Welfare benefit fraud is currently a regular headline topic in the French media, and the ruling UMP conservative right party has made it a campaign issue for next year's presidential and legislative elections. But are France's welfare-dependent, dismissevely described as 'les assistés', really Europe's champion scroungers, as some pretend? Mathieu Magnaudeix argues here, figures in hand, why the issue is a political smokescreen that ignores both the facts and the massive cost of tax fraud and evasion by the well-off.
France's political parties now have their sights set on next year's major electoral battles - the presidential and legislative elections, to be held in the spring and early summer. Kicking off for the conservative right ruling party, the UMP, Patrick Buisson, a highly influential advisor to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, laid out, in French weekly magazine Paris-Match, a "battle plan" aimed at retrieving electoral ground from the far-right National Front (FN) party in time for 2012.
The UMP, and notably Sarkozy if he runs as expected for a second term in office, is threatened by the revival in popularity of the FN, demonstrated in March local elections and regular opinion poll surveys. High on Buisson's agenda were issues of immigration, national identity and the fight against a so-called mass of welfare scroungers.
These issues are dealt with within the framework of a major bill to rehabilitate the work ethic. While four million people are unemployed and the economic crisis continues, Buisson proposed "reserving the RSA [Editor's note: Revenue de solidarité active, a subsistence welfare benefit awarded to the most disadvantaged]to beneficiaries who have a job". But among the 1.8 million beneficiaries of the RSA, only 650,0meet this requirement. If such a bill were passed, more than a million people, and their families, would thus be deprived of resources.
Denouncing welfare dependence, an issue bound to mark a sharp division between the right from the left, has become a mantra of the hard-line conservative fringe of the UMP. Late March, Pierre Lang, Member of Parliament for the Moselle, in eastern France, proposed forcing the unemployed to perform community service work. Several days later, the Secretary of State for European Affairs, Laurent Wauquiez, announced in French daily Le Figaro, a proposed bill linking the RSA to a conditional unpaid "five hours of general interest work" per week. "It isn't a sanction but a step towards employment," he said in the interview.
Reacting to the proposal, Martin Hirsch, the former government High Commissioner for Active Solidarity Against Poverty (2007-2010) who created the RSA denounced "demagogic proposals, dangerous because inefficient" which "begin to flower in this pre-electoral spring".
In recent weeks, the Ministers of Solidarity, Roselyne Bachelot, and of Health and Labour, Xavier Bertrand, have repeatedly commented on the issue of welfare fraud, a popular theme with the conservative electorate. Even François Bayrou, leader of the moderate centre-right Modem party, has said that the Socialist Party (PS) 2012 election manifesto is a programme that will encourage "welfare dependency".
On April 13th, a group of some 40 MPs from the UMP proposed a text for legislation that would limit eligibility to a subsistence benefit for senior citizens (in French, minimum viellesse) currently paid out to about 700,000 people aged over 65 living on incomes of less than 9,000 euros per year, regardless of nationality. The MPs demanded that beneficiaries must be either French nationals or people who have worked in France.
In a letter obtained by Mediapart ,the chair of the state-run pension fund (Caisse d'assurance-viellesse), Danièle Karniewicz, responded to the MPs with a reminder that "for people who have never worked in France, the [benefit] does not represent a pension but a minimum of subsistence," she said.