Hollande boosts community service in France after Paris attacks to mend divisions

French President Francois Hollande gestures as he answers a question during his biannual press conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, on Feb 05, 2015. Mr Hollande announced he was expanding the country's system of community service, as Fra
French President Francois Hollande gestures as he answers a question during his biannual press conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, on Feb 05, 2015. Mr Hollande announced he was expanding the country's system of community service, as France seeks to mend divisions in its fractured society a month after the Paris attacks. -- PHOTO: EPA

PARIS (AFP) - President Francois Hollande Thursday announced he was expanding the country's system of community service, as France seeks to mend divisions in its fractured society a month after the Paris attacks.

Any young person who wants to take part "will be able to from June 1", Hollande announced, adding that France's community service agency would be "reinforced". However, he stopped short of calling for a compulsory system of community service, saying "the people would have to be consulted" for that.

"At the moment, there are four times more demand than available places on community services projects," he noted.

Last year, only 35,000 young people won a place on a scheme but 80 percent of applicants were turned away for lack of places.

The idea of voluntary community work is not new but has taken centre stage in the public debate after the Paris attacks, which once again highlighted the glaring divisions in French society.

A scheme was launched in 2010 for young people aged 16 to 25 in a bid to fill the hole left by the abolition of the old military service in 1997.

Expanding community work is also seen as a way of occupying young people hit hard by unemployment - at 25 percent, youth unemployment in France is one of the highest in Europe.

However, there appears to be little appetite to reintroduce military service. Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he was "not sure" military service was the right move, although he championed a "reinforcement" of community service.

In a recent interview with AFP, the head of the French Agency for Civic Service, Francois Chereque, said there was no shortage of jobs that could occupy young people, such as teaching children struggling at school, helping the growing numbers of elderly.

Ironically, people are queueing up to do community work but are being turned away, thanks primarily to the cost.

Young people earn 573 euros per month (S$880) but each participant in the scheme costs the state 800 euros.

"It's money that makes the world go around," said Chereque.

To achieve a target of between 150,000 and 170,000 people in the scheme by 2017 would require a boost in the budget from 170 million euros to 500 million euros.

And at a time when France is under pressure from Brussels to tighten its belt, additional spending is hard to come by.

Neighbouring countries have similar schemes but with fewer people signed up. In Belgium for example, a "citizen community service" has attracted a mere 250 people since its introduction in 2010.

In Switzerland, however, military service is compulsory for all men (voluntary for women). The country's "citizen army" is seen as one of the founding pillars of Swiss society.

While there are grand hopes for an extension of community service in France, Chereque warned that it is no "magic bullet" for the country's ills.

Pulling different strands of the country together "has to start at childhood," he warned.