active labour markets

Publié le par jean-paul Revauger

Jean Paul Révauger


Active Labour Market Policies, an exercise in rhetoric or a significant shift ? .


Political confusion


The study of ALMP is a very confusing exercise. To start with, the evolution of expert discourse has been dramatic. In the I980s, Thatcherite policies were described as a return to the New Poor Laws and the less eligibility principle, according to which the recipients of assistance should lead a less comfortable life than the working poor. With some justification, social policy books devoted to the poverty policies of the conservative governments of the I980’s bore titles such as “Punishing the Poor”[1], or “Policing the Workshy[2]”. The American inspiration behind the policies was obvious to all. Those were the days when Charles Murray filled the columns of  the Sunday Times with horror stories about permanently unemployed black teenage mothers in American ghettoes, and their uncontrollable offspring, mad with unused testosterone [3]. Conversely, the Left, in Britain and in Europe, denounced  supply side economics and upheld a social model, which was then described as the “European social model”, and which acted as a counterpoint to the conservative, American and British one. Instead of treating the unemployed as the  “classes dangereuses” had been in the 19th century, social democratic governments would invest in their retraining , as the Commission of Social Justice, that harbinger of New Labour,  was still saying in 1994.  The ideological fault lines were then clearly set: the conservative Right oscillated between paternalistic one nation approaches, and harsher, more pessimistic views concerning the evils of welfare dependency. The Left was still  influenced by keynesianism, and committed to a mixture of job creation and investment in education, as becomes optimistic political liberals.

The adoption of the monetarist convergence criteria during the negotiations leading to the Maastricht Treaty, and to the adoption of the Euro, symbolized the change of climate. All over Europe, the philosophical boundaries between the Right and the Left became blurred . This was certainly not a consequence of Maastricht, but bears a clear relation with the adoption of supply side economics.  Britain, naturally, was at the forefront of the phenomenon. Anthony Giddens’s books[4] and the rise to power of New Labour under Tony Blair certainly questioned fundamental political assumptions. In the field of social policy, Frank Field adopted and gave absolute prominence to  two of the key ideas of the Right, the need to fight welfare dependency and  to combat fraud[5]. The differences and similarities, between thatcherite policies and those of New Labour deserve serious scrutiny. If it is the case that the major difference lies not in the amounts of money devoted to training, and improving the skills of the unemployed, but in the “joinedupness”[6], the improved coordination of employment and training services, then of course, the differences between New Labour  and the policies of the I980’s and I990’s can be considered as thinner than would have been expected[7] . The element of compulsion, and conditionality, from the introduction of the “actively seeking work” condition onwards is certainly not a distinguishing feature, and  was not removed from public policies.


The growing irrelevance of national social policy models


Not only did ideological fault lines shift. National models also changed in the I990’s.

In 1990, Esping Andersen  classified Britain as part of the  “liberal” model, together with the US, and opposed the other two European options, the universalist Scandinavian one and the continental corporatist one, to the anglo-american one [8]. Today, this seems hardly relevant.

Denmark, once part of the Nordic model, and the Netherlands, closer to the German model, have imposed  radical reforms on their labour markets . American workfare, which was a negative model for the large majority of European experts in the 1980’s, is said to share common features with many European return-to-work policies. France is, as usual, a special case in this respect. The specific French approach to exclusion and insertion, exemplified by the adoption of RMI after I988, gave rise to much elaboration, which somewhat obscured its political origin. A tactical political compromise between the Right and the Left, the supporters of conditionality and the upholders  of social citizenship, was soon presented as a major concept. In practice, the RMI is now described in international forums as the French equivalent  to workfare, an assessment which deserves serious scrutiny. It might be the case that , as Lodemel, a Norwegian expert, puts it, “French social exclusion discourses may be stronger in rhetoric than in substance” [9]. Conversely, experts who emphasize the kinship between US practices and European ones, and who downplay the significance of the European model probably have a tendency to minimize the importance of insertion policies in France. In any case, the traditional opposition between a US model, keen to fight welfare dependency, and a French one, focused on exclusion, and integrative policies is largely confined to the history of ideas and is not seen by many experts  as relevant to actual policies.


