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FAMILY

France’s welfare state set to get a little stingier

France’s welfare state is renowned worldwide for its generosity but the government has suggested that it might be time to tighten purse strings when it comes to the sensitive issues of unemployment benefits and family allowances. However, whether it will or not is another question.

France's welfare state set to get a little stingier
Protesters hold a banner reading "Unemployed and precarious workers marching for their rights" in southern France. Photo: Pascal Puyot/AFP

France’s PM Manuel Valls chose a trip to London this week to stir up a hornet’s nest back in France.

Perhaps he was wise to wait until he was out of the country given that he broached the highly sensitive issue of France’s unemployment benefits, which are considered some of the most generous in Europe.

Valls told a group of British journalists that it was time France looked at the system of payments which can see jobseekers claim allowances (assurances chômage) of up to a €6, 624 a month – over a period of two years – ten times the maximum paid out in the UK, according to a study by the Nouvel Obs.

The reformist PM, who continues to be compared to Tony Blair for his pro-business rhetoric and willingness to take on the traditional left, wants to reduce the amount paid out as well as the length of time allowances are paid out for, with the aim of encouraging people back into work.

When news of his comments made it back across the Channel there was the expected uproar from unions and leftist politicians.

But cutting unemployment benefits wasn’t the only sensitive area of France’s welfare state that Valls suggested needed reforming this week.

He also ignited a debate over the "allocations familiales" (family allowances or child benefit) which are paid out to all families in France irrespective of their salaries.

The PM mooted that it was perhaps time to rethink the allowances and make them means tested. Cue more unrest among unions and various family organisations.

His two welfare reform proposals come on the back of the 2015 social security budget presented this week that will see the government make a series of cuts aimed at saving €700 million next year.

Parental leave will be reduced and allowances paid out for the birth of children and to help parents with child care costs will also be reduced and made means tested.

All in all, it looks like the Socialist government has realised that if it wants to reduce the country’s crippling debt then its famous “protection sociale” will have to pay the price.

Expert Didier Demaziere from France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) told The Local it’s inevitable there will be reforms to unemployment benefits because the system is in debt, but it won’t be the government that decides exactly what they are.

“The system is managed by unions and employers through agreements so any reform will have to be negotiated by those two groups,  which will no doubt be fraught,” he said.

“There will be some kind of reform, the question is what and how will it change,” he said.

Demaziere pointed out that stories of the outrageous generosity of France’s system jobless benefits system are often exaggerated.

“In reality only 0.7 percent of jobseekers pick up the maximum each month and the average amount paid out is €987 a month,” he said.

Demaziere says it’s more the time period allowances are paid out for, rather than the amount, that makes France’s “assurances chomage” system appear more generous than in other EU countries.

In Sweden unemployment benefit is paid out for 300 days, in Germany it’s a one year, Italy eight months and in the UK it’s six months, according to the Nouvel Obs study.

But despite predicting that reforms will have to be made, Demaziere says France is not about to dismantle its welfare state.

“Not even a right wing government would do that in France.  The country’s social protection allows us to limit poverty. When you compare France to countries like the UK, that’s its advantage,” he said.

“It’s based on the principle of solidarity where everyone contributes for the good of everyone,” Demaziere said.

On the issue of family allowances Demaziere also believes that despite the expectant uproar, it’s inevitable that changes are made to make the payments based on salaries.

“There will be protests, but a reform will be passed,” he said.

The question is how willing are the French public to see their welfare state messed with?

An opinion poll this week revealed the French accept that changes need to be made.

In terms of family allowances, eight of ten said they were favourable to the amount paid to be placed on sliding scale dependent on salary and 65 percent approved unemployment allowances should decrease over time.

However the poll revealed the French would not accept seeing cuts made to their health or pensions system.

The question now is, will any reform actually take place or as BFM TV pointed out is this just “a lot of noise for nothing” from Manuel Valls. 

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FAMILY

How to register a death and arrange a funeral in France

There’s a third certainty in life in France, after death and taxes - and that’s bureaucracy. 

Graves at a cemetery in Paris
There are strict rules around burial or cremation n France. Photo: Martin Bureau / AFP

No one wants to think about death while they’re enjoying the good life in France, but it’s important to understand what needs to be done – and when – in the event of a loved one dying in France.

Let’s start with what you can do before you die.

Burial or cremation

It’s a good idea to make it known whether you want a burial or cremation in France, or if you want your body repatriated for a service back home, so that anyone dealing with the formalities is aware of your wishes.

If you do want to be buried in France, it’s a good idea to reserve a plot, as it will make things a lot easier at a difficult time. Just keep the document that confirms you have done so in a safe place.

Funeral insurance

Funerals can cost anywhere between €3,000 and €5,000, so it can be a good option for older people to take out a funeral plan – they’re routinely offered by banks, insurers or funeral firms. It means funeral funding and organisation is automatically in place, and any family members flying into France, whose French may not be very strong, don’t have that issue to face. 

After a person dies, numerous administrative tasks are necessary in a short period of time.

The first 24 hours

If you’re with a family member, friend or relative when they die, you have 24 hours to report the death. 

