When Gillian Shephard was Secretary of State for Employment she was impressed by schemes to get the young into jobs devised by Martine Aubry, her French and socialist counterpart between 1991 and 1993. So interested, she paid her two official visits. What is Aubry doing now?
At this moment Martine Aubry is almost certainly weighing up the consequences of being part of a famous family. She has long been talked of as a presidential candidate for the election of 2002 and the first woman challenger. But these past weeks have clearly been dominated by whether the French Socialist Party had a candidate in her father Jacques Delors retiring president of the European Commission and her own high standing in the polls, should he not stand. Last week she was running second in those polls before Delors made his bombshell announcement that he would definitely not stand. But 2002 remains her preferred rendez-vous.
We meet on the eve of the Socialist Party's annual conference in mid-November, where her group contribution is a breath of fresh air compared with that of the party's secretary which is full of anguished semantics about neocapitalism. Aubry's message is clear and challenging, with implications which reach beyond the Socialist Party.
Its theme is that it is not acceptable for a modern state to have an underclass. The Left, the statement proclaims, must adopt a policy which reduces unemployment and the social exclusion that goes with it.
Some of the measures proposed are unpalatable to a left wing-party; some are unpalatable to the salaried in general; some will worry employers. But Aubry and Co are not afraid to oppose received wisdom. At issue is how to put an end to the demoralising effect of long-term unemployment on individuals, families and neighbourhoods, how to counter the opportunity it offers for criminality, drug dealingIand to define the danger for national values which comes from accepting that a significant number of citizens should be marginalised.
But is this not demagogy too? Does Aubry genuinely believe, given a global economy, that full employment is possible? If so, what role will education and training play?
"Politics is about making choices, solving problems, playing a part in shifting society in the way in which you believe. You shouldn't be in politics if you don't think you can make a difference," she replies.
Ten years ago Martine Aubry was a brisk civil servant who had moved into industry, as deputy managing director of the chemicals firm Pechiney - she had figures at her fingertips, arguments structured in terms of first, second, and third, clear recommendations for action. She'd got there after studies in law and the sociology of work, and then a training in France's elite national school of administration, ENA. She was already a legend, credited with being the brains behind trade union reforms in the heady days of 1981. But the public tone was not appealing.
Since then Martine Aubry has come a long way and is much admired by that section of the public which knows her. Born in 1950, married with a teenage daughter, she is now an effective figure on the political scene. But she has never stood for Parliament (ministers need not be elected in France). In the 1993 elections, which it was clear the Left would lose, some comrades accused her of cowardice for not facing the hustings as a candidate.
The strategy she adopted instead is of interest in France and beyond. Aubry's over-riding aim in opposition has been to demonstrate that no-go neighbourhoods are not inevitable, nor is school failure. Jobs can be created, people can be treated as human beings. Her method was to seek backing from some of France's biggest employers for action research projects.
Hence the establishment in late 1993 of a foundation over which she presides - FACE, Foundation Agir Contre L'Exclusion (Act against Exclusion) - to enable her to challenge the conventional view that a nation's wealth is exclusively determined by its exports, that employment is in irreversible decline and that gaps between the rich and the poor must increase.
The Aubry starting point is that as long as it is work which gives dignity to individual lives, the political world's greatest responsibility is to respond to changes in the nature of work to ensure that all have access to it. That will also create wealth.
"There is a new model to be invented. There are new sources of employment. There are new ways of working. There are new ways of financing work." In the Aubry voice and in the sparkling almond eyes, there is more than a touch of that Delors conviction which on a memorable visit to Bournemouth in 1988 turned Britain's TUC pro-Europe.
In its first eight months, FACE has become the hub for a wide variety of projects which demonstrate the potential for service jobs for the young at neighbourhood level - in the care of the young and the aged, in supermarkets and DIY, in reconditioning household equipment, in organising a distribution system in low income areas for end-of-season clothes.
The foundation has set up partnership schemes with industry on the lines of Business in the Community, who in turn have found their local partners among the young with qualifications or motivation just as the French government has cut back on its neighbourhood projects.
In places as different as Marseilles and Amiens and Angouleme, unemployed young people are suddenly visible in some of the neglected housing estates, doing jobs taken for granted elsewhere. They are in mechanical repair work, delivery work, after-school clubs and social work. They are also seen assuming managerial responsibilities in a fast-food restaurant on a housing estate.
