Our magical entry into the world is defined by certain philosophers as a ‘lottery of birth’- an apt phrase considering that fate smiles upon those who are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. In fact, it is not just riches and comfort, but also opportunities, resources and education that one inherits. Those who inherit advantages might never need to give a second thought to those who inherit disadvantages. Nevertheless, developed societies have prided themselves on delivering certain standards of living to their citizens, irrespective of one’s lottery of birth. Post-WWII, certain societies achieved similar or uniform standards of living, but not without the rise of socialism or communism and therefore, they are generally frowned upon. Yet, for all its flaws, socialism or communism delivered standardised education, health and housing to all its citizens. Ironically, these basic facilities can no longer be taken for granted in capitalist models. Apart from the economy, factors such as health, housing and education are tied to class and cash. The higher up the ladder, the more likely one is to end up with a better deal. Since nations may be defined as a wider family, richer nations are in a position to help their citizens. But one glance at the United States of America and it is abundantly clear that well over 50 million of their citizens have been eliminated from the chance of living a life of dignity. One might imagine powerful nations would deliver better services to their lesser fortunate citizens.
France is amongst those nations that enshrined a sense of solidarity in her national motto that screams ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’. The French taxation system stands out as one that prides itself on evenly redistributing funds to its society. Over half of the revenue collected is given back to French society, placing France on top of the list of countries within Europe that give back. Paradoxically, the difference in income between the poor and the rich is so wide that even after the redistribution through the taxation system, the difference in incomes remains a staggering 50%, making France third on the list of EU countries with significant income gaps, only after Britain and Spain. The French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) claims that 14% – or about 9 million – French citizens fall below the threshold of poverty. A threshold of €1,015 classifies them as poor, but of the 9 million, 6 million earn less than €670. Once again, in a globalised world, €670 may seem like a decent salary to populations East of Istanbul, but the amount barely covers rent and utilities in France even for a compact family of four members. For those who fall within this bracket, life is an uphill climb unlike those who lived through France’s glorious period from 1945-1975, known as ‘Les Trente Glorieuses’ or the ‘Glorious Thirty’. During these three decades, unemployment was virtually unheard of, and the income of the bottom 50% rose steadily. The vast majority saw a 4% rise in their income per annum.
While it was glorious for almost all of France, the highest incomes rose only by 1% per annum, but by 1983, the super-rich had managed to turn things around. Between 1983 and 2015, the average income of the richest 1% rose by 100% (above inflation) and that of the 0.1% richest by 150%, as compared to barely 25% for the rest of the population. In sharp contrast, the vast majority have seen their average income decrease by around 1% per annum since 1983, making a mockery of the ideals of the French motto. The current generation of retired French – those who worked during ‘the glorious thirty’- are basking in the golden sandy beaches of their choice. Things however are looking dramatically different for the next batch of retired people. To put it bluntly, they have worked through tougher economic times for peanuts and are likely to end up with a pittance when they retire.
The number of disgruntled people is on the rise in France and the Yellow Vests, or les Gilets Jaunes, are a mere symptom of the deeper malaise. The movement has been attacked and treated with suspicion, despite the fact that it has some of the most marginalised people of France. Ingrid Levavasseur’s story was picked up by French media, but it deserved the attention of the rest of the world. Ingrid was born into a troubled family where her drunk father routinely vented his frustrations on her older sister. Her mother eventually found another man who might have been a shade better, but violence was common place in their family. At 16, Ingrid left her home with her then true love, only to discover his abusive and violent nature. Against all odds, she toiled and got qualified as a nursing assistant for the elderly. But the lack of respect for the nursing sector meant that she ended up getting exploited at work too. She was forced to work long hours – often through nights in a row. In flagrant exploitation of the loopholes in the French laws, she was not even paid for the extra time. The system tends to take undue advantage of the weakest of the weak. And desperate single mothers with two children, like Ingrid, are easy to prey on. At the heart of the Yellow Vest movement are stories like hers that highlight the corruption of the values of the French Republic. When this one is quelled, we can expect another uprising until the economic disparity is narrowed. While the destruction of property is unacceptable, their frustration is shared by millions who feel cheated by the national myth of fraternity and equality. And while the ruling elite expect them to suffer in silence, liberty prevails in the heart of the French souls whose voices shan’t be silenced.