The 'middle' France losing hope in mainstream politics

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The median individual income in France is, after tax and welfare payment deductions, 1,500 euros. Half of income earners earn less, the other half more. Mediapart travelled to the town of Dijon to interview people who fall into this category, and who come from widely different backgrounds and professions. Here they talk frankly about their daily preoccupations, living conditions and political views. While nationwide local elections this month showed record abstentions, and barely a year before the French presidential elections, they offer a startling insight into a widening social malaise that mainstream political parties appear unable to address.

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This month, Mediapart set out to discover ‘middle France', in the form of a series of interview portraits of men and women of different ages and professional and personal situations and who receive a monthly income of 1,500 euros.

For that is the median individual monthly income in France, after tax and social contribution deductions. Not to be confused with average monthly income, the median is that which statistics show half of all wage-earners fall below, and half sit above. The figure is calculated by the French Research Centre for the Study and Monitoring of Living Standards, the Credoc, and is based on research from the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, INSEE.

The Credoc reports that 38% of this 1,500 euro-income goes on essential costs such as rent or home-loan repayments and utilities bills, (against 21% in 1979). Once all other necessary outlay has been paid, including food, transport, health and education, there remains 300 euros per month for spending on leisure, clothing, holidays and home furnishings. Half of all people on an income of 1,500 euros per month never take holidays, have no internet access at home, and 40% have no savings account.

They represent a crucial electoral group, a ‘middle class' that has become increasingly affected by job insecurity and inflation, and who find it difficult to maintain - and in some cases achieve - a standard of living perceived to be acceptable.

Mediapart's Michaël Hajdenberg travelled to Dijon, in Burgundy, in east-central France, a city of just more than 150,000 inhabitants (238,000 counting its suburbs), to interview a diverse group of median income earners about their lifestyles and their political views. The interviews were carried out shortly before the nationwide local elections that ended March 27th.

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Daniel, 70, retired: 'It's the first time in my life that I'm this scared'.

Daniel joined the French Communist Party (PC) on May 10th, 1968. He left it two years ago because, he said, he "couldn't stomach" the PC's alliance in Dijon with the Socialist Party (PS) and the centre-right wing Modem party to ensure the re-election of the PS mayor, François Rebsamen. So, at 68, Daniel handed in his party card.

Leaving school at the age of 14, Daniel worked in construction for 15 years before becoming a school janitor for the next 30 years. He's been retired for ten years and receives a pension of 1,200 euros per month, as does his wife. To occupy his free time, Daniel is the chair of an association of clients of the municipal credit union, the Crédit Municipal, and he finds worrying the stories he is hearing from the members.

 

"People don't know where to turn," he said. "Our leaders don't know what's it's like to have only 1,000 euros per month, to not have the means to go out, and to have the television as sole entertainment. Have you ever come across a politician standing in the queue at the Restos du cœur [Editor's note: charity-run canteens]? People on humble means can't take any more. And the day that they feel that they can take their revenge, even with a totalitarian regime, they will take it. Poverty doesn't engender rebellion."

Daniel's sympathies lie with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a maverick who quit the Socialist Party in 2008 to found the radical Parti de Gauche (Party of the Left). During the March local elections, it formed an alliance with the Communist Party and the Trotskyist NPA party. "At least he has the courage to talk straight. That's a change. People over 40 have been hearing the same speech for decades," Daniel added.

But, while close to the Confederation Générale du Travail, the CGT, a trade union confederation long associated with the Communist Party, Daniel is even tougher on the unions than on the politicians. "During the pension reform1 people had the impression that the unions were not fighting. Did you hear any union leaders get outraged? That used to happen in the days of [Editor's Note: former CGT head, 1982-92] Henri Krasucki .You could like it or not but at least there was some rebellion, not the academic comments we hear from [Editor's note: current CGT leader] Bernard Thibault today. The CGT is unable to explain the suffering in the workplace. It's not a question of demagoguery. But, the outrage, people only find it in the comments of the FN [Editor's note: far-right Front National party]. I would never vote for the FN, but in terms of analysis, [Editor's note: FN leader] Marine Le Pen hits the target better than any party on the left. She's better at explaining social problems," he said.

Like the political parties, the unions are today out of step with society. "Look at union leaders at the départemental [Editor's note: county] level. All you find are railworkers, and EDFs [Editor's note: public service employees]. And only occasionally someone from the private sector. That doesn't reflect the workforce," he said. According to Daniel, "people aren't getting any more out of groups and associations. I went to a meeting of [Editor's note: radical-left, anti-free trade group] ATTAC. They talk about inequality, which is good, but they are intellectuals. You can only understand one word out of three. They don't know how to talk to regular people. And there is nothing more dangerous than turning away people who are trying to understand. The FN is diving into the void, benefiting from the bitterness of 58 year-olds who look aged, who, at that age, are fed up with working in the building trades and who can't see any end to it. When you study history and you see what, during the Occupation, people became - good people, nice people2 I'm not saying this because of some opinion poll. I've felt this way for two years. It's the first time in my life that I'm this scared," he concluded.

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1: A six-month conflict in 2010 between the unions and the government over a pension reform bill, now law, that raised the retirment age. The bill met with widespread popular opposition, demonstrated in a series of mass street rallies, but the unions failed to force any significant government compromise.

2: During the German occupation of France (1940-44).

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Reporter's note: These interviews were recorded between March 9th - 11th in Dijon. Each one lasted between one and two hours, except that of Abdel, whose availability was limited to about 30 minutes.