In the soup

With a high minimum wage and generous welfare system, France is tolerant of the poor

Soup kitchen: Soupe Populaire, in Paris. Photograph: Alexander Klein/AFP/Getty

Soup kitchen: Soupe Populaire, in Paris. Photograph: Alexander Klein/AFP/Getty

Sat, Dec 14, 2013, 01:00

Austerity has barely grazed the French, because the socialist government has refused to decrease welfare or unemployment benefits.

The number of poor French people who eat at the Soupe Populaire, a soup kitchen in Paris’s 6th arrondissement, has fallen. But the proportion of its customers who are foreigners – mostly east Europeans, especially Poles – has risen to 80 per cent.

In a fiercely individualistic country, the soup kitchen proves the generosity and solidarity of the bourgeois French who finance the restaurant and serve meals.

A Portuguese-born cook, Aurora Lopes, who is 62, is the only paid staffer. “This has given me the greatest satisfaction of my professional life: helping people,” she says.

The soup kitchen also shows how the crisis is shifting populations within Europe. While educated, affluent French go abroad, France’s high minimum wage and generous welfare system attract immigrants from elsewhere in Europe.

Paris is seeing the biggest influx of Portuguese immigrants since the Salazar dictatorship in the 1960s, Lopes says. “They come here, whole families , because they can still find work in construction. Things aren’t that bad in France. But until when?” East Europeans too are coming to work, accepting far lower wages than the French.

Frédéric Santos, who is 34, is one of 3.5 million unemployed Frenchmen. He begs me to publish his phone number, saying he would take any job offer. “We’re completely abandoned, left to our own devices,” he says.

Eighty-eight per cent of respondents to a recent poll said their government didn’t “do enough for people like us”.

Men waiting in the cold for the next lunch address an elegantly dressed man as “milord”. He gives his name as Constantinos, a 66-year-old Greek citizen. He sleeps in a doorway in the high-rise business district at La Défense. His black shoes are polished, his blue blazer, white shirt, red satin tie and red pocket handkerchief tidy. “There’s a banister on the steps leading to my doorway,” says Constantinos. “I hang my jacket there, to keep it from getting wrinkled.”

Constantinos came to France in 2000, worked as a building painter for fewer than three years, and has received welfare payments, now €475 monthly, ever since. If his application for the old-age allowance is approved, that will rise to €760 a month.

“I am grateful to France. She has given me what my own country did not,” Constantinos concludes. “Capitalism in France is less savage than in Greece. It’s more tolerant of the poor.”

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