Speaking at the Museum of Mankind in mid-September, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the details of his “national strategy for the prevention of and struggle against poverty”. The programme will allocate eight billion euros to a variety of anti-poverty initiatives with a particular focus on children and young people. The policies have been crafted not as a quick-fix, but rather with the long-term goal of confronting the root causes of income immobility and poverty in France.
Child poverty has remained a persistent problem in France, where nine million people live below the poverty line, one-third of them children. According to Eurostat, almost 69 percent of French children under the age of six are at risk of poverty or social exclusion when their parents have less than lower secondary education. That risk is about five percent higher than the EU average. Moreover, in France it takes six generations, or roughly 180 years, for a child from a disadvantaged background to reach a middle-class standard of living.
The national strategy contains specific initiatives designed to tackle this inequality of opportunity. For instance, schools in poorer areas will start providing free breakfasts and subsidized lunches for children. Additionally, the government has earmarked money to train 600,000 professionals to work with young children.
With an eye to improving both the economic situation of children and their parents, the Macron government has also set aside funds to help finance the construction of day care centres in poorer regions. While 22 percent of children in middle and upper class families attend creches (French day cares), just 5 percent of children from lower income backgrounds do. As Macron explained, “Not having access to day care for their children means blocking people from access to training or work”.
For young people and the unemployed in general, there are a variety of initiatives designed to improve their economic prospects. Starting in 2020, young people who drop out of school will be obliged to enrol in a training course up until the age of 18, two years longer the current requirement. Additionally, free healthcare will be extended and back-to-work schemes will be amended so that wages are paid at the end of every workday. Lastly, welfare beneficiaries will be guaranteed a meeting with an employment supervisor within a month of signing up for benefits. As it stands, only half of welfare recipients are able to access this service.
While Macron has been derided as a “president for the rich”, this national strategy dovetails with several other progressive social policies introduced by his government. Nursery school is now obligatory starting at age three and class sizes in poor schools have been halved for six and seven year olds. Earlier this year, the government also announced it would reform its professional training program by providing individuals with 5,000 euros for training courses, creating more apprenticeships, and allocating 3 billion euros to train unemployed workers and school dropouts.
As of 2015, France spent more than 32 percent of its GDP on social expenditures such as health, housing and employment support. Despite this, France’s poverty rate has increased over the last decade. President Macron, therefore, sees this not so much as a funding issue but rather a question of policy design. In an interview with TF1 in April, Macron stated, “The objective is meritocracy and work… We need to create the next 50 years of economic growth . . . So that our country is able to choose its destiny.” While it remains to be seen if his new national strategy will be successful, the Macron government has signalled that broad economic reform includes tackling social inequality.