For a country with one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, the announcement that the French government was planning to axe 17,000 civil servants in the next three years didn't cause much of a stir. Is France finally waking up to the fact that its wasteful public sector needs an overhaul? The answer is no, because the proposal is pumped up by hot air rather than economic rationale. Plans to rationalise the public sector have been attempted as far back as the French can remember. Under pressure from the EU to trim its colossal budget deficit, this latest proposal is part of a larger attempt by the French government to cut public spending. But in France the civil service remains a well-respected, almost untouchable institution. 'I've wanted to work in the civil service for as long as I can remember,' said 29-year-old David Elkaim, who was recruited to the state's transport department in Paris last year. 'It gives me status, job security, great holidays and job mobility. I've never had it in me to work in the private sector. I feel that at least here, I am doing something for the general good.' Mr Elkaim was one of 90,000 lucky candidates recruited by the civil service each year. In a trend unheard of in most other European countries, the number of applicants has surged over the past decade. But job security is not the only motivation. Dating back to the French revolution, France has a long tradition of socialism, and working for the state and the public benefit is highly valued. 'The civil service is socially and economically very important in France as the French country and nation were built through it,' said Luc Rouban, head of research at the French national research centre. 'The country is very fragmented as it is made up of lots of regions and different cultures. The civil service enables it to pull together.' The foundations of the French civil service were laid by Napoleon as a secular counterweight to the church and the army. A strong public sector continues to represent a healthy state in a country which values its republican ideals and remains sceptical towards what the French call 'the American capitalist model'. 'The civil service provides security in a country which basically distrusts capitalism,' said Anne Stevens, professor of European studies at Aston University in England. 'France became capitalist late as it had a large agricultural society until the 1960s. But the civil service also represents the greatness of the French state.' The civil service is a costly institution. It provides guaranteed employment for just under a quarter of the French working population - about 24.5 million people - along with pensions, perks and costly benefits. Successive governments have tried to restructure the sector, but often at their peril. The French government's latest efforts to push a series of pensions and social security reforms resulted in overwhelming protest votes against Jacques Chirac's ruling party in the recent regional and European elections. 'Surveys over the past 20 years show a very firm attachment to the public service in France,' said Dr Rouban.