If there’s one aspect of working in France that expats — particularly Brits — are quick to deride, but more often than not happy to take advantage of, it’s the 'assurance chômage', or unemployment benefits.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous. I was able to get two thirds of my previous salary for a year and a half while I sat around doing nothing,” one Brit told a nodding audience of other expats in a Paris pub this week.
“I even signed on one week whilst sitting on a beach from the island of St Lucia,” he said.
The story was hardly a surprise to those listening.
Most expats have similar tales to tell of people making the most of the seemingly crazily charitable French unemployment insurance system, which is considered one of the most generous in Europe and makes the UK’s look like it's designed by Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge.
Under France’s “one day worked, one day covered” principle, “chômeurs” (jobseekers) are entitled to benefits up to around 75 percent of their previous salary for the equivalent period of time they were employed for up to two years. Three years if you're over 50.
In France allowances can reach a maximum of around €6,000 a month, although this is only the case in a tiny minority of cases (0.7 percent). Most people receive an average of €1,000 a month.
The problem is the system is in debt to the tune of €4 billion and no one is really surprised.
But if we forget about the debt just for a moment, when it comes to comparing systems between countries, then most British expats, even those who ridicule the French system, know exactly where they’d rather be.
It's not only about the UK system being far less supportive — the Jobseeker's Allowance across the Channel is a paltry £73 (€100) a week — but also the way the unemployed are perceived in Britain.
In the UK, jobseekers or “those relying on benefits” or “welfare cheats” are second only to immigrants in the way they are stigmatized in sections of the right-wing press.
Then there’s the fact that unless you are pretty much totally incapacitated, those with slight physical or mental illnesses are likely to be deemed fit for work after undergoing the much-criticised fitness tests brought in by the Conservative government.
Recent figures from the UK found that thousands had died after being found fit for work, which prompted campaigners to call for an immediate overhaul of the British welfare regime.
And anyone who has signed on in the UK will testify to the grilling you get every two weeks by adviser/controller, demanding to know why you haven’t found a job in the last two weeks. The stress makes you want to just sign off, which is of course exactly what they want.
Thankfully in France there is no such stigmatization around being unemployed.
Meet a French person at a soirée and they will happily tell you they have been unemployed for a year and half. Though there is no bragging about being on a Caribbean island, as, for the French, these jobseeker benefits are just their right.
They have paid into the system and so will take out of it when the time comes.
When there’s a rainy day in France, the French expect the state to step in and look after them, where as in the UK, you just better hope you have saved up enough sterling.
While no one doubts that the regime in France could do with reforming – and public opinion polls agree – to give people more incentive to get back to work, the controversy masks the real problem.
In France it is simply much harder to get a job, given the state of the labour market. Plus its not as easy to change career here and there's no real culture of people just doing any old job to keep them ticking over.
Times are changing, however, given the pressure from Brussels on France to cut its public debt and get its finances in order.
France’s new social-liberal finance minister Emmanuel Macron has already said the idea of cutting France’s generous employment system is “no longer taboo”.
The PM also chose a trip to London — perhaps because it was out of reach of French unions — to tell the British press that France needed to seriously look at its benefits system.
From Monday a new team of controllers will start a crackdown at France’s unemployment agency Pôle Emploi to root out those who might not be doing the utmost to find a job.
The aim is to go after those “who have dropped off the radar” (perhaps because they are hiding out in the Caribbean), and the Socialist government is at pains to stress the aim is not to stigmatize those who found themselves out of work.
So the days of France having one of the most generous benefit regimes in Europe may not last forever, but you'd hope the inevitable cuts and necessary reforms will never go as far as in Britain.
France is in a position where it can make sensible and fair changes and still offer much needed protection for those out of work in a time of crisis.
There's no need to deride that.