‘President of the rich’ Macron tackles France’s poverty problem
Just south of the gleaming architectural treasures of Paris lies Grigny, a town emblematic of entrenched urban poverty in a country that spends more on social benefits than any other in Europe.
The statistics on Grigny’s massive housing estates, a jump-off point for newly-arrived immigrants from west Africa and elsewhere, make for grim reading.
Nearly 45 percent of the town’s 30,000 residents live below the poverty line, surviving on less than 1,000 euros ($1,150) a month. Unemployment is chronic and most teens drop out of high school before their final exams.
Last year, a fire in one of the grim tower blocks of Grigny 2 — one of Europe’s biggest housing complexes, with 17,000 residents — exposed the fact that slum landlords had crammed some 80 people into six squalid apartments.
Another estate, Grande Borne, is notorious as the site of an attack on police in 2016 when youths firebombed officers in their car, badly burning two of them.
Situated 25 kilometres (15 miles) from central Paris, Grigny is the kind of place that shouts “no-go zone” to US President Donald Trump.
But it is more drab than dangerous.
Cafes and supermarkets are few and far between. The only stores doing a roaring trade in the dilapidated shopping centre are money transfer centres where migrants queue to send cash home.
Towns like this will be on Macron’s mind when he launches a highly anticipated plan Thursday to reduce the ranks of the poor in France, which have swelled by a million to nine million since the financial crisis a decade ago.
A self-described centrist, he has attracted criticism over his 16 months in power that his policies — including tax cuts for the wealthiest — have left the poor behind.
France spent 57 billion euros on welfare in 2016 and Macron has expressed frustration at the “crazy amounts of dough” spent on benefits without producing results.
The biggest problem, he argues, is “inequality of opportunity”.
“Depending on where you are born,” he told lawmakers in July, “your fate is often sealed.”
His plan focuses on boosting social mobility and early intervention, by for example providing free school breakfasts for children living in poverty.
In Grigny, even Macron critics like the Communist mayor Philippe Rio agree that local children need all the help they can get.
Only 25 percent of students pass the high school exam that paves the way to university — far below the national average of 80 percent.
Rio wrote to Macron after he was elected last year, pleading for financial aid for a suburb he says is the victim of “social apartheid”.
A few months later, 150 French mayors descended on Grigny to condemn cuts in government funding to municipalities that they said would hurt the poorest.
Rio expects few improvements from the poverty plan, coming from “a government whose very DNA is anti-solidarity”.
A large majority in Grigny voted for Macron in the second round of last year’s presidential election, mainly to block his far-right rival Marine Le Pen.
But residents feel he has done little to improve their lot.
“At the time I was really pro-Macron. I voted for someone young, dynamic, charismatic — who promised things and made you want to do something,” says mother-of-two Odile Kitenge, director of an association that helps women find work.
These days Kitenge feels “disillusioned”, saying the government has “clearly been abandoned” Grigny.
An energetic 29-year-old who wears two rings in her nose and her hair in a colourful head-wrap, Kitenge is the kind of self-starter that Macron champions.
Born to Congolese parents who were rarely around — her mother was a cleaner and her father a security guard — she crashed out of school and dabbled in petty crime before straightening herself out and finishing her studies.
She thinks practical help, like more spaces in the creche, would greatly boost employment in Grigny.
Juliette Perchais, a French teacher at Grigny’s worst-performing middle school, believes solving many of the town’s deep-rooted problems would require radical change.
Last year the 29-year-old crowdfunded a trip around the world, visiting innovative schools from Sweden to India.
She came back brimming with ideas — but more aware than ever that France’s teachers are woefully equipped to deal with kids whose parents juggle several low-paid jobs.
Some parents struggle to communicate in French, let alone help with homework.
Aside from inadequate teacher training, Perchais thinks Grigny’s problem is one of disastrous urban planning that has left poor immigrants ghettoised.
“It’s not right that in our school we only have students with the same living standards and ethnic origins,” she said.
“It really feels like we’ve been locked away.”