Four overlapping concepts

Ideological and geographical confusion, evident in the demise of the conceptual “national models”  is compounded by a technical one. The meanings of the terms “insertion”, “active labour market policies”, “human resources development” and even “workfare” overlap to a large extent. We can propose a number of definitions, but they are arbitrary, and  no-one can predict, encourage or prevent the evolution of meanings. Confusion is not necessarily a technical problem that can  be solved by social sciences or language specialists, but is, clearly, an interesting and important  feature.

Insertion refers only to the policies carried in France since the late 1980’s, in the wake of RMI.[10] It can include the acquisition of social skills, which would be referred to in the English speaking world as the ability to prove one’s willingness to work. Instilling in claimants the desire and the will to actively look for work, i.e. a  mere frame of mind, could be considered as insertion. Insertion can also include the provision of social housing (“insertion par le logement”), or health care (“insertion par la santé”). Work schemes, or training schemes are obviously part of insertion as well, but the meaning of the term is much wider . Insertion is therefore much wider than ALMP. In France, it includes no element of compulsion in practice.

The distinguishing feature of workfare seems to be the element of compulsion. The definition, can be either aims based of form based[11]. Aims based definitions will distinguish between old style workfare, which was essentially restrictive and punitive, and new style workfare which is supposed to facilitate entry into the labour force. Form based workfare is defined as a programme that requires people to work in return for social assistance benefits. However, some authors would also extend the notion so as to include training: “forcing people to take work or training on the job which pays less than the current market rate for the same kind of work”[12]. In this case, the chief characteristic of workfare is the compulsion element, which makes it indistinguishable from ALMP, in the case of the British New Deal for Young People for example.  Compulsion is present in all workfare schemes, and some, but not all ALMP schemes. The training element also seems to be present in some workfare schemes, although not all of them. The idea that recipients of workfare will get less than they would by working at the market rate is a reminder of the historical origin of workfare, and of the link with the New Poor Laws and the less eligibility principle. The overlapping between ALMP and workfare is partial. Norway , which is part of the Nordic model, but not of the EU, seems to have adopted policies closely modelled on the US workfare system. Other key characteristics of workfare are shared with ALMP. These include the fact that it is based on casework, on the assessment of the situation and needs of individual claimants, and that the implementation can only be devolved to local authorities, which have a detailed knowledge of the local job market. The emphasis on casework is not deprived of  political connotations.  Instead of highlighting the failure of the system and  of macroeconomic policies  to provide decent jobs for the population, casework focuses on individuals and tries to solve individual problems. In the same way, American  functional sociology refused to draw wider  lessons from individual problems and failures.

The Human Resources Development model stands in stark contrast to workfare. It is favoured in the Nordic countries, and in Denmark, a fact which must probably be ascribed to the policies carried in those countries towards research and development. Nordic countries devote a much larger proportion  of their GDP to research than other European nations, and maintain levels of investment in RD with are closer to those of Japan and the US than to European ones. In political terms, the influence of social democracy and of the labour movement in general over Nordic societies far exceeds  its impact over Britain, not to mention France, which has the lowest trade union membership rate in the EU. The HRD model consists in favouring training  either in the education system or on the job. In the case of Denmark, this was implemented by the social democrats and accepted by the Unions, who saved both the minimum wage and the level of benefits, and obtained a lowering of retirement age (from 67 to 65) . Models can probably not be replicated, since political, economic, geographical  and social contexts are so different. The figures involved are puny compared to the hundreds of thousands of RMI recipients, and the millions of unemployed in France . In 2000 a total of 57 000 Danes benefited from HRD policies, a figures which corresponds roughly to the number of RMI recipients in Martinique and Guadeloupe alone. Denmark certainly did not reduce its spending, not the level of benefits. The policy was sustainable both in political terms and in financial ones, since unemployment was already low [13]. The “active line” is being promoted as a civilised  model, and a “good practice”, in spite of the fact its context was very specific..

