French Cross Rhine for Work to Escape 10% Unemployment

Anne Marie Maiweg, who lives in the eastern French city of Strasbourg, doesn’t mind her 45-minute trip to work by tram and bus. It takes her to a place where she found a job on the first try: Germany.

Maiweg was hired earlier this year by a shop in the German town of Kehl, about 8 kilometers (5 miles) across the Rhine River from her region of Alsace.

“It was easier for me to find a job in Kehl than in Strasbourg,” the 42-year-old mother of three said in fluent German while standing behind the counter of the Engelhard & Herr toy store on Kehl’s main pedestrian shopping street. “In Germany, they take people more easily and train them for new work even if you have worked in a totally different area than the one asked for.”

With unemployment in Alsace at about 10 percent and the jobless rate in the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg where Kehl is located at about 4 percent, an increasing number of French people are crossing the border for work. Their commutes highlight how the euro region has one currency -- and 17 different labor markets.

Alsace symbolizes Europe’s political and economic integration since the 1950s. The region became part of Germany in 1871 as a result of the Franco-Prussian War, returned to French hands at the end of World War I in 1918 and came under renewed German control during World War II. It was recovered for France in 1945 as the Nazi occupiers retreated. Strasbourg itself represents Europe’s reconciliation by being the seat of the European Parliament.

Work Incentives

In the era of the euro, France hasn’t revamped its labor market as much as has Germany, which adopted a series of measures a decade ago backed by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The changes improved job-search efficiency, limited unemployment benefits and reduced early retirement options, pushing more people into part-time and temporary jobs. During the 2008-2009 recession, flexible work schedules helped save almost half a million jobs and kept unemployment low.

France’s 3,200-page national labor rulebook dictates everything from job classifications to layoff rules. Changes made by parliament in May allowing reduced pay and flexible work hours during downturns don’t go far enough, business groups say.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is urging French President Francois Hollande to bolster France’s competitiveness. Merkel’s goal is to limit the risk of further debt-crisis contagion following European emergency-aid packages for five peripheral euro countries in three years.

Unfilled Jobs

In that context, a local-government push is on to bolster ties between Alsace and Germany. This includes spurring cross-border labor flows into Baden-Wuerttemberg, among the most prosperous of Germany’s 16 states. It is home to global companies including carmaker Daimler AG and software developer SAP AG as well as thousands of medium-sized manufacturers that are the backbone of the German economy.

“In Alsace there are people who need work urgently and in Germany we have jobs that aren’t filled,” Horst Sahrbacher, a regional head of the German Federal Labor Agency, said in an interview in Kehl. He cited work in the retail, hotel, restaurant, mechanical engineering and metals industries.

About 24,000 residents of Alsace commuted to Baden-Wuerttemberg and the neighboring German state of Rhineland-Palatinate for work last year, up from a 12-year low of about 22,500 in 2010, according to Marlyce Breun, a Strasbourg-based representative of French governmental labor agency Pole Emploi.

These levels are down from a high of about 34,000 in the late 1990s, when French workers crossed the border to earn traditionally strong Deutsche marks to take back to France before the euro’s introduction in 1999, said Breun, who joined Sahrbacher for the interview.

Language Barriers

French cross-border workers to Germany remain a small percentage of Alsace’s 1.2 million workforce. Policy makers say barriers such as language will have to be tackled more comprehensively to induce more French workers to fill German jobs. Fewer residents of eastern France speak Alsatian, a German dialect, than they did several decades ago, further reducing the cross-border job pool.

Michel Hamy, a French native, is trying to fix that at the German steel company where he is managing director, Badische Stahlwerke GmbH. The number of border-crossing French workers at its production site on the Rhine has dropped by almost half to 60 during the past two decades, according to Hamy. That’s out of a total workforce of 850.

Hamy, who has been at Badische Stahlwerke since 1994, has created a program to recruit young French workers to the company. The pilot initiative will start this autumn with a six-month to one-year German-language course funded by France for six apprentices. The course will take place on company premises.

“I am dedicated to that,” Hamy, 59, said in his office overlooking the steel plant. “You have to show an example.”

Bilingual Childcare

French natives who aren’t yet old enough to go to the other side of the Rhine to work will get exposure to German at the first cross-border nursery between Strasbourg and Kehl. Being built on the Strasbourg side of the river with French, German and European Union funds totaling 3.4 million euros ($4.5 million), the day-care center will be bilingual for 60 children from both cities when it opens next year.

French people who cross the border often grew up with the language at home. Steven Wohlfahrt, a 29-year-old from Strasbourg who works at Badische Stahlwerke as a furnace expert, has an Alsatian mother and a German father. Wohlfahrt said he has friends in Strasbourg who display little familiarity with German or readiness to learn the language.

“Their job choice is limited to the French side,” he said in an interview at the steel plant.

Maiweg, similarly, learned German at school in Alsace, married a German man and lived for a decade in Germany.

New Bridge

French and German authorities are tackling infrastructure barriers with a plan for a 97 million-euro extension of Strasbourg’s tram line to Kehl. Due to be completed in 2016, the project involves a new bridge to run parallel to the half-century-old “Pont de l’Europe” crossing for vehicles.

In addition, the French and German labor agencies deepened ties in February by placing two officials from Strasbourg alongside their counterparts in Kehl. Their goal this year is to find cross-border jobs for 70 unemployed people, according to Sahrbacher of the German Federal Labor Agency.

Marianne Lang, a French native who works as a manager at Belu Dienstleistung GmbH, a German temporary-work agency with an office in Kehl, said no initiatives of these kinds will fully pay off until France revamps its social-benefit system so unemployed people have more incentive to seek work.

Motivation Lack?

With a core group of 150 mainly French workers placed in jobs from metallurgy to painting in Germany, Belu regularly has German employment offers that jobless people in Alsace are unwilling to accept, according to 59-year-old Lang.

“There’s a lack of motivation,” she said in an interview. “We don’t find the people.”

Last year, Belu filled the void by recruiting 30 Poles to help meet demand for work in Germany. Fifteen of them are still with the company, she said.

While saying German labor-rule changes have been inadequate, Lang saved her strongest criticism for French work regulations.

“The whole system needs to be rethought,” she said. “We created this generation. It’s like a virus.”

Badische Stahlwerke’s Hamy, who comes from northern France, signaled that French prejudices tied to World War II may be a bigger barrier to cross-border labor movement than are France’s social benefits.

“Many people still refuse to work in Germany,” he said. “It’s the language and demons of the past.”