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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Living Rough in the City of Light

PARIS -- When Jean-Pierre Dufour moved to the City of Light two years ago, he expected to find opportunity and prosperity. Sure enough, he lives just steps from the Paris Opera, that ornate symbol of French culture, and spends his days among the prosperous bankers and shoppers in the eighth arrondissement.


But this isn't the life he imagined: Every morning, Dufour begs spare coins from commuters rushing into the metro station. He pools his money with two other beggars to buy lunch, which they eat on a stairway landing, taking care to clean up after themselves. At night, he sleeps in a box wedged into a storefront, with the permission of the store owner.


"I just can't get over how difficult it has been to find work,'' said Dufour, 44, dressed neatly in a white, long-sleeved shirt and slacks. He worked in a coal mine until two years ago. "Now the most important thing is to keep clean, to have clean clothes. I am not a bum, you know. I had to learn how to beg.''


French cities have always had a few beggars, of course, the bulk of them hard-luck immigrants or simply clochards, bums who didn't want to work. But these days tens of thousands of otherwise ordinary French men and women are homeless and begging, in a trend also emerging in other Western European capitals.


"It's been an evolution, an explosion,'' said Jean-Baptiste Eyraud, whose advocacy group has defied the law by occupying two vacant apartment buildings in wealthy Paris neighborhoods, turning them into housing for 120 families. "The people on the street now are younger,'' he added, "and many, many more of them are French. Just a few years ago, 5 percent were French. Now it's at least 30 percent. And that is growing.''


The homeless and jobless in France are known collectively as "les exclus," people involuntarily cast out of mainstream society by a combination of economic crisis and bad social policy. Their growing numbers, and increasing militancy, have become a major political headache for new President Jacques Chirac. Their very existence, for the French, represents a broken promise in the social contract.


In Paris, 30,000 people are homeless. Countrywide, the figure is 200,000 to 600,000, and an additional 4 million live in substandard housing, advocates estimate. More than 3 million of the 25 million work force are looking for jobs, according to government figures.


The number of les exclus is small compared to the vast social underclass in the United States. But France has not seen such suffering since the days after World War II.


In times past, France's generous welfare system, along with family and friends, was enough to get the temporarily jobless back on their feet.


What changed? For one thing, unemployment has become entrenched; the jobless rate has been stuck at more than 12 percent for two years. For another, the state has sharply cut benefits for laid-off workers, from 100 percent salary for two years to 57 percent for six months, which falls to nothing after two years.


Chirac came to power in May on a promise to help les exclus and, with his Rally for the Republic party and allies in control of the lawmaking National Assembly, he would seem to have the clout to keep his promise. But he's hardpressed to fulfill his contract with the voters. Demands for jobs, on the one hand, and for higher salaries from workers in industry, on the other, already have raised the prospect of a strike-filled fall.


Chirac's prime minister, Alain Jupp?, recently outlined a plan that he says will add 700,000 jobs to the economy by next year. Among other measures, the government will pay $400 a month to companies that hire the long-term unemployed or young people having difficulty entering the job market. It also will increase the minimum wage and reduce health insurance and social security charges for lower-paid workers.


That sort of talk gives hope to many on the street, but economists fear it is false hope. They doubt that the government can buy jobs without substantial economic growth. And the poor will not be helped by Jupp?'s decision to pay for new jobs by raising the value-added sales tax from 18.6 percent to 20.6 percent, which will put an even greater burden on the poor.