French welfare: Being poor is a full-time job in France
What happens if your move abroad goes terribly wrong and you have to turn to French welfare? Finnish expat Milla tackles the French welfare system and shares her battle stories of claiming French welfare benefits.
A move abroad may sound like a good idea to boost one’s career. But what if something goes wrong and the big move doesn’t turn into success? Are you prepared to cope with French welfare?
As a career drop-out, Finnish mum and tired of fruitless job seeking in Paris, I realised that the 'welfare parasite' profile applied to me. It was a question of survival for my family, although I've also felt it unfair in the past to be the one who always contributes while some others get money for nothing.
It’s obvious that decent life conditions in the centre of Paris require high earnings. But, from what I know, there is another end of the scale: those people with a lousy salary, tax exoneration, social benefits and free French healthcare. Surely poor income and small spending must be easier to target than an expensive life and well-paid executive position? Now it was my turn to find out what it takes to be a social case under Paris's skies.
The French welfare system under French social security is praised as generous. And it is, even compared to the Scandinavian welfare state. However, claiming income-support benefits and other related allowances in France is made so complicated that only half of the people manage to get their due, despite the numerous non-governmental organisations that help people fill the claim forms. These unclaimed income benefits lead to more than four billion euros of yearly savings for the government’s social security budget. Why not take my part of the cake?
The goal was already clear in my mind. I targeted the famous trio of combined French welfare benefits: RSA–HLM–CMU. The first step into France's welfare society was RSA, in other words a minimum solidarity income support benefit. The second stage was to obtain HLM, the council place. The third, French health insurance or CMU (now PUMA), was in my experience the most difficult to obtain, as I had already tried in the past. I was on my third claim, which had also boomeranged back.
I didn’t underestimate the challenge. However, being from the north makes me an ideal benefits claimer, as only people who have grown up in a cold place have the frozen patience needed for French bureaucracy.
In fact, every claimer should be prepared to complete or resend documents at least several times. The tricky French welfare system even goes over the average social worker’s head. French civil servants are fully aware that claiming is complicated, and administration could never believe that you got everything right in one go, thus making it mandatory to re-request documents you have already sent. And things can go easily wrong with overburdened civil servants; polite request letters or even a public mediator’s help can be needed to smooth things out.
Still, some light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. Certain demands, like claiming for tax relief, have become easier after the government passed a law about the maximum administrative response time. For example, in absence of any reply within a month the demand is considered accepted. I feel that only under these conditions can you win against French bureaucracy.
Obstacles to claiming French benefits
The main obstacle to my 'social parasite' project was unemployment benefits. Due to my prolonged unemployment, my benefits dropped to a derisory amount but no other French welfare benefit could be claimed simultaneously. Unfortunately I still had six months ahead.
I spent many sleepless nights thinking how to get rid of my disadvantageous 'unemployment benefits claimer' status. Finally the answer was right there. I had a check-up meeting with my employment counselor (usually once a month), and this particular Monday all the Paris administration offices were closed because of an employee strike. My appointment was neither cancelled nor postponed and, as a no show, my file was ejected by the system. A week later I was happy to receive a letter stating that I was no longer an unemployment benefits claimer. I could finally claim the minimum income support benefit, RSA.
Documents to claim French benefits
There is no national database on citizens in France, so a claimer mus be 'reborn' again in every contact with authorities.
Before contacting any administration one should have the following primary kit in hand:
- gas bill (as a proof of residence),
- tax bill
- family member's ID cards
- marital certificate
- children's birth certificates
- three latest pay checks
- certificate of children attending school
- certificate of child allowance and other allowances, such as housing or unemployment benefits if applicable.
It goes without saying that the trafficking of false gas bills and other fake documents is doing well in France. An average claim file contains 10 to 15 enclosed documents.
The process of claiming French benefits
I took all the 16 photocopies of required proof, and then checked and dispatched them in separate thematic piles. The kitchen table was soon fully occupied, and then the floor. Filling in four, full pages in capital letters was hard because of the tiny space left for handwriting. Then I noticed that instead of the requested black ink, I had filled the first lines in blue. I carefully filled in personal facts, yearly net income, current monthly rent and so on.
The Family Allowance Fund was determined to scan my financial situation in detail with questions like 'is somebody regularly helping you financially (a friend, a family member)?' The expected answer was not 'yes' or 'no' but should be given in figures.
Almost every asked detail also needed further documentary research or, the worst, searching for documents I had not kept on hand; like 'your social security office’s street address'. Tricky question? All the social security offices have since moved away from the city centre, and all correspondence is now managed by one PO box.
I think the claim application form was printed long ago, as they still even ask for telefax numbers.
'Your social security office’s registration number' – even more tricky. I didn’t even know they had registration numbers. Previous employee’s human resource’s director’s name, address and telephone/fax/Minitel number; now the claim file has arrived to the Minitel age – a French predecessor of Internet. After one hour of intensive claiming my head was aching. All my cupboards and drawers were upside down and stationery was over the floor.
As the facts were lying there, they gave a merciless picture of a poverty-stricken immigrant family – except we were university graduates.
Light at the end of the tunnel?
After filling away everything, I headed to social services where the claim folder had to be filled out again online by a social worker. Beforehand I had imagined social services waiting rooms to be full of poor mothers with crying babies in their arms. The atmosphere was far less lively. Most clients were shabby oldsters in need who looked ashamed, or lonely retired Parisians or widows forgotten by relatives but also by French social security, which focuses benefits on families. I couldn’t help but notice the employees’ exaggerated kindness. They must have been taught that their clients were too desperate to cope with the usual arrogant French bureaucracy.
The social worker had some difficulties in writing my name. She told me she had never had a Finnish customer before. She carefully verified all the photocopies stating my family’s situation and financial issues and then classified the 'dossier'. My first claim was finally made.
I started to realise then that being poor is a full-time job in France.
Reprinted with permission from A Finnish Freeloader in Paris.
Milla Kaamos is a Finnish freelance journalist living in Paris since 1995. Read more of her expat stories in her website A Finnish Freeloader in Paris.
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