Since we moved to France a few years ago, I always view the approach of the summer holidays with some apprehension. Delighted as I am to have my daughter back from university and my son from boarding school, I know what they really want to do is go and find a job. They are twenty and seventeen respectively, too old to want to play with their young siblings all day. However, living in the rural Gers countryside surrounded by rolling hills and fields of glorious sunflowers, there is not much hope.
Quaint and attractive though our village is, it is surrounded by farms. That means a certain type of job. Confident that the garlic growers would welcome an extra pair of hands as they toiled from dawn till dusk, my daughter, passably fluent in French and a dab hand at chopping vegetables, offered her services. Politely but firmly, the farmer’s wife and very much the boss on the farm explained this was not possible. Victoria might cut herself on the tiny knife used to peel away the dry garlic leaves before the elaborate plaiting takes place and that would present enormous complications. French employers have to pay heavily into the French social security system on behalf of their employees. Victoria, at boarding school in England when we arrived in France, was deemed not to be resident here and therefore not eligible for a French social security number.
We gave up on the farmers, at least it meant nobody would return home reeking of garlic. Next we headed for the nearest town. We approached several cafes but again met with blank refusal – shaking of heads and wagging of fingers, it’s difficult without a social security number and there were plenty of willing hands among the extended family, they explained. Finally, we gave up. It seems a long way to go for a job but Victoria decided to go back to the school where she spent her gap year halfway across the world in the Dominican Republic.
My son, however, does possess the magical French social security number, but does not have his sister’s linguistic ability. His French is not even good enough to ask for a baguette let alone sell one. Without a job to get him out of bed we would not see him until the frogs legs were sizzling on the barbecue for lunch.
Having given up on the hunt for a job we took a break by the coast.
Sitting on the jetty one morning I began chatting to a young French student called Helene. She was working there for the summer responsible for a group of twelve to thirteen-year olds. They had all come to the coast for a week’s water sports camp, organised by the UCPA – Union Centre de Plein Air.
A non-profit making organisation based in Paris, UCPA arranges courses for ten to seventeen-year olds in various centres around France. For so many French children these kinds of camps are an integral part of the long summer holidays. Looking after them are animateurs/animatrices who do just that – animate the children. I watched Helene encourage even the least co-ordinated of her charges get up on the teleski and have a go. She even made me feel I would be able to do it if I tried. “It’s not just about working with children, I’ve learnt heaps of practical skills – only this morning I mended two bicycle punctures which surprised even me”.
She was the holder of a BAFA certificate, which most French seventeen-year olds and upwards hold. BAFA stands for the Brevet d’Aptitude aux Fonctions d’Animateur. This qualification is not just a guaranteed passport into holiday employment, but provides invaluable experience of working with young people. There are many centres throughout France where this qualification can be obtained by attending three specific courses of one to three weeks during a 30-month period. The cost is approximately 430 euros.
Helene’s story made me reflect that the French system is brilliantly organised for students to obtain holiday employment if they go through the right hoops. Foreigners living in France can do the same thing, provided they speak the language, do the training and pay the fee.
As soon as my son gets out of bed I am going to press upon him the importance of saving up and improving “sa conversation francaise”.