Lies, damned lies, and statistics

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Poverty wages

To say that poverty-level wages exist in France could be seen as being overly bleak. Certainly a quick look at INSEE'’s statistics would tend to confirm that view. In its October “'Conjuncture in France”' report, the institute makes a forecast that could create this illusion: "All in all, household purchasing power should grow at a rate of around 0.5% per quarter over H2 2010."

An initial reaction could be to say that 0.5% is not much but it is better than nothing, particularly regarding the fact that, for the whole of 2010, it would bring the rise in purchasing power to 1.3%. Nevertheless, these figures are deceptive, because this measure of purchasing power uses gross available income and is affected by the increase in the economically active population. It does not, therefore, reflect the real purchasing power as experienced by households.

The only way to elucidate true purchasing power would be to look at the two other indices INSEE uses: purchasing power by unit of consumption; and purchasing power per household. INSEE has not yet calculated these: they will only be available in its year-end review. But we already know that these figures would be far lower, probably around 0.4% for the first and around zero for the second. This means that in France, people are currently experiencing near-stagnation of their purchasing power.

But again, such figures, which are based on variations as opposed to absolute values, only give a very partial impression of the social suffering that many people currently endure. This is set out in another INSEE report1 that contains some alarming figures.

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Firstly it shows that, in 2008, there was 13% of the French population that lived below the poverty line. But it also contains another, even more spectacular figure: the median annual income in France was 18,990 euros [about $26,000 or £16,440]. This implies that half the population lives on less than €1,582 [around $2,170 or £1,370] per month. Here is a truer picture of the other divide that is sapping French society. France is a wealthy country that panders to its richest citizens but mistreats its salaried workers.

The government’s social and economic plans should be seen in the light of all these figures, whether it be the austerity measures of the 2011 finance bill or the raising of the retirement age, a measure that protects capital and oppresses the workforce. Figures, nevertheless, that give only an imperfect picture of the country’s simmering social unrest.


1: "Living Standards in 2008", published on October 1 2010, is currently only available in French on INSEE’s web site.

English version: Sue Landau


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