By Geert De Clercq
BORDEAUX, France (Reuters) - Boualem Ben Moussa has delivered pizzas, worked on a building site, washed dishes in a restaurant and delivered more pizzas.
School was not his thing, he says. Now 28, he dropped out at 16 and has since stumbled from short-term contract to short-term contract.
But things are looking up. In Lormont, a dreary suburb northeast of Bordeaux, he and a dozen other young men of mainly immigrant origin are refurbishing two apartments in a complex of 1970s housing blocks, part of a second-chance education project.
As they adapt the residences for senior citizens, they learn new skills as masons, tilers, electricians and painters. Ben Moussa wants to become a plasterer.
Ophelie Latil is also 28 and she liked school. She has a double master's degree in law and management, and specialised in intellectual property. But despite her higher education, she too has never had a permanent contract, alternating between periods of unemployment and short-term jobs unrelated to her skills.
Ben Moussa and Latil represent the two faces of a generation of desperate French youngsters.
Some 150,000 pupils leave France's ruthlessly selective education system every year with no diploma whatsoever. Many end up in bleak suburbs around the big cities, where youth unemployment is high and crime is rife.
"Those who cannot follow in school are left behind, that's how it works. They just don't take care of you," Ben Moussa said.
Those who do have diplomas face the barrier of a rigid labor market that overprotects the older generation and offers young people an endless series of temporary contracts, forcing them to delay mortgage and marriage for years.
"It's exasperating. In the first decade of my adult life I want to live like an adult," said Latil, a member of youth action group "Génération Précaire" (Precarious Generation).
In a presidential election campaign dominated by concerns about taxation, immigration and public debt, youth and education have not taken centre stage. But French youth have a way of inviting themselves into the debate.
In the autumn of 2005, weeks of rioting rocked poor suburbs around the country and made the integration of frustrated youth a big issue in the 2007 election. This year, a month before the first round of voting on April 22, a young Islamist gunman killed seven people in and around the southern city of Toulouse.
The intelligence service was criticized for not catching the killer. But some critics say it was the education system that failed first. The gunman - Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old of Algerian origin - dropped out of school at 16, failed vocational training for car bodywork and drifted into petty crime, ending up in jail, where he came in contact with radical Muslim views.
"Not all youngsters who are on the wrong path become Mohamed Merahs, but idleness and the lack of human relations is the worst thing for young people, and often they take refuge in delinquency," said Matthieu Neny, who runs the Batiform training centre where Ben Moussa is putting his life back on track.
While the problem of unskilled youth is concentrated in the suburbs, the inability of graduates to find steady jobs and a feeling that today's children face a life more difficult than their parents explain a wider funk in French society.
"For the young as well as for their parents, entering the labor market is a major concern, contributing to the habitual pessimism of the French, and that has an impact on what voters expect from the candidates," said Anne Muxel, a sociologist who has written about youth and politics.
In December, Gallup International's annual survey of 51 countries found that France is the most pessimistic country in the world about the economic outlook, and the French are more downbeat than they have ever been in the past 30 years.
The only politician who has put youth front and centre of his platform is Socialist challenger Francois Hollande, running neck-and-neck with Sarkozy in voting intention polls for the first round, and leading him for the May 6 runoff.
"If I am elected president, I want to be judged against one and only one objective: whether young people will have a better life at the end of my mandate in 2017 than in 2012," Hollande said in a keynote speech in January.
This may be even harder than balancing the state budget, another of his campaign promises.
His first priority is to reform schools. France has a meritocratic tradition dating back to the creation of a uniform, free and secular public education system in the 1880s. Children are tested from primary school onwards, with the aim of selecting the best students and directing them to top schools.
Those who do best in exams go on to top high schools such as the Henri-IV and Louis-le-Grand Lycees in Paris, and continue via even more selective "prepa" classes to the "grandes ecoles" that train a few thousand elite students per year.
The very best vie for the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA), which takes only about 100 students a year, who become top civil servants, ministers and CEOs of large companies. Hollande himself is an "enarque", as ENA graduates are called.
A system that guarantees success for so few produces failure for many, especially those whose parents do not have the means or the knowledge to help their children play the game.
In "La machine a trier" ("The Sorting Machine"), published last year, four researchers describe the French education system as one that continually classifies and eliminates, condemning the bottom part of every class to perpetual failure.