In highlighting the value of continuing studies and responsible behaviour, these projects are fine demonstrations that even in areas previously known for high crime rates, a social model can exist which integrates these neighbourhoods into the rest of French society.
"They are projects which give hope," says Florent, a young man with a higher education diploma who's been "rescued". He says he won't desert his neighbourhood, now he has a job in Marseilles. As he sets off to put his salary into savings for a sofa-bed, he sends a message to the government via Martine Aubry: "Look I'm also a consumer now and I'm doing something for the economy. "
Martine Aubry herself recounts in a recent book, Le Choix d' Agir - Choosing to Act - that when as a minister, she was looking at how national policy was received at the grass roots, she was initially overwhelmed by the personal misery of the people she met.
At one meeting a woman got up to say her eldest son had died of an overdose, she forced out two sons when they became pushers. "What hope is there for my 12-year-old, Madame? Can you promise me he can escape?" Then a boy who'd be every mother's model son - a diploma in his pocket - asked whether he would have a job if he did not live on a problem housing estate and if he were a different colour.
Then came a technician, who after seven years' unemployment had sold everything he possessed, and was now desperate to be living on national assistance.
When she told one of her ministerial colleagues of the experience, his condescending response was: "Dear Martine, you are too sensitive for politics. "
The former colleague had clearly not reckoned on the Aubry determination to be both political and uncyncial. For her activities at FACE and in the Socialist Party are nothing if not an expression of politics. It is simply that here too there is a change of model. Aubry has chosen to work with key figures who, like her, object to a party which operates as a machine to carve up power between barons, trying to operate policy from on high.
They include several major figures with a record of socially responsible action. Catherine Trautmann, for example, the dynamic mayor of Strasbourg and the now ageing but still charismatic Pierre Mauroy, Prime Minister from 1981 to 84 and mayor of Lille. Aubry has joined him recently on a municipal slate for elections next spring.
"The problem for a political party today is not to devise a theory and try to apply it," she says, "but to see whether you can mobilise the population at large round a project which they can see will make their lives better if they participate."
But the Aubry group has to tackle problems at central level too, including those the traditional Left wants to ignore but the Right, in general, is pressing for, like an instant easing of the social security charges on employers (particularly high in France) as an incentive to creating more jobs. Longer term, their strategy is more evidently different from their opponents. They want major fiscal reform not for tax cuts but for better redistribution - between capital and earnings, between rich and poor regions. A bigger share of social security costs must shift to taxes. There must also be redistribution of work: the working week should be reduced to 35 hours and only the low-paid would be protected from loss of earnings.
This is highly controversial and neither the traditional Left nor the Right like these terms. Aubry repeats another heresy. "We must encourage more part-time work."
It is not a surprise to learn that Martine Aubry is robust in defence of extra prestige and facilities for teachers "who carry the whole burden of socialising the young in those areas where there is no work". She is a proponent of giving them back-up from psychologists and psychiatrists.
She is also an impassioned defender of the French system's philosophy that every young person must be given a well-developed general education with wide access - at some point - to higher education.
"I'm totally against the young being put behind a machine at the age of 14 or 16. And anyway you will have noted that the much-vaunted German system has gone into reverse. They realise that the young cannot evolve when the nature of a job changes if they don't have basic educational skills."
But there is no escaping the fact that France has high unemployment among the under-25s looking for a job (25 per cent) even if, due to the large numbers staying-on, in terms of the total age group the figure is relatively low (8 per cent).
Once again Aubry picks up themes which have resonance elsewhere. Top of her list is the need to tackle school failure - in France, 10 per cent of an age group leave without qualifications - the urgency of finding new ways of easing the young into work via workplace training, and the absolute priority to be given to those already among the long-term unemployed.
For Aubry, an individualised approach is essential in training as in education - for instance, she sticks to the view that the lower secondary education should continue to be comprehensive, curricular programmes should be national. "We refused to put the long-term unemployed on to the mass schemes which did no more than get them temporarily off the unemployment statistics.
"We looked at their status, their capacities, their experience and we found them an adapted opening. And we were successful. We reduced the number of long-term unemployed despite recession. Now, 18 months after abandoning these schemes and treating individuals like parcels, the figures are up 25 per cent.
"You see why I talk about choosing to act," she says. "There is always a choice." I also see why Gillian Shephard speaks warmly of her. Martine Aubry is a woman who gives politics a good name.