Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Whatever petty trade hunting
I survived somehow the three-month waiting period for the income support benefits. Once the RSA obtained, the first pieces of the puzzle started to gather together. Still my family couldn’t cope with the basic RSA (786 EUR, 840 USD) but my target was to optimize the benefits by taking a poorly paid petit boulot part time to qualify for a complementary RSA.
  The system is made to encourage poor people to work even with an insufficient salary. In fact, many employers know that they can pay a lousy salary and count on the public assistance to cover the rest. As a result, one can get the same or even more than working full time and getting the national minimum wage called the SMIC.

Fuck or starve
I was carefully avoiding the worst trap ever: a full time petty trade job with a minimum salary. One doesn’t earn enough to buy food and pay the bills but at the same time it’s enough that all social benefits are out of reach. Also, in my case, it didn’t make sense to hire a full time nanny and pay her the minimum salary equal to my monthly earnings. With only one child I was already excluded from any child benefit. That’s a French exception. That’s how the government smoothly encourages their citizens to make more kids: fuck or starve.
   There are two job markets in France: the serious one and the whatever-petty-trade one. If you are looking for a serious executive position, keep in mind that companies are not in a hurry in hiring employees. If you have your first interview in March, there is no chance to be hired before September. First of all, bosses are busy find it hard to fix an appointment. Also, they can postpone it several times. The May is skipped because of the numerous bank holidays and nothing is happening during the school summer vacation either. That’s why, in the meantime, many expats fall into the whatever-job-but-fast market.

I start sending job applications by downplaying my university degrees. It was quite easy to change the my previous positions from manager to secretary and from superior to assistant. I was well aware that usually job hunters do this in the opposite way, by transforming internships to real jobs and tele-operator experience to call center manager positions.
   The first company that contacted “the professionally new me” for an interview was collecting and recycling precious dental metal waste. No salary was offered but there were commissions according to how much extracted teeth or fillings one could gather. They asked me to make a try. The job was about making phone calls all day long to dentists in different countries and proposing to buy their metal waste. Their phone numbers were previously collected in a database. I started with energy but soon realized that no German dentist spoke French or English and my German was a bit rusty. At the end of the day I hadn’t purchased any waste, just wasted my time and a two way RER ticket to a Paris suburb area where the company was located.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Branded waste bag

Not long ago my daughter’s school teacher asked children to bring used champagne corks for arts and crafts. That’s France! Having skipped the corks, I was happy to hear that this time the parents were asked to collect empty bottles and packaging. In order to o teach about the basics of waste disposal and recycling. They had three mini sized recycling bins in the class: a green one for compostable waste, a yellow one for packaging and a white one for glass bottles. Children were supposed to put the right waste in the right container. Excited, Laura hurried to school with her waist bag that I had carefully prepared the previous evening. 
  When the school day was over, I felt that something was wrong. She told me that other pupil’s waste had been different. Her classmates hadn’t been able to dispatch her waste because they couldn’t distinguish the orange juice bottle from laundry softener.
   It didn’t take me much time to figure out what it was all about. Though well-off families gather in the Paris city center where we live, I still couldn’t believe I was the only mother who doesn’t buy name brands but much cheaper generic products. The French supermarkets place their brand products on the face level whereas a poor single mum find herself four legs on the ground looking for generics placed on the bottom shelf. Public schools are all right in the city center but this must be the price to pay. Another waist bag was expected the next school day. We didn’t have anything other than no-name brand waste. But then again it was a question of my daughter’s reputation. I didn’t care about mine.

Not just looking
I went out in the square behind Notre Dame Cathedral where tourists usually do their snacking. I heard the birdman arguing with a couple of Japanese tourists. He is one of Paris's tens and hundreds of street artists. I call him birdman because he has taught sparrows to sit on his arms, shoulders and head. Covered by birds he looks like a tree and attract tourists’ attention to get coins. He was yelling because he gave the whole show, fed the birds, let them sit on Japanese lady's hat and let the couple take pictures. Then the Japanese, apparently just wanted to say thanks and goodbye. Without giving one single coin. “Do you think that I’m paid by the Paris tourist office”, the man yelled. The Japanese stared at him with round eyes and polite smile, without understanding a word.  

   I checked the nearest public waist bin which was easy because after the terrorist attacks, all the public waist bins are now transparent plastic bags. I wandered from one waist bin to another, like shopping in a supermarket. I didn’t find any caviar or foie gras cans but managed to collect a clean Lu biscuits box, an empty Yoplait bottle and some name brand sweeties packaging. I headed back home, happy with my high social standing waste bag knowing that my daughter will now be the only one who can’t dispatch her waste. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

One hundred euros in cash

I didn’t get any unemployment benefits any more it was difficult to cope with a three months waiting period to get RSA income support benefit. Actually, I had jumped into the water without knowing how much money I would get and when. Also things started to go wrong with the system and the Family Allowance Funds sent us a letter requesting the four previous months’ family housing allowance back. To top it all off, a big gas bill arrived.
   In the past I used to think that unprivileged people could just drop into social services and get easy money. Now it was time to find out by myself how it works. I made an appointment with a social worker and headed to her office. I was now a regular filed customer because of my previous claim for the RSA. The first employee I met let me know that there is an allowance, called Paris family energy aid, which could cover a part of the gas bill. She also advised me to write to the Family Allowance Fund to ask for a debt discharge.  After filtering my urgent needs, the lady conducted me to another person’s office. The second employee was in charge of the immediate cash claims. Once again I presented all personal data and proofs about our family’s financial situation, like invoices and bank statements. Taking into consideration the rent, the bills and food, our immediate lack of money was around one thousand euros. But instead of money the social worker gave free advice like “Madam, don’t pay your rent and gas bill if you can’t.”

