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POLITICS

‘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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CRIME

French ex-minister convicted in fake jobs scam

A French court on Thursday found former justice minister Michel Mercier guilty of embezzlement in a fake jobs scheme he ran for the benefit of family members.

French ex-minister convicted in fake jobs scam

Mercier, 75, who served under former president Nicolas Sarkozy between 2010 and 2012, claimed tens of thousands of euros for his wife and daughter for parliamentary jobs  they never carried out.

The court handed him a suspended prison sentence of three years.

Mercier gave “personal gain precedence over the public good”, the court said in its verdict, calling Mercier’s actions “serious”.

As senator, Mercier claimed 50,000 euros ($54,000 at today’s rate) in salary for his wife Joelle between 2005 and 2009, and  €37,000 for his daughter Delphine between 2012 and 2014.

During that time, Delphine Mercier was living in London and did not set foot in the French Senate, but her father claimed she was acting as his “cultural advisor”.

Neither Mercier nor his daughter were able to provide any proof of actual work done.

Joelle Mercier, meanwhile, claimed during the trial that she had served as her husband’s representative at village fairs and funerals.

She was found guilty of conspiracy to embezzle public funds and of receiving stolen money and sentenced to a suspended prison term of 18 months and a €40,000 fine.

The court handed the daughter a 12-month suspended sentence and a fine of €10,000.

Prosecutors had asked for the ex-minister to serve one year behind bars, accusing him of “creating smoke screens” in his defence and seeking to mislead the court.

Mercier had based part of his defence on his rural roots, pitting his “common sense” against the “Parisians” of the national financial crimes unit PNF.

Several French politicians have been convicted for similar offences committed before France in 2017 banned National Assembly deputies and senators from employing family members.

The move came in reaction to a public outcry over a high-profile case involving former right-wing prime minister Francois Fillon, who was found guilty of providing a fake parliamentary assistant job to his wife that saw her paid hundreds of thousands of euros in public funds.

The “Penelopegate” scandal, revealed in a media report while he was the front-runner in the 2017 presidential race, torpedoed  his political career and cleared a path for then-relatively unknown Emmanuel Macron.

Last year, a court trimmed Fillon’s sentence to four years in prison with three suspended — down from five years with three suspended when he was first found guilty in 2020.

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