Government presents plan to prevent and combat social exclusion
In March 1998, Martine Aubry, France's Minister for Employment and Solidarity presented a three-year, FRF 50 billion plan to prevent and combat social exclusion. The measures include the introduction of a universal healthcare coverage scheme, which will require consultation of the social partners. The plan has met with a mixed reaction from trade unions and other interested parties.
On 4 March 1998, Martine Aubry, France's Minister for Employment and Solidarity presented a plan to prevent and combat social exclusion. The three-year plan, costing FRF 50 billion, will be the subject of an advisory bill to be debated by the Council of Ministers on 25 March 1998. The announcement of the Government's programme to tackle social exclusion came a few weeks after the protest actions mounted by associations of jobless people in December 1997 and January 1998 (FR9801189F).
The Government has set out four areas of action to combat and prevent social exclusion: the guarantee of access to basic rights; the prevention of exclusion; the need to provide for emergency social situations; and the development of cooperation between all the parties involved.
Access to basic rights
- One part of the programme consists of increasing current funding for schemes promoting social integration through employment. The following measures aimed at young people (FR9709163F) will be expanded: work/training programmes; support in finding long-term, stable employment; and the expansion of the "jobs for youth" (emplois-jeunes) programme to include those living in especially poor areas. Existing schemes for adults are to be strengthened by further measures
- Access to housing will be made easier. A tax on vacant housing will be introduced in 1999, while the procedures governing the allocation of social housing will be simplified. An offer of alternative accommodation will have to be made before an eviction order can be given.
- A separate law regulating access to care services will add further weight to these guarantees. A new universal healthcare coverage scheme will enable those individuals and their families not covered under a specific job-related system to be assimilated into the general social security scheme. The most needy will have access to additional cover and will be exempt from up-front payment of medical charges.
Prevention of exclusion
- As previously announced by the Prime Minister, minimum welfare benefits are to be reviewed and index-linked to the cost of living (FR9802199N). Even if a person finds a second income, these minimum benefits will be paid in their entirety for the first three months and gradually reduced thereafter. Procedures for handling excessive debt burdens are also to be improved.
- The Government has reiterated its commitment to tackling illiteracy. Financial support in this area is to be trebled and companies and employers' associations will be encouraged to negotiate agreements on this matter.
- A further law governing the rights of the citizen will be introduced. In particular, it will give homeless people access to a national identity card and the opportunity of having a recognised address through associations officially approved by local authorities. They will thus have the opportunity of appearing on the electoral roll and exercising their right to vote.
Emergency social situations
- Care mechanisms - day care for homeless people and a mobile emergency service (SAMU social) specifically for the homeless and based on the same model as regular mobile accident units - will be extended to those areas of the country where they do not at present exist.
- Care for socially excluded people is also to be provided by the refurbishment of some accommodation centres - 15,000 beds - and Centres for Accommodation and Social Reintegration (Centres d'hébergement et de réadaptation sociale, CHRS) - currently 33,000 beds. Further measures will be taken to ensure that families are not split up, as often happens now, when they enter these centres.
- Living conditions in these centres will be improved to ensure the safety and health of occupants.
Development of cooperation between all parties involved
- An "observatory" or watchdog organisation will be set up to provide data on poverty and exclusion and also to keep up-to-date information on local initiatives in this area.
- The hiring and training of social workers will be expanded.
- A ministerial interdepartmental commission will oversee the implementation of the anti-exclusion programme as a whole.
The programme will receive major financial support. The Minister announced funding amounting to FRF 51.4 billion for 1998, 1999 and 2000. However, this sum will not come entirely from Government funds. The European Social Fund, local authorities and social welfare agencies will contribute FRF 13 billion. Nevertheless, the creation of a universal healthcare system - the cost of which is put at FRF 5 billion - requires consultation with trade unions and employers in order to fix the terms and conditions for its implementation. The proposed programme incorporates some measures - in particular the "jobs for youth" scheme and assisted contracts (contrats aidés) - for which some funds have already been earmarked.
The package of measures has met with divided reaction from the trade unions. The CGT (Confédération générale du travail) criticised what it saw as the cautious nature of the proposed measures and pointed out that many of the points set out in the programme are measures that the Prime Minister had already announced following the demonstrations by unemployed people. It considers that the Government has "fallen short of meeting the real needs." The CGT-FO (Confédération générale du travail - Force ouvrière), however, was pleased to see the introduction of universal health cover and additional cover for the most needy. The confederation also approved of prioritising job creation over financial aid. However, it was critical of the fact that no minimum welfare benefit for young people under 25 had been set up. It also criticised the fact that the "specific solidarity allowance" (Allocation Spécifique de Solidarité- ASS) - paid to unemployed people at the end of their benefit entitlement - or the "occupational integration minimum income" (Revenu Minimum d'Insertion- RMI) will be paid even if the person has another income. The union considers that this entitlement will give rise to the "reactionary idea ... of setting up a minimum subsistence income".
The CFDT (Confédération française démocratique du travail) also "supports the unequivocal emphasis on access to the job market but ... is disappointed that the stack of additional measures does not in the end strengthen the overall thrust of the mechanism". CFDT would like the Government quickly to specify "the share of the funding for these measures that is to be borne by public money and the share to be borne by the social partners".
The CFTC (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens) gave its approval to all the measures and stated that there was a need for a "drive on a national scale" going beyond mere government measures, to involve the entire French population in the fight against exclusion.
The mutual insurance companies (mutuelles) were also very happy with some of the measures and Jean-Pierre Devant, president of La Mutualité française was prompted to say that the introduction of universal health coverage was "highly symbolic at a time when many were advocating the privatisation of the health insurance system". The Federation of Mutual Insurers (Fédération des mutuelles de France) described the decision as "fundamental."
Health sector trade unions such as the National Union of Hospital Managers (Syndicat national des cadres hospitaliers) and MG France, a general practitioners' union, also expressed their satisfaction with the universal health cover measure. However, the CFDT federation for health and social workers stated that this measure should be complemented by "easier availability of additional cover for those in need. Without this, the effectiveness of universal health coverage will remain limited."
Associations of jobless people also approved the measures taken by the Government. However, they would like other demands, such as a minimum income for young people under 25, to be considered.
This programme is meant to be an answer to real expectations. Three million French citizens are currently on some form of minimum welfare benefit, while one adult in every 10 admits to difficulty in reading and writing. A recent report by the Central Planning Agency (Commissariat au Plan) estimated that a large number of those out of work are in danger of finding themselves socially excluded. The Government's measures echo many of the demands that trade unions and associations fighting exclusion have been making for the past few years. (Renaud Damesin, IRES).