as a way to gain promotion or to move into a different area of expertise.
What’s known as the ‘ concours de troisième voie’ (or the third entry route) are the entry exams open to candidates from the private sector who have worked in a professional capacity – either as an employee, volunteer or elected representative – for a certain length of time and are seeking to switch into the public sector.
In some situations, it is possible to apply for a job in the civil service without taking an entry exam. Some Category C posts are filled by direct recruitment. Equally a contract agent who has been employed in the public sector for four years, can apply to become ‘ titulaire’ in their job, thereby becoming a fonctionnaire. In addition, there are alternative routes offered to young unqualified applicants, who can apply via the PACTE entry scheme ( parcours d’accès aux carrières de la fonction publique), and to disabled applicants.
Furthermore, each of the three public service sectors may, at any time, find they need to employ temporary agency staff to ensure continuity of service provision.
THE FUTURE OF THE PUBLIC SECTOR IN FRANCE
As mentioned earlier, Emmanuel Macron and his En Marche!-led government, have set their sights clearly on reforming the public sector in France, aiming to bring it more in line with other European countries and engender greater flexibility to make France more competitive globally. Changes include plans to scrap job-for-life guarantees, automatic annual pay rises and early retirement entitlements.
That said, implementing reform in France is never a simple affair. The country’s public sector unions are not about to let the nascent government have it all their own way – various strikes have already taken place and more hover on the horizon.
Public opinion among the French remains divided at present, with, inevitably, less sympathy from those working in the private sector. It’s likely, however, that the eventual victor in this current battle will be decided by which way the public opinion swings. As they say in France, on verra...