Can an institution set up in the early Middle Ages have any relevance to the great employment questions of today?
Ask anyone who works for France’s Compagnons du Devoir (Companions of Duty), and you will get a resounding “Yes!”
Their roots may be medieval, but today the Compagnons continue to offer apprenticeships in the trades to thousands of young French men and women.
And in a direct link back to the early days of journeymen masons and carpenters – the cathedral-builders of the past – many of today’s apprentices still go on a Tour de France. They travel the country over several years to pick up new techniques and perfect their skills.
Scoffed at by some for their traditional image and at times secretive practices, the Compagnons are gaining in favour under President Emmanuel Macron, who has co-opted their help for a new government initiative on apprenticeships.
They are also beginning to expand abroad, with more compagnons seeking placements overseas – and some foreign apprentices joining the Tour de France.
Visiting a hostel of the Compagnons du Devoir, one understands quickly that this is not some classic publicly-funded employment scheme. There is a way of life here all of its own.
The hostel in the Burgundy capital, Dijon, is typical. An ugly modern building just off the ring-road (thus convenient for out-of-town industrial zones), it houses 60 or so young apprentices in all the trades from carpentry to tiling, landscape gardening to pastry cookery.
Aged between 16 and 25, mainly men but with a growing number of women, the apprentices live as a community. They share bedrooms, study together in the evenings and on Saturdays and sit together at long tables for meals.
Some (but not all) are on a Tour de France, meaning they will stay in Dijon for just six months or a year, before moving on to another town, another apprenticeship in another firm, and another Compagnons hostel.
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On the first Thursday of every month there are group meetings, where community tasks are allocated, upcoming events discussed and disciplinary issues raised.
It is evident that the community places a strong emphasis on rules, values and tradition.
Smart clothes are to be worn at mealtimes, and suits at the group assemblies.
There is a special in-house vocabulary. The word “gâche” for example, here and only here, means job or chore. Apprentices are given personal designations that are incomprehensible to the outside world.
A job rota might include the name: “Pays Lambou Compagnon Chaudronnier du Devoir Percheron La Gaieté du Tour de France”.
This would mean an apprentice whose family name is Lambou, who works in the field (Pays) as opposed to a workshop, who is a boilermaker (chaudronnier), who has completed his Tour de France, who comes from the Perche region, and whose most noted characteristic is gaiety!
There are other quirks. In every hostel there is a woman designated as the maîtresse (mistress) or mère (mother), who looks after the wellbeing of the inmates (some of whom have just left home).
And in every hostel, there are odd structures cluttering the halls and passageways: a scale model of a timbered roof; a motorcycle made of plumber’s piping; a vast eccentrically-upholstered pram.
These are chef-d’oeuvres (masterworks), which apprentices produce at the end of their Tour in order to earn their rank as compagnon.
Idiosyncrasies like this have given the Compagnons a mixed reputation.
On the one hand, no-one disputes the high quality of the training they give. In addition to finding placements for those on the Tour de France, they provide courses in the manual trades that lead to recognised qualifications. Employers regard compagnons as a sure bet.
But outsiders are sometimes struck by the oddity of it all. Is there not, they ask, something boy-scoutish about all these clean-cut young men and women living in a community?
Why are there pictures on the dining-room wall of King Solomon and the mythical founding father Père Soubise?
Why do apprentices on the Tour wear a sash and carry a symbolic cane? And why are their initiations held behind closed doors?
Inevitably a connection with freemasonry springs to mind. Both movements see their roots in the journeymen of the Middle Ages; both use the builder’s compass as a symbol; both set great store by values such as self-knowledge, dedication and commitment to the community.
But the Compagnons insist that any similarity with the freemasons is purely historical. They share certain origins, but that is all.
“We are often accused of being secretive, of conducting mysterious rituals, but it’s silly,” says Jacob Hunt, from Yorkshire, who is the Compagnons’ first ever representative in the UK.
“Yes, there are certain moments which we prefer not to share with the media. But that is all about creating a bond between people. The apprentices love the notion that they are joining something special. It is a carrot.”
Jacob, 29, completed his Tour de France as a cabinet-maker. In becoming a full compagnon, he pledged to continue the task of “transmission” – in other words, handing on his own expertise to new generations. So now his job is finding French apprentices placements at UK firms, and vice versa.
“The Tour can be daunting. Every six months you pitch up at a place you have never been to before, and start all over again,” he says.
“But you pick up new skills, new techniques, new materials. You have to adapt and be resourceful. And after five or six years of the life, you have become extremely resourceful indeed.”
In France the Compagnons are only a small part of the overall effort to provide apprenticeships. As in the UK, these are increasingly seen as part of the answer to problems of training, productivity and employment.
But also as in the UK, apprenticeships in France suffer from a poor public image. The Compagnons are a recognised elite. More widely apprenticeships are not an option of choice.
“It needs to change,” says Jacob Hunt. “The middle classes send their children to universities. But it must be obvious by now that that is a diminishing asset. Many teenagers are not academic.
“With a Compagnons-style apprenticeship they can build a long-term investment in their own future.”