French politicians are up in arms against proposals that would force those benefiting from state aid to do community service hours, which in the country's legal system are part of a list of punishments for those condemned for crimes such as damaging goods, petty theft or insulting the police.
French minister of European affairs Laurent Wauquiez angered the opposition, but also his own majority party, when he called "professional welfare benefiters" — or as the French pejoratively call them, "les assistes" — a cancer to society.
The benefit targeted by Wauquiez is the Revenue de Solidarite Active — the Active Solidarity Income — a complementary income for the unemployed to help them look for jobs even if they pay low wages.
More than three million households benefit of this form of state aid, which can add between 200 and 300 euros ($420) a month to their income.
Wauquiez announced he was working on a bill to link receiving this benefit to carrying out a certain number of community service hours each month.
Tasks such as planting trees, cleaning graffiti, helping the elderly or working in hospitals or in cultural associations are part of community service in France. The work is unpaid and can take between 20 and 210 hours a year. It is currently offered as an alternative to serving time in jail to those convicted of petty crimes.
Are the Poor to Blame?
While the majority party, the UMP, announced that it was supporting the idea and that there should be a debate over how the proposition could be best implemented, criticism was raised over the way the issue was presented.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon slammed Wauquiez, saying one should not "discredit" the RSA, or compromise its outcome.
News magazine L'Express reported that the French president Nicolas Sarkozy even considered firing Wauquiez, not over the content of the proposal but over the way he announced it and the fact that he stepped onto another minister's turf by doing so.
The RSA was first introduced by Fillon's government in May 2007 in some areas of the country and was rolled out nationally in 2009 to replace an unemployment allowance that ended as soon as one found a job, making many of the unemployed steer clear of low-paid jobs, as it made more financial sense to stay home and get unemployment aid than go to work for small wages.
The opposition also raised against the measure, comparing the community service hours that the socially assisted would have to do to the community service hours criminals are condemned to by French courts.
"The whole idea of Wauquiez is to say that people in misery are responsible for it," French socialist senator David Assouline said, while Marie-George Buffet, the former leader of the French communist party, accused Wauquiez of flirting with the extreme-right wing party electorate.