In the case of Nordic countries, the element of compulsion is not necessary, since policies result from a wide political consensus, as was the case in Denmark,  and laws are naturally accepted by the population, for reasons which remain a mystery for outside observers. One cannot completely rule out Frank Field’s argument: the absence of fraud legitimises policies in the eyes of taxpayers , who know that claimants will not exploit the system. Justifying  public expenditure is therefore easier.


“Active Labour Market Policies” seems to be a very wide term, which includes the workfare approach as well as the HRD one. However, since ALMP  now have a positive image,  and are part of the European “good practices” , experts sometimes go out of their way to stretch their definition and include under the heading very diverse and sometimes contradictory policies. Any measure affecting the labour supply, and going beyond the mere payment of benefits to claimants,  is sometimes presented as an “almp”. Until 1995, early retirement  in France  was a case in point . A measure which Trade Unions considered as very positive, called ARPE (Allocation de remplacement pour l’emploi) enabled firms to let older workers take early retirement, provided their work position was filled by a young person. This was advantageous for firms, who paid a lower wage for a more junior, and supposedly more flexible, better trained and adaptable worker, for the young worker, and for the early retiree who enjoyed a full pension.  The bill was paid by the State.[14] Until the changes which took place in the late 1990’s and in 2003, early retirement was presented as a specific French approach , which seemed to favour paying pensions for the over 55 rather than unemployment benefits for younger workers. This was criticized by experts in international forums and learned journals, but the policy enabled  France to  survive the crisis of deindustrialization without a major social upheaval or mass  poverty. By the late 1990’s, this policy was abandoned, first by the French Right, which postponed the age of retirement in the private sector, a move which the socialist  government under Lionel Jospin  did not reverse when it returned to power. The postponement was extended to the public sector in 2003, in spite of large protests and strikes. Discourses on the need for older workers to remain active, and on the importance of public policies designed to that effect, started prevailing in France from the late 1990’s onwards, to the extent that the postponement of the age of retirement is now presented as part of ALMP.  Increasing the size of the workforce by including workers between the ages of 60 and 65 is now presented as a public policy objective. Interestingly, American arguments on the evil nature  of ageism, le “jeunisme”, and on the beauty, skills and sexyness of greying  panthers are also to be found, which is a very recent development. This is possibly a strange bargain for an extra  5 years of work.  In the course of ten years, ALMP in France have therefore included early retirement, and the postponement of retirement age. This slightly affects the clarity of debates on the subject.[15]

The numerous and costly  measures taken in order to subsidize employment in the private sector, and in order to create temporary positions in the public sector are naturally included in French ALMP, regardless of their relationship with training, or reskilling of unemployed workers.  Besides, the reduction of benefits for the long term unemployed, (Allocation Specifique de Solidarité) and their transfer from the unemployment services to the RMI, implying in many cases a 50% reduction of their income, is also justified in the name of the need to encourage the unemployed to “actively seek work”.  One would be tempted to say that France is sorely in need of terminological clarity, unless the absence of clarity is deliberate, and part and parcel of the wider social project. The idea that employed and unemployed workers should obtain by statutory right access to training, that the 1.2 million recipients of RMI should have a right to insertion through work or training would be a nightmare to any government. ALMP  have not been designed in terms of rights and duties, or only very vaguely.


This lack of clarity is compounded by the inconclusive assessments of ALMP all over Europe. As was the case fort the workhouse, nobody has the faintest idea whether ALMP do get people back to work [16]. Contrary to benefits, which, in most cases, reach their recipients directly, schemes based on speculation as to claimants’ behaviour, and social engineering in general are more difficult to assess. The fact that the most elaborate ALMP are carried in countries where unemployment is low compounds the problem.


A European “good practice”: by whose standards ?


