Will the ‘president of the rich’ tackle France’s poverty problem?

Emmanuel Macron may have declared war on poverty, but in the poorest towns of France there is little love lost for the ex-banker slammed by critics as a "president of the rich". He is set to unveil a new plan to deal with poverty.

Will the 'president of the rich' tackle France's poverty problem?
Grigny is a French town emblematic of entrenched urban poverty. Photo: AFP
Just south of the gleaming architectural treasures of Paris lies Grigny, a town emblematic of entrenched urban poverty in a country that spends more on social benefits than any other in Europe.
The statistics on Grigny's massive housing estates, a jump-off point for newly-arrived immigrants from west Africa and elsewhere, make for grim reading.
Nearly 45 percent of the town's 30,000 residents live below the poverty line, surviving on less than 1,000 euros ($1,150) a month. Unemployment is chronic and most teens drop out of high school before their final exams.
Last year, a fire in one of the grim tower blocks of Grigny 2 — one of Europe's biggest housing complexes, with 17,000 residents — exposed the fact that slum landlords had crammed some 80 people into six squalid apartments.

The La Grande Borne housing estate where a young man was shot dead and his brother was seriously injured. Photo: AFP

Another estate, Grande Borne, is notorious as the site of an attack on police in 2016 when youths firebombed officers in their car, badly burning two of them.   

Situated 25 kilometres (15 miles) from central Paris, Grigny is the kind of place that shouts “no-go zone” to US President Donald Trump.
But it is more drab than dangerous.
Cafes and supermarkets are few and far between. The only stores doing a roaring trade in the dilapidated shopping centre are money transfer centres where migrants queue to send cash home.
Towns like this will be on Macron's mind when he launches a highly anticipated plan Thursday to reduce the ranks of the poor in France, which have swelled by a million to nine million since the financial crisis a decade ago.
A self-described centrist, he has attracted criticism over his 16 months in power that his policies — including tax cuts for the wealthiest — have left the poor behind.
France spent 57 billion euros on welfare in 2016 and Macron has expressed frustration at the “crazy amounts of dough” spent on benefits without producing results.
The biggest problem, he argues, is “inequality of opportunity”.
“Depending on where you are born,” he told lawmakers in July, “your fate is often sealed.”
His plan focuses on boosting social mobility and early intervention, by for example providing free school breakfasts for children living in poverty.
Photo: AFP
'Social apartheid'
In Grigny, even Macron critics like the Communist mayor Philippe Rio agree that local children need all the help they can get. 
Only 25 percent of students pass the high school exam that paves the way to university — far below the national average of 80 percent.
Rio wrote to Macron after he was elected last year, pleading for financial aid for a suburb he says is the victim of “social apartheid”.
A few months later, 150 French mayors descended on Grigny to condemn cuts in government funding to municipalities that they said would hurt the poorest. 
Rio expects few improvements from the poverty plan, coming from “a government whose very DNA is anti-solidarity”.
A large majority in Grigny voted for Macron in the second round of last year's presidential election, mainly to block his far-right rival Marine Le Pen. 
But residents feel he has done little to improve their lot.
“At the time I was really pro-Macron. I voted for someone young, dynamic, charismatic — who promised things and made you want to do something,” says mother-of-two Odile Kitenge, director of an association that helps women find work.
These days Kitenge feels “disillusioned”, saying the government has “clearly been abandoned” Grigny.
Practical solutions
An energetic 29-year-old who wears two rings in her nose and her hair in a colourful head-wrap, Kitenge is the kind of self-starter that Macron champions.
Born to Congolese parents who were rarely around — her mother was a cleaner and her father a security guard — she crashed out of school and dabbled in petty crime before straightening herself out and finishing her studies.
She thinks practical help, like more spaces in the creche, would greatly boost employment in Grigny.
Juliette Perchais, a French teacher at Grigny's worst-performing middle school, believes solving many of the town's deep-rooted problems would require radical change.
Last year the 29-year-old crowdfunded a trip around the world, visiting innovative schools from Sweden to India.
She came back brimming with ideas — but more aware than ever that France's teachers are woefully equipped to deal with kids whose parents juggle several 
low-paid jobs.
Some parents struggle to communicate in French, let alone help with homework. 
Aside from inadequate teacher training, Perchais thinks Grigny's problem is one of disastrous urban planning that has left poor immigrants ghettoised.
“It's not right that in our school we only have students with the same living standards and ethnic origins,” she said.
“It really feels like we've been locked away.”
By AFP's Katy Lee

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IN NUMBERS: The ‘worrying’ scale of poverty in France in 2020

How many poor people are there in France and what does 'poor' even mean today? A new report has shed light on the changing face of France's most deprived groups.

IN NUMBERS: The 'worrying' scale of poverty in France in 2020
Volunteers of the charity 'Les Restos du Coeur' distribute food in Toulouse, southern France, on November 24th, 2020. The organisation expects 1 million beneficiaries this year for the winter season,

Published on Thursday by l'Observatoire des inégalités (Observatory for inequalities), the report Poverty in France 2020-2021 drew a sombre picture of situation in France.

“France remains one of the best social models in the world that protects its poor better than most other rich countries,” the authors wrote, before adding “that does not mean that the situation is not worrying.”

The report was published to, according to the authors, set the scene of the situation before the real impact of the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

“We will pay the damages, by an awaited and devastating progression of unemployment,” they said.

Young people were in an especially concerning situation, they said, outlining the under-30s as the biggest losers of the looming social and economic crisis.

The data in the report come from France's national research institute Insee. Some of them date back to 2018, due to a lack of newer numbers.

Here are some of the key numbers revealed in the report.

€885 – The poverty threshold the Observatory operates with. Most public institutions use €900. That means that anyone with a monthly income averaging less than €900 after taxes is regarded as poor.

In comparison, France’s minimum wage is €1,219 net. The Observatory chose to use €885 because it allowed them to “focus on the populations struggling the most”

REVEALED: Where in France has the lowest cost of living?

5.3 million – the number of people in France living on less than €885 per month on average in 2018. In comparison the number of people living on less than €900 per month on average was nearly the double, 9 million. 

The remaining numbers are calculated based on the Observatory's poverty threshold of €885 per month.

8.3 percent – the percentage of poor people in France, or more than 5 million people out of a population of 67 million.

According to Luis Maurin, President and Director of the Observatory, France's poverty level is low compared to many other European countries. “But it’s still 5 million people who live with very little, with incomes that are very different from the rest of society,” he said in a video published on their website (clip below).

This number is expected to rise in the months to come due to the negative impact from the Covid-19 health crisis on the economy.

0.4 percent – the rate of which poverty in France grew between 2013-2018. That means that back in 2013, 7.9 percent of France’s population was poor compared to 8.3 percent now. “It’s not an explosion, but it still represents 350,000 additional poor people,” Maurin said.

30 – half of France's poor were below 30 years old. Young people were those the most impacted by poverty at the time the statistics were collected and the report have outlined them as the biggest future losers of the economic downturn caused by Covid-19. 

12.5 percent – the percentage of all 18 to 25-year-olds  below the poverty threshold, a number that has been growing for years and is expected to grow in the future.

8.2 percent – the percentage of 18 to 25-year-olds who lived below the poverty threshold back in 2002.

5.5 million – the number of people in France who received food aid in 2017.

56 percent – the percentage of the French population who said the government is not doing enough to help the poorest groups of the population.

9 percent – the percentage of the French population who said the government is doing too much.