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Insight: On welfare reform, French resistance

Sep 21, 2011, 12:59 a.m.

HOW TO CHEAT

Georges' lifestyle is one such small thing. The slender-built university dropout, who would give his first name only, lives rent-free thanks to the generosity of a relative. He gave up law studies three years ago to try his luck as a rapper, but found the lifestyle difficult to maintain while working full-time as a waiter at a chic Parisian cafe.

The solution -- unemployment -- was a no-brainer. "I wish I had figured it out sooner," he says, before pointing out that he has paid into the unemployment system.

Georges' off-the-books job should disqualify him from receiving jobless benefits. But he has not filed a tax return since he began working at 17. When his current benefits run out, he plans to apply for the RSA, which would entitle him to a free monthly transport card and aid for clothing, childcare, rent and skills training. Most of his friends, he says, live off a combination of RSA payments, illegal work, and other benefits.

He feels no pressure from the unemployment office to report his income, or to be entirely truthful about the status of his job search. Nor does he see any stigma in taking handouts. "On the contrary; it's the people working full-time for a crap salary who are the fools."

At a government jobs agency not far from Georges' flat, adviser Helene Thierry is not surprised when a reporter recounts Georges' story. Thierry has been helping people find jobs and paying out benefits since 2007, handling up to 200 cases at once, and says it is unusual for the often overworked advisers at her agency to check the finances of benefit recipients. When suspicions come up or a recipient fails to meet their obligations, penalties are "almost never" enforced.

"The workload is too big to follow up on every excuse, and even when you discover that someone has lied about this or that, you don't want to cut them off," Thierry says, adding that her colleagues share this view.

Thierry suspects that some 20 percent of job-seekers on her books are "delinquent" in some way. The biggest problem is people who miss their monthly meetings -- a good sign they are working without telling the agency.

Some well-to-do RSA beneficiaries treat the payment as an allowance, she says. "I once had a girl who came in yelling because we had cut off her RSAs," she says. "We had discovered somehow that she was living in a 300-sq-m flat and clearly wealthy. But she felt entitled to the RSA as pocket money. That's a common attitude: people feel the state owes them an allowance."

Georges, who has a different adviser, even hints at a degree of collusion with the woman who handles his benefits. "She even warned me against working for temp agencies, since they denounce you (to authorities)," he said.

PRIVATE CHECKS

In the absence of tough checks by public officials, employers are making more use of private inspectors. Franck Charpentier is the founder of Mediverif, a private inspection service hired by companies to check up on their staff. One familiar problem is the worker who calls in sick for a morning, then disappears for the whole of August -- the month when much of France goes on holiday. Calls and visits to their home go unanswered. At the end of August, they return to work saying they were too ill to answer the door or telephone, or check the post. "We have dozens of such cases every year," Charpentier said.

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