Back in my early years in France, after I had finished my French classes and was starting to look around for a job, there was a statistic that shocked me:
50% of French people earn less than 1500€ a month.
Of course at the time, I still had my American salary expectations and I hadn't quite understood yet how the French just pay up front for a lot of the things we pay out of pocket for (insurance, retirement, etc). But the fact of the matter was, I was making more than that as a college student, and I could not wrap my head around the fact that half a country was making less than I was earning while in school. And unfortunately, I just heard on the news the other day that ten years later, this fact is still true, and it still kind of floors me.
Because of the nature of my job, I spend a lot of time talking to your average French Joe (or maybe that should be Jacques). People who might or might not have their BAC, but who have most certainly never gone on to college. The working class. The ones who consider Paris to be far away and things like Paris Fashion Week and who wore what when to be alien. But because part of my job entails convincing people to take good care of our equipment even though they won't be paid any extra for doing so, I talk to them. Not so much about family since family tends to stay out of work conversations, but about the weather, politics, differences between our countries. After all, it's a lot harder to say no to someone that you have a connection with.
I might not always agree with what some of these folks have to say - all foreigners should be kicked out of France for example - but I have learned a lot from them and it's been an eye into the mindset of a certain class of French people (and yes, IMO, there are still distinct classes in France).
One of the main topics of conversation as of late has been politics. Those of you who follow French politics will know that François Hollande's approval ratings have been on a downward spiral since being elected. And I can tell you that definitely matches up with what I have been hearing while on the road.
A lot of these people seem so disillusioned by what he is proposing. The increase in taxes, the likelihood that most of it will come from Monsieur tout le monde instead of the rich. But it always leaves me wondering - what were they expecting? François Hollande's campaign was full of all kinds of wonderful promises - more money for schools, more money for students, more money for the poor, more fonctionnaires, etc. And sure all of that is great, but the question I kept asking was - where is that moola going to come from? Show me the money François!
There were vague answers about taxing the rich (many of whom are now planning on leaving France), but the truth of the matter is, the burden of most of it is going to fall on the average person, either through increased direct taxes or through an increased cost of living due to businesses being taxed more. To me, it was almost to be expected, but it seems that most people didn't think that far ahead and now they are scared of what is to come. Many of these people are living off of minimum wage and already have tight budgets, and the idea of having even less money to work with is not a fun one. But this is the choice they made and they have to live with it now for the next five years. They didn't like Sarko as a person and they voted based on that, instead of his presidency. Of course I never say that to them, but it is often what I am thinking during these discussions. And I guess that is what scares me about the upcoming election in the US - that people will vote emotionally, and not rationally.
When I was younger, I used to think "Oh, what harm can be done in just a few years?", but after seeing the changes that are happening after only a few months in office, I see how naive that was. To Hollande's credit, he is at least trying to come up with money to fund all of his promises instead of just increasing national debt, but I still worry about the effect that it will have on France. Contrary to a a lot of its Southern and Eastern neighbors, France has mostly been spared from the economic downturn, and I wonder if that will be the case five years from now?