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‘Everything has stopped because of Covid’ – the social tsunami hitting Paris’ suburbs

In a gritty Paris suburb, Zineb, Danielle and even Benjamina, who is in his late 70s, say they only want one thing: to desperately get back to work.

'Everything has stopped because of Covid' - the social tsunami hitting Paris' suburbs
Poverty among young people in France is also on the rise. Here students queue to collect food boxes, fruit and some sanitary items from a help association in Paris on January 28th. Photo: AFP

Like towns all over the world, residents of Grigny, about 30 kilometres south of the French capital, are struggling after losing jobs in the pandemic.

But this downtrodden town, with its sprawling high-rise, low-cost housing estates, was already known as the poorest in mainland France.

Nearly half its 30,000 residents, many of them immigrants, live below the poverty line, surviving on less than €900 a month, according to the Observatoire des Inégalites, a non-governmental body that studies inequality in France.

Grigny mayor Philippe Rio said he fears the percentage has only increased further since the virus outbreak, given the number of people signing up for state aid.

One of them is Benjamina Rajoharison. 

Despite being aged 77, he used to do manual work which he said paid well.

But he has been out of a job for nearly a year and now he and his wife scrape by on welfare payments.

Once the monthly rent of €580 is paid, the couple is left with €300 to make ends meet until the end of the month.

“That's nothing at all,” Rajoharison told AFP.

He hopes to find odd jobs to survive once all the Covid-19 related restrictions are lifted, he said.

The couple lives on the 10th floor of a tower block in Grigny 2, one of Europe's biggest housing complexes and also one of the most run-down in France.

Piles of rubbish are strewn at the entrance of some of the buildings whose doors are shattered. 

But Rajoharison's little studio flat is neat and tidy, and decorated with pictures of flowers.

Rio, the mayor from France's Communist party, says that the pandemic has exacerbated poverty, especially in the housing estate, which he says has become a “ticking time bomb.”

“Between last March and December, the number of unpaid charges, including for water and heating, has practically doubled,” he told AFP.

“And if we can't pay for the water and heating, that means we also can't pay for upkeep and emergency repairs.”

The charity Restos du Coeur has been active across the country throughout the pandemic, here distributing food to people in need in Toulouse, southwest of France.Photo: AFP

'Social tsunami'

On a recent day, a few streets from the tower block, some 40 people waited in line for free meals and other goods distributed by the Restos du Coeur charity, which hands out food packages and hot meals to those in need.

The association has seen a significant jump in the number of people seeking assistance because of what Rio describes as the “social tsunami” brought upon by the pandemic.

Among those in the queue is Danielle, a 21-year-old from Ivory Coast in need of nappies and milk for her baby daughter.

“Before coronavirus, my partner and I worked a bit but since the first wave of the pandemic, we haven't been able to find jobs,” said Danielle, who is undocumented and previously earned money cleaning houses.

Naima, 37, who is French-Moroccan and used to work under temporary employment contracts, says she has seen her living standards dip even further.

“Everything has stopped because of Covid,” she lamented. “It has impacted my personal life and I feel depressed.

“Thankfully, we have income support” which guarantees a minimum income to those in need.

Zineb, a Moroccan in her 30s who is also undocumented, dreads losing the social interaction she currently enjoys at the Resto du Coeur, once winter is over.

“When I set foot in the Resto du Coeur, I forget my troubles and I feel strong and happy,” said the mother, who lives with her two children in a tiny, stuffy hotel room with bunk beds, a sofa bed, a small desk and kitchen utensils and plates stored in the shower.

Many people are reliant on food assistance for survival, even though the key challenge now is getting back to work and finding jobs, Rio said.

“One year after the quake caused by the first lockdown, we now  now that the crisis will be long-lasting,” he said.

France's economy shrank 8.3 percent in 2020, data released last month showed, as the virus plunged countries across Europe into their deepest recessions since World War II.

Rio was among several mayors who wrote to President Emmanuel Macron last year pleading for assistance for his town.

Since then, the government has pledged to allocate one percent of its recovery plan to suburbs like Grigny.

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POLITICS

Income tax, property grants and cigarettes: What’s in France’s 2023 budget?

France's finance minister has unveiled the government's financial plans for the next year, and says that his overall aim is to 'protect' households in France from inflation and rises in the cost of living - here's what he announced.

Income tax, property grants and cigarettes: What's in France's 2023 budget?

The 2023 Budget was formally presented to the Council of Ministers on Monday, before economy minister Bruno Le Maire announced the main details to the press. 

The budget must now be debated in parliament, and more details on certain packages will be revealed in the coming days, but here is the overview;

Inflation – two of the biggest measures to protect households from the rising cost of living had already been announced – gas and electricity prices will remain capped in 2023, albeit at the higher rate of 15 percent, while low-income households will get a €100-200 grant. The energy price cap is expected to cost the government €45 billion in 2023.

EXPLAINED: What your French energy bills will look like in 2023

Property renovations – the MaPrimeRenov scheme, which gives grants to householders for works that make their homes more energy-efficient, will be extended again into 2023, with a budget of €2.5 billion to distribute.

Income tax – the income tax scale will be indexed to inflation in 2023, so that workers who get a pay increase to cope with the rising cost of living don’t find themselves paying more income tax. “Disposable income after tax will remain the same for all households even if their salary increases,” reads the 2023 Budget.

Pay rises –  pay will increase for teachers, judges and other civil servants as inflation is forecast to reach 4.3 percent next year after 5.4 percent in 2022. Around €140 million is assigned to increase the salaries of non-teaching staff in schools. 

New jobs – nearly 11,000 more public employees will be hired, in a stark reversal of President Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 campaign promise to slash 120,000 public-sector jobs – 2,000 of these jobs will be in teaching. 

Small business help – firms with fewer than 10 employees and a turnover of less than €2 million will also benefit from the 15 percent price cap on energy bills in 2023. The finance ministry will put in place a simplified process for small businesses to claim this aid. In total €3 billion is available to help small businesses that are suffering because of rising costs. 

Refugees – In the context of the war in Ukraine, the government plans to finance 5,900 accommodation places for refugees and asylum seekers in various reception and emergency accommodation centres. The budget provides for a 6 percent increase in the “immigration, asylum and integration” budget.

Cigarettes – prime minister Elisabeth Borne had already announced that the price of cigarettes will rise “in line with inflation”.

Ministries – Le Maire also announced the budget allocation for the various ministries. The Labour ministry is the big winner with an increase of 42.8 percent compared to last year, coupled with the goal to reach full employment by 2027. Education gets an increase of €60.2 billion (or 6.5 percent more than in 2022), much of which will go on increasing teachers’ salaries, while the justice and environment ministries will also see increased budgets.

Conversely, there was a fall in spending for the finance ministry itself.

Borrowing –  the government will borrow a record €270 billion next year in order to finance the budget. “This is not a restrictive budget, nor an easy one – it’s a responsible and protective budget at a time of great uncertainties,” said Le Maire. 

The government is tabling on growth of one percent, a forecast Le Maire defended as “credible and pro-active” despite an estimate of just 0.5 percent GDP growth by the Bank of France, and 0.6 percent from economists at the OECD.

The public deficit is expected to reach five percent of GDP, as the EU has suspended the rules limiting deficit spending to three percent of GDP because of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Parliament

The budget plans now need to be debated in parliament where they are likely to face fierce opposition. Emmanuel Macron’s centrist LREM party and its allies lost their majority in elections earlier this year.

Macron also plans to push ahead with a pension reform that would gradually start pushing up the official retirement age from 62 currently, setting up a standoff with unions and left-wing opposition parties.

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