What is nevertheless obvious is that the rhetoric of public policy has changed significantly. This goes well beyond occasional references to the need to restore the value of work in society, a theme which regularly crops up in French public discourse, and which belies reality. In practice, French wage earners have seen the  value of wages fall, relatively to investment or property, over the last twenty years, whereas they increased , relatively, in the course of the 1940’s and 1950’s.  Discourse on the philosophical value of work and on the effectiveness of  ALMP is particularly optimistic in Europeans forums.   Since the Essen summit in 1994, European experts and politicians have been encouraging ALMP, heralding  a bright future. With hindsight this seems to be a lot of wishful thinking. In 1996, the Dublin summit added an employment chapter to the Treaty. A High Level Employment and Labour Market Committee was established [17] In 1998  a European Employment Strategy was established, again encouraging ALMP, and measures to keep older workers in activity. The National Action Plans, which are expected to implement the guidelines agreed upon at European level were assessed, and found lacking.  The Lisbon summit, in 2000 called for Europe to become “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth, with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion”[18]. Brave words indeed.  Guidelines were issued, in a situation where national contexts vary considerably. The enlargement of the EU and the inclusion of countries with widely different economic, political and cultural backgrounds has postponed or possibly destroyed the  prospect of a common European social policy. As Esping Andersen puts it “There is no European social model to which the 15 or the 25 could converge” [19]. The benchmarks and guidelines can only remain theoretical and  indicative. The notion of  “European good practices”  assumes wrongly that agreement exists in social policy all over Europe. Whatever happens in the “epistemic community” of social policy experts, which follows its own academic logic, influenced by institutional factors, the whims of publishers and changes in the intellectual  climate, contexts remain different. Eurospin on ALMP does not lead the way, but probably reflects a deep cultural change which affects all countries. 


Why have ALMP become a public policy ?



Why is it the case, then, that ALMP have become so popular among governments ?

France and Britain, in spite of the objective differences in their economic contexts, in spite of the variations in the political and ideological backgrounds of their governing elites since the 1980’s, have gradually adopted ALMP policies which have a lot in common if one goes beyond the rhetoric. If it is the case that variations between policies have gradually become  thinner , and owe more to style than to substance, in spite of the historical and ideological differences,   then one must  look for more global explanations.

The regulation school of economists uses the phrase “the workfare state”  to describe the new social policies. This rather pessimistic term  probably only covers part of the field. [20]However, it seems that the regulation school has a lot to offer to us , in terms of historical understanding. Policies are not the outcome of  pure intellectual  speculation, but represent a response to social and economic contexts. Both France and Britain have experienced a  massive shift from a fordist, industrial society  towards a service society, and a new economy, faced with new opportunities but also entirely  new challenges. Among those challenges should be put the intensification of international competition, which affects not only industry but also high tech services on the one hand, and the rise of a new phenomenon, hotly debated in the USA, under the name of “jobless growth”, on the other hand.  It seems that, at least for some time, a  modern, developed economy can prosper, profits can soar without creating employment. The trickle down effect only works, to some extent,  thanks to taxation and redistribution.  The massive numbers of unskilled workers who were more or less rapidly and willingly  uprooted from the countryside and absorbed by the industrial economy  from the 19th century onwards have no equivalent in today’s world. The plight of the  parents’ and grand parents’ of today’s unemployed could be explained in terms of exploitation, not theirs. They are unwanted, a drain on the public purse,  a problem that will not go away, in democratic countries run by universal suffrage.



It seems that the ALMP in both countries, and probably in other European nations, have a twin goal: On the one hand, they are geared towards  the best form of social control over the unskilled and the “unemployable”. By “best form”, one should understand the most cost efficient, but also  the most politically and morally  acceptable, i.e. the most sustainable  form of social control.   The creation of “new jobs” in the French public sector answers this need, as does the stigmatisation of worklessness or the compulsory drilling of the unskilled unemployed  into pseudo jobs or useless insertion schemes.