If they die at home, contact their GP, or call 112 or 15. A doctor will come round and certify death and issue a medical certificate (certificat de décès / declaration de décès). If the person dies in a hospital, retirement home or other facility, it is their responsibility to report the death.

If the doctor believes the death was suspicious or by suicide, an inquiry is held. This is also standard if the death occurred in a public place. The responsibility for issuing the certificat de décès and burial permission in such cases falls to the public prosecutor (Procureur de la République) in the local high court (Tribunal de Grande Instance).

Registering the death

A relative, representative or undertaker then has to register the death at the local mairie (town hall) within 24 hours, unless the death takes place on a public holiday or at a weekend, when the admin offices at town halls are closed. 

Those who report the death need to take proof of their own ID, as well as proof of the deceased person’s identity (a carte nationale d’identité, carte de séjour, passport, marriage certificate or birth certificate) and the recently issued medical death certificate.

This should be enough for officials to issue a death certificate (acte de décès) – which includes information on where and when the death took place, not the cause of death. 

You can ask for several copies – they’re free and it’s a good idea to do so. These documents are needed to close the deceased’s bank or utility accounts. But, if you later find out you don’t have enough, don’t worry. More copies can be obtained online, in person or by post.

Organ donation

It may seem a bit crass to slip this point in here, but in general every adult in France is presumed to be an organ donor, unless they specifically opt out. 

This has been the case since the Loi Caillavet was passed in 1976, making everyone an organ donor except for those who have explicitly refused, as well as minors and those under someone else’s guardianship.

The rule, however, is different for foreign nationals who die in France. In such cases, the law of their home country takes priority.

In practice, doctors will consult with family members before harvesting any organs. Refusal must be in writing, and must confirm that the deceased had expressed their opposition to organ donation. 

Arranging the funeral

Once the death is registered, the mairie issues a burial permit (permis d’inhumer).

The deceased’s family usually have six days to arrange the service for a burial or a cremation, with allowances if there’s an open investigation or if the death happened on a weekend or public holiday, or if the person died abroad and wishes to be repatriated to France – in which case the time limit is six days of the arrival of the body in France.

Burial can’t take place within the first 24 hours after death.

If the deceased had indicated what type of ceremony they wanted, their wishes must be respected. If they didn’t specify, the decision has to be made by their closest relatives.

The funeral directors will help with these formalities. The mairie will have a list of local firms, and the website www.pompesfunebresdefrance.com has details of funeral directors in towns and cities across the country.

Burial

Burial in a cemetery requires a surviving spouse, parent or child to ask permission from the mairie. This is a formality and will usually be granted – though there are exceptions.

The deceased can be buried in the commune where they lived, where they died or where they have a family tomb.

Families may request to have them buried in another city, town or village (for example, if that’s where other family members) but the mairie may decline the request.

If the deceased had not already reserved a burial plot (une concession) you need to buy one. This is done at the mairie or at the bureau des cimetières. Costs vary depending on timespan which ranges from five – 15 years, to perpetuity and can usually be paid in installments. Arrangements may be made if the family lacks the means to pay.

Enquiries about burial must be made as soon as possible to organise a time and date for a funeral. If a burial plot had been previously reserved, you should find a document called a titre de concession confirming this.

Normally cemeteries require flat paving to be placed over the grave before the family can install a headstone.

Cremation

As with burials, permission for a cremation has to be obtained from the town hall of the commune where the death took place, as cremations usually take place at the crematorium nearest the place of death.

A medical certificate showing there are no medical or legal reasons preventing cremation is required. Medical implants such as pacemakers must be removed by a doctor or embalmer.

Following any short service, ashes are handed to a family member privately shortly after the funeral, or may be stored temporarily while the family considers what they plan to do with them. 

But there are strict rules on where ashes may be scattered. You can’t just throw them anywhere –  for example, scattering them on private land is banned. Communes will usually have a remembrance garden used for this purpose, but – again – surviving family members may be required to ask permission from the mairie to use it. 

Who pays?

Funeral expenses in France are covered by the estate of the deceased, usually their bank account. If the money in their accounts isn’t enough to cover the overall fee, heirs or family members must pay the difference.

The person taking charge of the funeral may, upon presentation of the funeral invoice, obtain the debit from the bank account of the deceased, which is to say, the required amount for the payment of funeral expenses, with a limit of €5,000. Beyond this amount, a notary needs to get involved.

If the deceased had funeral insurance, contact the insurer as soon as possible after death.

Seven days and after

Within seven days of the person’s death, you should notify their employer if they were working, health and life insurance companies, bank (do mention if you shared a joint account), and their landlord, if they were renting.

Within 30 days, notify France’s primary health insurance fund CPAM and return the deceased’s carte vitale health card.

Within six months, make sure you have informed the tax office with reference to income tax declarations and other relevant fiscal information. The process can be done online in the first two months after the person’s death.

Inheritance

A notary must be contacted promptly, in order to open the inheritance file. There is a six-month time limit for the filing of the succession declaration and the payment of an inheritance tax, if the death took place in France, twelve months in other cases. This is usually sufficient for an estate to be settled.

Notaires de France has a comprehensive English-language inheritance guide on its website.

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