A French perspective on poverty and inequality

I was very interested to learn from our local TV in France, TV8 Mont Blanc, that in March there will be a TED conference in Annecy. Another reason, I thought, to go and spend time by the side of its magnificent lake. It seemed that it was to be the second conference after the success of the first, last year.   I’ve found many of the TED talks to be very illuminating, and so I checked on-line to get more information.

I found the archive of all of the talks given at the previous Annecy conference and started to have a look at them. The first person I listened to wanted to persuade us that “Man is a product which is sold and bought. His curriculum is none other than an article on an e-commerce site called ‘the world of work’.”   It was thus that his talk on ‘Personal Branding’ started, a concept which is very popular in business schools, but which leaves me completely cold. So I selected another contribution. The subject was the influence of oxytocin on our psychology, something about which I wrote on this site some years ago. Having heard half of her talk, she still hadn’t got to her point and so I decided to give up on it. The remaining choices were not very encouraging: a chap who wanted to persuade me that I should look at work as a game and someone-else who had given her talk the rather long-winded title: “And if we had the courage to be nude? And if we dared to be true? And if we dared the authenticity of the moment?”. Again, when I hear of personal authenticity, particularly in the context of public nudity, I have the impression of someone very egotistical who has nothing to say but who likes the sound of her own voice.

And so, rather doubtfully, I chose a talk supporting the idea of Universal Income, in the hope that I would at last find something convincing in the argument. The person giving the talk asked us to keep in mind the importance of the number 9 – apparently wealth in France is held as to 90% by the 10% of the people at the top and the remaining 10% of the wealth is in the hands of the other 90% of the population. He continued on the same theme, with 9% unemployment in France and the 9 million who live in 'poverty'. To solve all these problems and several others, he said that the answer was Universal Income. I wasn’t convinced by his arguments as to the solution or of his explanation of the problems.

It is obvious that unemployment is a problem which can have numerous underlying causes. In France, we see an attempt by Monsieur Macron to reduce it with changes in the law. He has reduced the over the top rights which people have in the private sector not to be dismissed and the compensation payable in the event of losing one’s job. This has been done in order to create more flexibility in the marketplace. At the moment, as in Italy, there is a group of people with what is effectively a job for life at the cost of preventing others from having other than temporary jobs. Having an employment law which is much more flexible in the UK, we have an unemployment rate of only 4.5%. Perhaps there’s a connection?  And this without a universal income. We know, as well, that the difference between the 10% of the population with 90% of the wealth doesn’t actually mean much in itself.  In Europe, in general, an important part of the difference is the debt taken on by relatively well-paid people - thus although they may be part of the less wealthy 90% of the population, it is by no means the case that most of them are living in penury.

And the 9 million living in poverty? Here we arrive at a statistic which is openly fabricated. In France, there is a non-profit organisation called “l’Observatoire des inégalités”.  It combats poverty, but describes its aims as follows: “Against inequalities, information is a weapon”. This organisation is not happy with the decision by the European Commission last year to change the definition of poverty – already a relative definition – to being an income of less than 60% of the national median income of a country. Before it was 50% and the recent change has had a considerable effect. At a stroke, in France, the number of people living in poverty went from 5 million to 8.9 million. And this jump, from 50% to 60% increases the base line for poverty from a monthly income of 846 euros to 1,015 euros (for a single person), 1,523 euros for a couple without children and 2,132 euros for a couple with two children under the age of 14 years. This is the new poverty.

But the ‘Observatory of Inequalities’ asks, quite rightly:

What does poverty mean in reality? Does being poor today signify actually not having something? In France, 6% of families are not able to maintain their own house at a suitable temperature, 17% have a house which is too noisy and 28% cannot take a holiday of at least a week at least once a year (official data 2012). We have also to consider the cost of housing. With 1000 euros, we cannot live in the same way in Paris as in Aurillac. We may also ask ourselves about school poverty. The French educational system reproduces for the most part the inequality of the social environment. Contrary to popular rhetoric, the number of those who leave school without qualifications has been drastically reduced, but the demand in our society for qualifications is increasing. To use almost exclusively an exaggerated definition of poverty, therefore, feeds the discourse which relativises the importance of poverty: “The so-called poor who live in social housing, who have a TV, a mobile phone and supplementary benefit, are they really poor?” This is a common response amongst the elderly who have lived through periods in which income was much lower. The poverty threshold in 2015 is equal – once inflation has been allowed for – to the median income in the 1970s. Those at the level of the new threshold now have virtually the same standard of living as the middle classes in those times.”

But our TED proponent of Universal Income didn’t suggest it solely with the aim of abolishing poverty, He wants it so that we can all have the opportunity not to work, of doing something more interesting with our lives. But how to afford it? His preference was the creation of the money necessary by the central bank – an indefinite continuation of quantitative easing.  He obviously doesn’t know or, perhaps, care that, as part of q.e., the bank receives loan notes from the commercial banks in exchange for the money it prints. All of which means that the money handed over is not given, but lent and so repayable. But in fact, his objective is not dissimilar to a theme which can be seen on the web-site of the Observatoire. It says:

Inequality of opportunity is a condition necessary but not sufficient for inequality. An egalitarian society based on competition which is as fair as possible, is not necessarily a society in which we live well. Cooperation, sharing, unselfishness and solidarity contribute to the harmonious functioning of a society beyond its egalitarian character.”.

I’m not convinced that the type of society which they want is realisable in the real world, where competition seems to be hard-wired into our psychology – at least if I’m a typical example. I am happy to contribute to the reduction of real poverty. Having, however, studied, worked and taken risks to get where I am now, I’m not convinced that I have an obligation to ‘work’ to produce a society where equality is the principal aim and in which everyone has the possibility of doing nothing at my cost. And no, I don’t think that I’m going to attend the next TED conference in Annecy if that’s the standard of the talks.

Paul Buckingham

Home      A Point of View     Philosophy     Who am I?      Links     Photos of Annecy