On the other hand, the discourse on globalisation reflects the anxiety of the governing elites concerning international competitiveness. Under Margaret Thatcher, Britain adopted a policy which welcomed de-industrialisation, a natural phenomenon which was not to be opposed. The service economies of Britain and France are faced with extremely serious competition which is not restricted to the supposedly low added value activities of agriculture, textile or engineering. Computer programmes are already being exported by Asian countries, and the mastery of symbolical activities such as communication, marketing, financial  or legal services , on which Britain’s prosperity is now based depends on political and educational factors which are not beyond the reach of emerging countries. Fundamentally, this is what “education, education, education “ is all about. ALMP are geared toward the re-skilling of the British and the French workforce. They are part of the reorganization of the education and training services which both countries have undertaken, and can only be understood in this context. The relative value of  in-service training, of life long education, - another euro buzz word- , of initial education, the rights and duties of citizens vis a vis education  are currently being assessed, and  obviously constitute  a very controversial issue. The compulsory character of initial education  and the nature of the institutions in charge of it were  also, in the late 19th century a key political issue. It is only natural that the issue of compulsory training should again come to the forefront.

French reforms such as the PARE or the RMA, which are only geared towards the most employable and dynamic section  of the unemployable, are clearly intended to hive them off , and help them acquire the skills which the economy will be able to use. It seems that the authorities are prepared to provide the necessary incentives for this.  The chief effect of ALMPs is to discriminate between  the unemployable and the employable. 


The obstacles on the path of ALMP


The  scale of the problem is daunting, but the chief obstacle is political. The potential target populations include not only the “officially unemployed” but all those living on assistance, be it income support or RMI. This is, by itself, politically problematic, if one of the goals of ALMP is to demonstrate governments’ willingness to tackle the problem of worklessness. No government would be prepared to admit its inability to seriously tackle the problem of worklessness, or to encourage the unemployed to consider training and access to life long education as a citizenship right.


 Besides, the populations most in need are not those that they today counted among the “actively seeking work”. Yet, the most promising  candidates for training are not the excluded and the unskilled long term unemployed. The financial cost of  ALMP geared towards training and reskilling is very large indeed, and far exceeds that of unconditional assistance policies. The implementation of conditionality has a financial, as well as a political cost,  and the creation and operation of efficient training schemes also requires vast amounts. The cost of the New Deal was borne, originally, by an excess profits tax on privatised utilities, a political gesture destined to synthesize the conservative  drive towards privatisations and labour traditional culture of  “caring and sharing”, as the coops used to say. The amounts raised were in excess of £¨5 000 million, of which more than half were devoted to the 18-24 age group. This gesture cannot be replicated indefinitely, since the potential, and the enthusiasm for further privatisations seems to have  dwindled.[21]


In France, the financial problem is compounded by an administrative one, which has been solved in the UK. The administration of benefits and the services in charge of job search and placements  belong to two entirely different institutions, which makes conditionality extremely difficult. Unedic and Assedic on the one hand, in charge of the social insurance scheme for the recently unemployed, are controlled by employers and employees, according to the formal paritaire, corporatist system. Job Centres, the ANPE, are a public service run by a government department.[22]  Although politicians are well aware of the need to  unify of the system, the task is difficult, since the “social partners” are keen to preserve their influence, even though the relative weight of insurance and assistance policies has shifted dramatically.

Finally, the current trend towards decentralization amounts to shifting part of the burden of public expenditure from the central government to the local  authorities. The management and financing  of RMI is being entrusted to départements. This is very controversial, since local taxation  has been steadily increasing in France, as income tax was falling, and local authorities are not necessarily prepared to increase spending on ALMP.


In terms of industrial relations, and potential unrest,  ALMP are also problematic. In France, only minority unions accepted the new Pare, a voluntary scheme whereby the unemployed receive more generous benefits in return for greater availability for work or training. The introduction of an element of compulsion and of really biding procedures on a significant section of the unemployed would probably be impossible, especially in regions with a very high rate of unemployment.


Besides, at a more fundamental level, the creation of subsidized jobs, which are sometimes considered a bona fide ALMP, can weigh heavily on the quality of overall employment, and bring about a  serious decline in social standards, which might not a be a desirable goal. Replacing full time regular jobs, in the public services as in the private ones, with badly paid, subsidized, temporary  jobs does not fulfil unmet needs, but seriously affects the working and living conditions of people in charge on them.


