How much poverty is there in France?

Corona-related poverty is spreading in France

You could imagine yourself in a chic Parisian café with a liveried waitress who asks friendly: "Tea or coffee?" The only thing is that there is no coffee party here on the dim, damp and cold Île-de-Sein-Platz. Dark silhouettes wait in a long queue - hunched over, but also many young people whose faces can hardly be made out under hoods and face masks.

In the middle of the square, the Restos du Cœur relief organization ("Restaurants of the Heart") distributes the menu of the day: soup, pasta and fish, a banana. "Tea or coffee?" Asks a helper while she prepares paper bags to take away. There are no seats. Because of Corona? "No, because of the residents," says Sébastien curtly. Anyone who has paid 10,000 euros per square meter of living space, as here in the 14th district, does not want bawling clochards in front of the window.

But there is no noise in the square, and at 9 p.m. the food distribution is over anyway: Then the night curfew begins in the whole of the greater Paris area.

"We cater to people who would never have thought before the Corona crisis that they would no longer be able to pay for their food," says Sébastien.

Elena, for example. The cleaning woman from Ukraine does not want to complain; she calculates soberly that the rent of her room in the suburb of Nanterre is 630 euros per month, but that her earnings amount to a maximum of 800 euros. "Many of my customers have no more money for a cleaning lady since the Corona crisis," she says.

But isn't Nanterre almost an hour by train from the food counter? "If you're hungry, the rest doesn't matter," says the feisty little woman who comes from the war zone in Donbass but doesn't want refugee status. That would only cause problems for her daughter who stayed at home, she says.

Hard plaster

A pensioner is waiting in front of her, obviously happy when things move forward in the field - he is dragging a leg. In itself very talkative, he avoids questions about his life and does not want to give his name. Only subordinate clauses reveal that he has not seen a doctor for a long time and that he has a small loan on his neck. And Paris, where he has lived for decades? "It's not the same anymore."

And that's not just an empty phrase. Paris, the romantic city of lights, has become a tough place. On the northern edge, migrants are waiting in tent camps for better times. "Small tradesmen, craftsmen, sole traders live here in the south of the capital - all people who have been hit hard by the economic downturn," explains Sébastien. The local head of Restos discreetly refers to a very middle-class woman in her thirties, who leaves the place discreetly with a full paper bag. She belongs to the "new wave" and has been coming to get her food regularly since September.

The French expression "nouvelle vague", otherwise used more in terms of art history, sounds strange here, as Sébastien also admits. "But Paris is really being flooded, first by the coronavirus, now by the recession."

The Board of Directors of the Restos du Cœur, Patrice Blanc, also speaks of a "tidal wave that rises slowly and steadily". The output of the folk soups in Paris had increased by 30 percent compared to the previous year. In the suburban department of Seine-Saint-Denis, the increase is as much as 40 percent, explains the 73-year-old ex-juvenile judge on the phone. This coincides with an extrapolation by the French aid association that one million people have fallen below the poverty line. This would have exceeded the threshold of ten million poor in France (total population 65 million).

Soaring unemployment

Since spring, France has also had 800,000 more unemployed. According to Blanc, mini-jobbers, part-time employees, illegal workers, suppliers and students are particularly affected. The latter is only missing on the Place de l’Île-de-Sein because the Restos du Cœur have opened their own food service in the nearby student residence, the Cité Universitaire. "I've never seen such mostly hidden misery in Paris," says Blanc. "The situation is dramatic."

This is even visible in previously prosperous locations such as Orly Airport or the Rungis fresh market, which supplies the entire Parisian agglomeration. "Thousands of unskilled and casual workers lost and lost their jobs and - since they are barely insured - their livelihoods," says Blanc. The trend has been reversed: After the first corona wave hit older and better-off employees in particular, the recession is now fully affecting the poorer population categories.

Dependent on private help

This is proven by the increasing food expenditure of the "restaurants of the heart", which have been filling gaps in the French social network since 1985. Overwhelmed by the rush, the state is now dependent on private aid organizations. He provides them with new money almost every week - here 65 million for the homeless, there 55 million for the people's soups. At the weekend, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced targeted new measures: 150 euros for recipients of the subsistence level, entry assistance into the world of work for marginalized people, new emergency rooms for mothers. According to Castex, all of this has the purpose of "preventing entire categories of the population from sliding into poverty". (Stefan Brändle, October 28, 2020)