Far too many French people go to bed hungry, then leave for school or work.
Although much has been done to provide students with cheap meals, and to offer breakfasts in crèches, the cry of alarm launched by the president of Restos du Cœur should lead us to recognize a serious failure of French social policies.
For 40 years, while the country’s social management has been equally divided between left and right, no one has managed to put an end to what Coluche thought was a passing scandal when, for the first time, he came to talk to me about his idea of organizing, for a year or two, collections to provide meals for the country’s poorest. He soon realized that this would not be an interlude, but a lasting need, complementing the work of other similar organizations already present in the field. Then the idea came to him – and it would have, had it not been for a truck that ended his life – to extend the project worldwide. We even started working on it together.
Today, in France, a highly developed and wealthy country that prides itself on its agriculture, food and agri-food industries, and the scale of its social spending, the situation is tragic:
According to figures from the Secours Populaire annual barometer, 18% of French people (including 31% of blue-collar workers, 25% of white-collar workers and 24% of those with less than a baccalaureate) are overdrawn; 53% of French people say they are unable to save; 38% have experienced poverty and 58% fear falling into it, which is a huge number; 52% admit that they no longer eat three meals a day, and even 15% go without at least one meal on a regular basis; 45% have found it difficult to pay their energy bills. 46% also find it difficult to meet their children’s expenses, such as food, school supplies, clothing and canteen fees, not to mention books and culture. In each of these areas, the situation is worse than in previous years.
We shouldn’t believe those who, outrageously, denounce as “stowaways of misery” those who would go to the Restos du Cœur when they could afford to pay for their food. Nor those who point to the supposedly aberrant spending choices in certain families, where all the household money goes on alcohol, cell phones, video games or flat screens. There is no evidence to support these hypotheses.
Poverty is real. Extreme poverty is even more real. Worse still, the threat of precariousness, which now concerns more than half of the French population, is now a reality.
Of course, we must congratulate the associations that carry out public service missions in place of the State, and at a lower cost, since they mobilize a very large number of volunteers. And we must thank all those who contribute their time or money.
Of course, all French people would benefit from better management of their budgets, more accurate forecasting of their spending and earnings over the year, and knowing when and how to save; and this is a service that all banks should provide free of charge to all their customers, thus justifying their existence and profits.
But experience has shown me that the most deprived are those who manage their budgets best; and that anticipating misery, or alleviating it in an extreme emergency, won’t make it go away.
The situation calls for far more radical changes: a significant increase in low wages (and therefore also in those that follow on the general pay scale), a reduction in the share of dividends in the distribution of profits, a significant and systemic allocation of company shares to their employees, fairer taxation on low incomes, and much higher inheritance taxes (at least on indirect inheritance). We also need to channel these new resources in such a way that they do not worsen the external deficit, nor increase consumption in the sectors of the economy of death, which would then worsen health spending and destroy the environment. Without prejudice to what also needs to be done in health and education.
We urgently need to discuss all this. At the very least. And one would hope that it would be discussed as soon as possible in Parliament, which is the very heart of democracy. It’s incredible that today’s left-wing parties, whose mission it should be, aren’t making this their main battle-horse and proposing a detailed, financed, realistic plan that is compatible with our international commitments. It can be done. And it’s urgent, if we don’t want anger to become exasperation. In France, revolutions have been fought for much less.
Image: A Restos du Coeur volunteer at a national food drive in a supermarket in Saint-Laurent-du-Var (Alpes-Maritimes, France), March 4, 2023, © SYSPEO/SIPA.