Finally, the issue of the importance  work should have in society is a fundamental one. There are probably importance differences between France and Britain in this respect. It seems that one of the chief criticisms of the New Deal in the UK, among the social policy community and elsewhere,  was based on a questioning of the centrality of work as a badge of citizenship SPA). This does not seem to be replicated in France. The time spent at work is more clearly circumscribed than in the UK, as the number of working hours is shorter for males, the 35 hour week is a reality, and changes in the age of retirement are still a very problematic issue. In spite of this, the status of the wage earner, le salarié is clearly equated with a “badge of citizenship”. From this status derived social rights to welfare, according to the bismarckian tradition.  Within the world of labour, the status of public employees, le statut de la fonction publique, part of the post war settlement, was a benchmark, something to aspire to, not because wages were high, or the job interesting,  but because it enabled employees to escape from the world of conditionality, discretion and arbitrary personnel management . It is not so much work that is looked up, as the status of workers. Working  without  having a proper status or, worse, working within a context of arbitrary decision making and under duress would probably not be found compatible with republican identity. The prospects for seriously  improving training and employability, even in a context of compulsion, are much higher than those of punitive workfare. The two basic, somewhat contradictory  components of ALMP, less eligibility on the one hand ,and improved training on the other  hand, are still with us.




Jorgen Goul Andersen & Per H Jensen. Changing Labour Markets, Welfare Policies and Citizenship. Bristol, Policy Press, 2002,


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[1]  Kay Andrews and John Jacobs. Punishing the Poor. Foreword by Neil Kinnock. London, Macmillan, 1990

[2]  Alex Bryson and John Jacobs. Policing the Workshy. Aldershot, Avebury, 1990

[3]  Charles Murray’s most influential books in the UK were, in I984 Losing Ground : American Social Policy, 1950-1980, New York, Basis Books, and, in 1994, The Bell Curve, New York,  Free Press

[4] Anthony Giddens. The Third Way and itsd critics. London, Polity Press, 1998,  Giddens, Anthony. Beyond Left and Right, the Future of Radical Politics. London, Polity Press, I994.

[5] Field, Frank and Owen, Matthew. Beyond Punishment. Hard Choices on the Road to Full Employability. Londron: Institute of Community Studies, I994. Field, Frank. Reflections on Welfare Reform. London: Social market Foundation, 1998.


[6] Joinedupness is one of the new administrative fashions adopted by New Labour. See Révauger. Les politiques sociales britanniques à l’aube du XXIème siècle. In ouvrage collectif Valérie André ed. Les années Blair, Université de Provence, forthcoming.

[7] Daniel Clegg & Jochen Clasen. « Worlds apart ? Unemployment Policy and Politics in Britain and France”, in Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique La situation et les politiques d’emploi en France et en GB 1900-2000. vol XII n°2. p.139-143.

[8] Gosta Esping Andersen. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. I990.

[9] Ivar Lodemel and Heather Trickey. An Offer You Can’t Refuse, Workfare in International Perspective. Bristol, Policy Press, 2001; p.317.

[10] see JOIN-LAMBERT, M.T.. Politiques sociales. Paris :Presses de Sciences Po et Dalloz, 1997.


[11] Lodemel op.cit. p.3

[12] Lodemel op.cit. p.8

[13] Jorgen Goul Andersen & Per H Jensen. Changing Labour Markets, Welfare Policies and Citizenship. Bristol, Policy Press, 2002, p.59 et suivantes.

[14] See JOIN-LAMBERT, M.T.. Politiques sociales. Paris :Presses de Sciences Po et Dalloz, 1997.



[15] For a British point of view on the subject, see : MACNICOL, J. Dilemmas of Age Discrimination. Paper given during the conference on « Les discriminations. Analyse comparée de la France et de la Grande Bretagne » Aix en Provence, Septembre 2000.


[16] Andersen, p.83, Gosta Esping Andersen ed. Why we need a Welfare State,  Oxford, OUP, 2002, p.47, Lodemel, p.69.

[17] Gosta Esping Andersen, 2002, p.191 .

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