Emmanuel Macron’s Neoliberal Government Is Replacing Welfare With Punitive Workfare

Emmanuel Macron continues to attack the French welfare state. Following his regressive retirement age reform that sparked mass protests, Macron is now seeking to force jobseekers to do unpaid work in exchange for their meager benefits.

French president Emmanuel Macron talks to the press in southern Spain on October 6, 2023. (Ludovic Marin / AFP via Getty Images)

Last September, France’s labor minister, Olivier Dussopt, announced that whole swathes of the country had been selected to participate in an experiment. It tested a reform to the Revenu de solidarité active (RSA), a benefit that provides minimum financial support to people with very low incomes. Currently, around 1.6 million French households receive this support with few conditions; but with the experiment in 19 of France’s 101 territorial départements, the program subjected recipients to a new program including obligations to spend at least fifteen hours a week following a plan to be reinserted into the workforce. “All of these départements,” a government press release about the trial program explained, “reflect broad geographic, demographic, and social diversity.”

A year later, the rest of France will be getting a taste of the fruits of the experiments which Dr Macron has conducted on his lucky patients. A formalization of this reform was worked into the government’s new employment law, which was debated in the National Assembly last week. Since an announcement by Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne this April, it’s been official that a central part of the reform will be to make access to the RSA conditional on work requirements.

The reform had earlier been broadcast by President Emmanuel Macron in an announcement he made in March 2022, during his reelection campaign. Those receiving the benefit, he claimed, have “an obligation to devote fifteen to twenty hours a week to an activity which facilitates their re-entry into the workforce, for a better balance between rights and duties.”

Part of the overhaul is a reworking of the Pôle Emploi employment centers, where out-of-work French people get financial and logistical assistance while they look for a job. The overhaul will see the department redubbed France Travail, or Work France. And rather than just helping unemployed people find jobs or giving them money while they look for them, it will truly put them to work, with at least fifteen hours a week now devoted to activity in exchange for continued access to the payment, which is just over €600 a month for an individual. Those who refuse will be faced with repeated fines and sanctions, which could culminate in losing their benefits entirely.

Macron Demonizes the Poor

Macron was elected in 2017 with a dose of support from the center-left, the leading forces in the Socialist Party where he began his political career. But he also drew heavily on the influential networks surrounding former president Nicolas Sarkozy, a reactionary right-winger. Over Macron’s first five-year term, that center-left bloc was almost entirely alienated. Now that his allies have a plurality — and not a majority — of seats in the National Assembly, the only way that Macron can govern is with the Right, in both its traditional and insurgent forms. That means catering to these forces’ obsessions and agendas.

In the debates in the National Assembly last week, that cooperation was on full display. The traditional right-wing party Les Républicains (LR) and the government voted together to patch up holes left in the bill, which passed the Senate in July.

“We consider the amendment from Mr. Juvin [an LR deputy for Hauts-de-France, home to the country’s highest GDP per capita] heads in the right direction, because it lets us both set the objective of fifteen hours of weekly activity for RSA beneficiaries and at the same time to make provisions for a gradual increase in the load,” Dusspot said.

The bill formalizes the requirement of “at least fifteen hours” a week of activity, enforced by an “employment contract” to be drawn up between the local RSA office and the job-seeker. That contract will be required to sketch out a plan for the job-seeker to get back to work, encompassing their professional background and experience, as well as a section describing what would constitute a reasonable job offer for them. It also defines the penalties for not following the contract — which include withholding the benefit until the job-seeker starts following the plan again.

“[Macron] is playing politics, by stigmatizing the poorest and making them bear responsibility for the woes of society,” Laurent Alexandre told Jacobin when the experimental program was first rolled out.  Alexandre is La France Insoumise’s MP for Aveyron, a département inland from the Mediterranean and north of the city of Montpelier. He explained that it is ridiculous to imagine the work requirements are a necessary measure to get the lazy jobless into work. “A lack of employment is the situation in the immense majority of cases. There’s one open job for fourteen unemployed people!”

Alexandre also pointed out that the imposition of work requirements could lower salaries generally.

“There’s . . . a hidden aspect which is that the hours of work which will be required of RSA beneficiaries will be underpaid, if not unpaid,” he explained. “There’s a big risk of downward pressure on salaries and working conditions for employees, who will be exposed to the competition of RSA beneficiaries who will have to do these fifteen-twenty hours of activity.”

In the département where Alexandre won election against a candidate from Macron’s party in 2022, the area chosen for this experimentation is Ouest-Aveyron. “[It’s] the territory with the most precarious people,” Alexandre commented. It’s also the territory that elected him, he pointed out, a representative of France’s left.

Seine Saint-Denis — a Showcase for France’s Poorest

In the north of the country right above Paris is Seine Saint-Denis, which has the second-highest poverty rates in France. It was one of the départements chosen to test the reform. But the département, which is governed by a left-wing coalition headed by the Socialist Party (PS), rejected the measure.

