We were in a bar in Southern France in my last week of living there and I had just put my foot in it in a big way. I thought a girl had just said to me (in literal translation) “do you want me for it?” To which I replied with some glee that although I had moved out of my studio, I’m sure her flat would do.
A French friend leapt in to save me from the tirade of abuse. Taking me to a quieter side of the bar, she explained that one, the girl concerned was going to become a nun and, two, that s’en vouloir meant that she had not said “do you want me for it?” but “do you hold it against me?” which, thinking back, seemed to be much more in context.
“But Simon, you know,” my French friend confided, “usually when a French girl say no, she mean yes”. Which quite neatly sums up last weekend’s “non” from the French populace. They weren’t really saying no at all, but yes to old Europe, yes to the Common Agricultural Policy and high food prices, yes to high unemployment and yes to the status quo.
The ‘non’ campaign had parodied the EU Constitution as being a wildly liberal Anglo-Saxon document which would result in swarms of foreign workers descending on France, stealing all their jobs (or at least their places in the dole queue) and force them to work (or queue) for at least, ooh, 40 hours every week.
Of course, the one thing we have to thank the French for in all this (perhaps the only thing) is that we will not now have to endure a referendum campaign where our ‘no’ campaigners would have parodied the Constitution as a Franco-German product of old Europe that would result in swarms of foreign workers descending on the UK and stealing all our jobs.
It is just as well that hysteria about migrant workers won’t be whipped up again as the government is currently drafting the new immigration legislation and the last thing employers need is anything more restrictive than is already being discussed. In a survey of employers, the Chartered Institute of People Development found that more than a quarter of employers planned recruiting from abroad this quarter. The dominant reasons for recruiting were a shortage of candidates with the required experience (59%) or the required skills (56%); a greater level of commitment and willingness to work than UK-based jobseekers (18%); while only 5% cited lower wage costs. Some 56% were looking to fill professional (48%) or skilled trade (8%) vacancies while 19% were for manual vacancies and less than 5% were seeking to fill unskilled vacancies.
As Dr John Philpott, chief economist at the CIPD, said: “There is a false impression that migrant workers are predominantly being shipped in to fill low-skill, low-wage jobs, but the reality is that it is professional and high skill vacancies that are fuelling the international search for labour.”
But then, what about the large numbers of non-UK nationals already in the workforce?
You may have noticed that there are large numbers of Antipodeans working in the UK. Many carry a British passport and so are not counted as migrant workers, as they have no need for a visa or work permit. To qualify for a British passport, one or both of their parents need to have been British passport holders or, failing that, (here’s a relic of empire), their grandfather (and note - not the more biologically sound requirement of a grandmother).
Even putting that particular piece of antiquity to one side, there is an iceberg of migrant workers, where the most written-about migrants are only its tip. Without the huge migrant workforce, I could not buy my salads and ready-meals from supermarket shelves, my shirts wouldn’t be ironed, the food would never arrive in restaurants, I’d never get served at a bar, nor would my accounts or tax returns ever get filed.
So perhaps we should be saying ‘merci’ to the French for their ‘non’, because it spares us a campaign where the inevitable attack by the ‘no’s’ on the “floods of immigrants” could only result in our very way of lifebeing threatened by a ‘no’ vote. Or do I mean ‘yes’?
n Simon Howard is a founder of Work Communications and writes the Jobfile column for The Sunday Times.