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How egalitarian is France?

The Yellow Vest movement is calling for more social justice. According to statistics, the country’s generous welfare system remains a bulwark against inequalities and poverty.

With their 14th Saturday of demonstrations in sight, the Yellow Vests keep the pressure on the French government. Nobody is able to tell if President Macron’s “Great national debate” will help defuse the unrest, nor when the movement will come to an end. Until then, store windows will continue to be smashed in city centers, and cars to be burnt by angry demonstrators. As if France, whose households are the 7th richest in the world, was a hell of injustice. 

Without downplaying the difficulties of peripheral regions where most of the Yellow Vests come from, statistics are actually telling a different story. As regards to inequalities, economic and social justice, France is doing better that a lot of its European peers. Eurostat data from 2016 show that the top 20% of the population with the highest income in the European Union received 5.2 times as much income as the bottom 20%. The ratio varies considerably across the Member States. It goes from 3.5 in the Czech Republic to 7.0 in Romania or 8.2 in Bulgaria. At 4.1, France sits on the good side of the scale, below Germany (4.5), Spain or Greece (6.6 each).

Furthermore, an OECD recently published study underlines that France remains the world champion in terms of social spendings. Last year, expenditure on healthcare, pensions and other social services stood at 32% of the GDP, well above 20.5% average for the 36 OECD members. Since 2009, public social expenditure were slashed in almost two thirds of the countries, with the most pronounced decline in Hungary (20.9%) and Ireland (15.5%). The ratio has kept stable in France. It reaches 25% of GDP in Germany, like in Spain.

One consequence of France’s extensive welfare system is that it helps keeping the poverty rate at 14.3%, below the 18% OECD average and on a par with Scandinavian countries.

According to various indicators monitored by l’Observatoire des inégalités, inequalities in living standards have started stabilizing a few years ago in France, after more that a decade of increase. It is a good news, writes the think-thank. However, when it comes to comparing themselves to others, people do not rely on ratios or relative indicators. They do simple maths. Today, the richest 10% earn around 56 000 euros per year, while the 10% poorer only get 8 000 euros. At 48 000 euros, the gap has decreased from the pick reached in 2011 at 52 000 euros. But it still amounts to 3.5 years of minimum wage, and the difference is 10 000 euros higher than what it used to be the 1990’s. “It help us better understand the current social tensions”, concludes l’Observatoire des inégalités.

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