Silvia Capanema-Schmidt, a councilor in Seine Saint-Denis, told Jacobin that this decision was made by the département’s president in consultation with the left-wing majority. On the council, Capanema-Schmidt is part of a group composed of members of the French Communist Party and La France Insoumise (LFI). All members of the Left, she said, are opposed to the experiment.

In a letter to Dussopt reported by linfoauquotidien.com, Stéphane Troussel, the Socialist president of the département-level council, said that “the doctrine being carried out by the government, in terms of making social aid conditional . . . seems to me to be a serious fracture in our Republic.”

“Putting everybody to work no matter what it costs cannot be the unique and only priority of our public policies,” Troussel also wrote. “RSA is a fundamental social right.”

The government’s high commissioner for work, Thibaut Guilluy, dismissed Troussel’s letter as “political.”  He said the government’s goal is to harmonize the sanction regimes between the Pôle Emploi and the départements. “But,” he said, “the département-level council retains the right to apply the sanction or not.”

Capanema-Schmidt told Jacobin that Troussel consulted some members of the Seine Saint-Denis council before sending his letter to the labor minister. “We, the elected Insoumises, have been against . . . the establishment of this experimentation in the département since the beginning.” Since 2016, the RSA has been financed entirely by the département. Seine Saint-Denis is the département with the most recipients of the RSA in France.

It’s because of this that any time a new social or political program is being put into place, the government looks at Seine Saint-Denis. “Because the social question is very important in Seine Saint-Denis, they use it as a type of showcase.”

“We’re refusing several things,” Capanema-Schmidt said. “Above all, the principle of mandatory voluntary work.” A minimum income, she explained, is one to which everybody has the right in order to survive and exist with dignity. From that perspective, La France Insoumise opposes the very principle of the policy shift.

Capanema-Schmidt also said that the RSA should be centralized by the state “because it’s a national benefit, not a local benefit.” At the same time, the administration should be local — because of the on-the-ground presence of the local bureaus and the ability they have to follow the beneficiaries’ progress closely.

Furthermore, the current financing of the RSA is far from sufficient, Capanema-Schmidt said. The benefit sum is below the poverty line, which she thinks should be a bare minimum. For a single person, she said that would need to be a minimum of €900 a month. (The current average payout for a single person drawing RSA is only around €600 a month.)

The reform calls into question the very idea of providing benefits to people who aren’t working. The danger, she says, is that it will undermine the entire principle of a guaranteed minimum income. RSA recipients, she said, aren’t those who are living large off dividends from the state — they’re poor people of very modest means.

Alexandre echoed that sentiment by saying that the imposition of work requirements is part of a campaign by the government aimed at targeting the poorest in society. “It’s not the poor who are too expensive for France,” Alexandre said. “It’s the rich who gorge themselves on the backs of other and refuse to share the riches produced by labor.”

Following Giorgia Meloni’s Example

On a trip to China this year, France’s economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, celebrated a higher than expected level of growth in France’s second trimester. Instead of creeping up at the predicted 0.1 percent, he could boast, France’s economy grew by a whopping 0.5 percent. “All the experts didn’t believe that French growth could be led by industry and external trade,” he said. “But this was the case.”

Macron’s budget calculations require growth of at least 1 percent this year, a number they’ve already revised downward from 1.3 percent. Without this growth, the deficit will increase, promoting a spiral of cuts justified by lower tax revenues and “unprecedented austerity,” as the economist Éric Berr, an associate professor at the University of Bordeaux, told Jacobin in April.

The higher-than-expected growth, noted the newspaper Le Canard enchainé, means that in theory the government can balance its budget by making €4 to 5 billion less in cuts than the €15 billion they’ve projected.

Still, Prime Minister Borne told her health and public accounts ministers at a meeting at the end of July that the cuts will be found “in the social sphere in general, which represents 50 percent of our spending,” according to Le Canard. Some paths under discussion include raising the cost of medication and ambulance transportation and cutting employer taxes.

Macron’s program — a slow chipping away of France’s much celebrated social welfare system — has its more advanced twin in the prime minister of Italy, Giorgia Meloni. In the so-called “post-fascist” leader’s first budget, passed at the end of last year, she ordered the abolition of the country’s “citizen’s income,” a benefit similar to France’s RSA.

This July 27, 169,000 Italian families received text messages from the government informing them that their benefits would be cut off. Jacobin’s Europe editor David Broder reported in the Nation at the beginning of the year that the citizens’ income was a particular obsession for Meloni. “The state cannot abolish poverty by decree,” she said around the time. “It is businesses that create jobs.”

Macron had a similar message in a speech he gave in April after his pension reform was passed. “We are a people who intend to master and choose our destiny,” he proclaimed, talking in grand terms. “But independence isn’t decreed. It’s built by ambitions, by effort . . . and it’s financed collectively by work.” Such is his message to those left on the employment scrap heap.