They receive a net payment of €580 a month to help with living costs.
The scheme was introduced in 2010, and it aims to encourage social cohesion by giving young adults the chance to meet people and experience situations they would not otherwise come across.
It can also teach skills volunteers might not have learned at school and give them ideas for future careers.
The scheme has grown steadily. In the first year, some 6,000 took part, rising to 140,000 in 2018.
More than 11,000 associations, organisations and public bodies are authorised to take on Service Civique volunteers but there is still far more demand from young people than available places. The current aim is to have 150,000 placements a year.
The scheme is open to anyone aged 16 to 25 – extended to 30 for people with disabilities – and it attracts the same number of men and women.
The average age is 21 and around 40% enter the programme after getting their bac. Another 33% do so after higher studies, and around 24% after leaving school without the bac.
It can be taken like a gap year and university students get authorisation to take a break in their studies to do a Service Civique placement.
It is also attractive to people who have dropped out of education, as it can help them find something to do while they consider their future.
Reasons for taking part, according to a survey, included professional experience, getting involved in social work, and being useful to others.
There are different types of mission, ranging from helping in a school or giving information on cutting energy costs in the home to wildlife projects, visiting the elderly who are alone at home, getting involved in sports associations, and organising cultural activities. Anyone who wants to apply should sign on at service-civique.gouv.fr and look for a mission which interests them in the location of their choice. Some of the missions are overseas.
They can then apply online. Educational qualifications are not taken into account but they have to write a motivation letter. Some organisations answer quickly but applicants might have to be patient for a reply from others.
Service Civique is popular, so it is best to apply for several to have the best chance of being selected.
It is open to French nationals and to members of the European Union, as well as to those of other nationalities who are legally resident.
A Service Civique spokesperson told Connexion that young Britons in France will be accepted on to the scheme until at least December 31, 2020, assuming a deal on Brexit is agreed.
The government wants to go further and introduce a Service National Universel, following calls for either a return to obligatory military service or mandatory Service Civique placements. A trial could begin this year.
The scheme would be introduced in two phases. The first would be an obligatory period in school at age 16. It would last for up to a month and would include a short period with pupils living together and a community project. This could be in a charity, a public body or the army, police or sapeurs pompiers.
A second phase, to be introduced later, would last one to three months. Young people would be engaged in a public-interest pursuit such as heritage or helping others, or a spell in the military.
A recent government study of 45,000 teenagers found 75% were in favour, despite a lycée student strike in early December in protest at education reforms, including compulsory civic service.
Homeless charity work made me rethink career
Tài NGO is 19 and, like many young people, he started a post-bac course but soon realised it was not for him. Instead of biology, he decided he wanted to do social work and opted for a Service Civique to find out more about what it involves.
He is in Paris working in a charity called Les Enfants du Canal, which assists people living on the streets. He started last June and will finish later this month.
“Every day I go to three different places and meet homeless people,” he said.
“We talk and sometimes organise trips to museums or art galleries to offer them something cultural. The eventual aim is for them move off the streets.”
He says the experience has been a real education: “I had preconceived ideas, thinking homeless people were all alcoholics, dirty and unpleasant, but I have found this is not true.
“We are always welcomed with a smile, and I think what we do is useful and helpful.
“I have learnt to interact with homeless people and to be independent because you are often faced with situations where you have to make a decision quickly.
“It has put me directly in contact with real-life problems and it makes you understand things differently.” It will also help him in his future career: “I know now what I want to do and this experience should help me to get a place to study social work as, in an interview, I will be able to show that I understand more what this job is about.”
I wanted to do some good following Paris attacks
When Lavan Natkunam (right) was 22, he did not know what to do with his life, having become disenchanted with his post-bac studies.
He wasted much of his time getting up late, spending hours on his computer and feeling lost. It was the Paris terror attacks which made him change. “It acted as a spark. There was so much unhappiness around. I wanted to do some good in the world and so I signed up for a Service Civique,” he said.
He was the first one to be taken on by Caf, the state family allowance organisation which runs two social centres in Paris.
His job was to find a way of giving the public access to computers and to help them to use them: “It was a new idea so I had to decide how to do it. I was able to set up a space where people could come to use computers and then I gave lessons on how to access and use sites like the Caf, Pôle Emploi and Assurance Maladie. I had not realised that so many people needed help in this way.” He enjoyed his time in the centres so much that he went every day, and got involved in other activities such as helping children with their homework. “It really made me get off my sofa and gave me a new purpose in life.”
He went on to get a short-term contract helping people to use computers and is now a student at a renowned computer training school. “Before, I thought you could only be a software designer if you worked in computers. Now, I know there are other openings.”
He said Service Civique set him back on track and gave him confidence because he could be useful to others: “It was a boost to be thanked for the work you did.”