Olivier Galland, one of the authors, said that in a society with mass access to education, schools need a northern European focus on individual ability, teamwork and success for everyone.
"In a way, French school is a continuation of the Ancien Regime where the diploma replaces the nobility title," he said, referring to the period before the 1789 revolution.
All candidates in this year's election agree the education system is sick, but they prescribe different remedies.
Hollande says he will create 60,000 new jobs in education, pledges to halve the number of students who leave school without a diploma and plans to give every youngster between 16 and 18 some form of training or assistance.
Reversing a Sarkozy decision, Hollande also plans to add half a day to the school week - without adding subject matter - to give children more time to learn.
"The first thing that all great thinkers about education recommend, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau onwards, is to give a child time. But in our system, those who need a little more time are immediately set up for failure," said Vincent Peillon, Hollande's top education advisor and a likely education minister if the Socialists win.
Sarkozy wants teachers to spend more time helping kids after hours and proposes they increase the number of hours they spend at school from 18 to 26 per week in return for a 25 percent pay increase. He has also said he will exempt teachers from his policy of not replacing one in two retiring civil servants, and proposed a specialised youth bank to guarantee student loans.
The authors of "The Sorting Machine" say reforming French schools is not just a matter of putting more teachers in class. "It is the very principle of an elitist system based on ranking that needs to be reviewed from top to bottom," they argue.
They also say the labour market aggravates rather than alleviates the inequalities produced by the education system.
But labour market reform is a taboo subject in this campaign. Most candidates avoid the topic, aware that labour reforms in Spain and Italy have sparked demonstrations, and mindful of how former conservative Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's attempt to introduce a more flexible work contract for young people foundered on weeks of street protests in 2006.
Then as now, any discussion about labour market reform in France revolves around two ugly acronyms: "CDI" and "CDD". A CDI is an indefinite regular employment contract. A CDD is a short-term, temporary contract.
Getting a CDI is the holy grail for every job seeker. But French law makes firing workers on open-ended contracts so difficult and costly that companies favour temporary hires to adapt to fluctuations in activity and try out new staff.
Nearly 90 percent of all recruitment goes via short-term contracts, creating a dual labour market with a young generation unable to secure a permanent job and an older generation protected by strict labour laws.
"We are the reserve army for French companies," Generation Precaire's Latil said.
Many economists argue it would make sense to make open-ended contracts less rigid and short-term contracts less precarious.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a rich nations' think-tank, has recommended that France make its labour market more flexible and replace multiple terms of employment with a unified contract valid for all workers.
Only centrist candidate Francois Bayrou, who came third in the 2007 election but now runs fifth in opinion polls, proposes a single contract that would allow companies to fire employees without business or disciplinary motives.
The two leading candidates skirt the issue. To get the unemployed back to work, Hollande proposes to create 150,000 state-funded jobs for young people in poor areas. Sarkozy plans to provide mandatory training for all the unemployed, then force them to accept the first suitable job or lose their benefit.
Financial markets tend to prefer Sarkozy's approach.
"The right policy prescription is not boosting public sector employment but rather taking measures that reduce structural unemployment," Nomura economists wrote in a note to clients.
Those to whom the plans are addressed take a different view.
Génération Précaire set up a mock ratings agency dubbed "Young and Poor" that rates all the proposals on their ability to provide jobs for young people.
No candidate gets a triple A, but Hollande is commended for focusing on youth issues, and his proposals get a B rating. Sarkozy, Bayrou and far-right leader Marine Le Pen are rated D.
Their view matters, as the young are a key swing vote: people aged 18 to 30 make up about 20 percent of the electorate.
A March Ifop poll of first-time voters aged 18 to 22 gave Hollande 31 percent of first-round votes, slightly better than his 28.5 percent overall score. Le Pen came second with 23 percent of the youth vote, six points better than her 17 percent overall score. Sarkozy came third, with just 21 percent of the youth vote, despite scoring 27 percent overall.
Back in Bordeaux, apprentice plasterer Ben Moussa confirmed the trend.
"I am not sure about Hollande, not sure that everything he says is true. But I will vote for the Socialists," he said.
(Editing by Paul Taylor and Sonya Hepinstall)