France's 'nouveaux pauvres': In Paris, the numbers of homeless have soared

UNTIL last September, Phillippe Champion was a restaurant cook who prepared sumptuous holiday feasts. Then the restaurant went bankrupt. Now Mr. Champion puts on a tie and jacket every day to make the rounds of employment agencies. Because of bureaucratic delays, he receives no unemployment benefits. He sleeps on the Metro and eats free meals here at the Maison des Chomeurs (House of the Unemployed).

''I don't dare think about the new year,'' he says. ''I never thought this could happen to me.''

Neither did France. For years, this country harbored the comfortable notion that poverty existed only in places like Ethiopia or Harlem. This holiday season , that notion has crumbled.

Champion has joined the growing number of what the French call ''nouveaux pauvres,'' the new poor - the people one wouldn't expect to be impoverished.

The paradox is clear. Although Francois Mitterrand's Socialist government has raised the minimum wage and significantly improved most social benefits, its present austerity plan is increasing poverty.

In Paris alone, the numbers of homeless have soared, from an estimated 8,000 two years ago to almost 25,000 today.

Throughout the country, nearly 6 million people are estimated to be living at or below the poverty level of 50 francs ($5.30) a day. Soup kitchens - not seen for a generation - have reappeared.

''It's scandalous,'' says Maurice Pagat, director of the Maison des Chomeurs. ''The country is rich - I was outside Fauchon today watching all the people buy caviar - and it still commits this crime against all the unemployed.''

In this angry atmosphere, the figure of Abbe Pierre has replaced Father Christmas. Abbe Pierre, a Franciscan, led a successful charity drive for the impoverished in 1954 - then proceeded to fade into France's collective memory.

Today, his thin, white-bearded figure is back.

It looks out from billboards and magazine covers, calling for ''an insurrection of goodness.'' Unfortunately, his inspirational call has received more publicity than money, and lately Abbe Pierre has taken to haranguing ''those nouveaux riches.''

The poverty issue also has ignited the political passions.

Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac has accused the government ''of pauperizing France.''

On the other end of the ideological spectrum, the Communists have joined in with similar charges.

The government has reacted by taking a series of measures to aid the worst-off.

A surtax levied on France's wealthiest citizens is to be redistributed to the poor. Extensions on electricity bills are being offered. Thousands of tons of surplus food are being allotted to the hungry.

But few see such measures as anything more than a stopgap.

The root problem remains: growing unemployment.

During the past three years, nearly a million Frenchmen have lost their jobs.

At the same time, budgetary austerity has forced the government to trim unemployment insurance. Benefits have been reduced by an average of 14 percent, and the number of weeks such benefits are paid has been cut.

''The result is a new type of misery,'' says Michel Vergely, placement director at the Maison des Chomeurs. ''Before, the people on the streets were usually alcoholics or drug addicts. Now they are ordinary people like you and me.''

Typically, Mr. Vergely says the ''nouveaux pauvres'' fit into two types. Like the chef Champion, they are skilled workers who lose their jobs and cannot find another. Exhausting or never receiving unemployment benefits, they fall into debt and are evicted.

Or they are unqualified youths who cannot find a first job, and as a result, are ineligible for unemployment benefits.

Some 40 percent, or 1 million, of France's unemployed are under 25.

''Of course, there are others, too,'' Vergely says. ''Henri here was an executive - almost 11 percent of those coming here held white-collar jobs. And Joelle here has three children and no home. . . .''

For Henri, Joelle, and all the others at the Maison des Chomeurs, their new, unexpected destitution raises serious questions - questions that go beyond Abbe Pierre's call for charity and the partisan political debate. Is French society crumbling? they ask. Is capitalism ready to collapse?

''Society is being split in two,'' Maison des Chomeurs's Pagat says. ''Those with jobs are protected by their unions while those without jobs are being abandoned.''

According to Mr. Pagat, machines mean there will always be too few jobs to go around. And he says no politician is talking about the only possible solution, splitting up work.

''I feel the anger here,'' he says.

''If nothing drastic is done, all these people are going to explode.''

Amid this simmering situation, only one fact soothes.

France's ''nouveaux pauvres'' know they are not so bad off as Ethiopia's starving millions - or perhaps even America's poor.

According to Le Nouvel Observateur, some 15 percent of the American population lives below the poverty line, against only 11 percent of the French population.

''I hear Americans like French food,'' says the out-of-work chef, Mr. Champion. ''Still, I don't think it's any better there.''

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