Insert your coins and press the counsel button

I decided to get at least the maximum use of the free advice. I asked whether she could give any tips about how to deal with small coins, which are the only money left at the end of the month. I mean very small coins like one, two and five centimes or so, which are seldom accepted in the baker’s or even in the supermarket. The social worker’s face suddenly illuminated. She felt herself useful.
“Take all your small coins and go to a post office. To buy a stamp, you know, you can put up to twenty coins in the stamp machine. Insert nineteen coins and then press the counsel button. The machine gives your money back in bigger coins. You can do the same as many times as you wish until you don’t have one and two centime coins any more. I used to work in the north of Paris where many clients lived off of begging. That’s how they dealt with the coins”, the social worker said proudly. 

   I couldn’t help asking whether they tolerate this in the post office. “Well, not really. But you don’t need to go to the same post office every time”, the employee said smiling. In addition to the small coin advice, my best achievements were one hundred euros in cash to get by some more days. The claim should be validated by an “express committee” which is held once a week. Three days later I handed a receipt to an old severe looking male employee through a hole in a Plexiglas window. I pulled out one hundred euros in cash from the same hole.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Claiming benefits is a full-time job in France
There is no national database on citizens in France so the claimer is reborn again in every contact with authorities. Before contacting any administration one should have the following primary kit in hand: gas bill (as a proof of residence), tax bill, family member's ID cards, children's birth certificates, three latest pay checks, certificate of children attending school, certificate of child allowance and other allowances like housing or unemployment benefits if any. It goes without saying that the trafficking of false gas bills and other fake documents is doing well in France. An average claim file contains ten to fifteen enclosed documents.

I had previously taken all the sixteen photocopies of the needed proofs, which I now checked and dispatched in separate thematic piles. The kitchen table was soon fully occupied and I gained more space by placing the rest of the documents on the floor.

Capital letters, black ink
Filling in four full pages in capital letters was hard because of the tiny space left for handwriting. I also noticed that instead of the requested black ink, I had filled the first lines in blue. I carefully filled in personal facts, yearly net income, current monthly rent and so on. Almost every asked detail needed further documentary research or the worst, searching for documents I had not kept on hand. “Your social security office’s street address.” Tricky question as all the social security offices had since long time moved away from the city center. All the correspondence is managed by only one PO box. I think the claim file was printed long ago as they still ask for telefax numbers as well. “Your social security office’s registration number.” Even more tricky. I didn’t even know they had registration numbers. “Is somebody helping you financially?”  The answer should be given in figures only. “The date of arrival in France.” I roughly remember the year, but was it in September or in October? After all, does it matter? After one hour of intensive claiming my head was aching. All my cupboards and drawers were upside down and stationery was on the floor. I felt I needed some claiming music to keep going. I put Dire Strait’s “Money for Nothing” on to boost my moral. Previous employee’s human resource’s director’s name, address and telephone/fax/Minitel number”. Now the claim file arrived in Minitel age – a French predecessor of Internet.
   After filling in everything, I headed to social services where the claim folder needed to be filled out again online by a social worker. Beforehand I had imagined the social services waiting room full of immigrant mothers with crying children in their arms. The atmosphere was far less lively. Most clients were shabby oldsters in need who looked down ashamed. I couldn’t help noticing the employees’ exaggerated kindness. They must have been taught that their clients were too desperate to cope with the usual arrogant French bureaucracy.

   The social worker had some difficulties in writing my name. She told me she has never had a Finnish customer before. She carefully verified all the photocopies stating my family’s situation and financial issues and then classified the “dossier”. My first claim was made. I started to realize that being poor is a full time job in France. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

How a Finnish mum became a welfare parasite under Paris skies

It goes without saying that decent life conditions in the center of Paris require high earnings. But, as far as I know, there is another end of the scale. Those people with a lousy salary, council housing, tax exoneration, social benefits and free health care. A career drop-out Finnish mum and tired of fruitless job seeking in Paris, I realized that the freeloader’s profile applies to me. It was a question of survival for me and my 6-year-old daughter, but I also felt unfair to be always the one who contributes as some other people might just drop in social services and get money for nothing. After many years of taxpaying, I wanted to find out what it takes to be a taker under Paris skies.
   The French public assistance is praised as generous. And it is, even compared to the Scandinavian welfare state. However, claiming income support benefits and other related allowances is made so complicated that only half of the people manage to get their due, despite the numerous non-governmental organizations which help people fill the claim forms. The tricky system simply goes over an average social worker’s head. The unclaimed income benefits also mean more than four billion euros yearly savings for the government’s social security budget. Why not take my part of the cake?

RSA, HLM, CMU - what the hell is that?

The goal was already clear in my mind. I targeted the famous trio of combined benefits: RSA – HLM –CMU. The French income support benefit is called RSA (revenue de solidarité active), HLM (habitation de loyer moderé) means council place and CMU, in other words universal health care, is the French version of the US Medicare. 
   The main obstacle to my social parasitizing project was the current unemployment benefits claimer status. As my unemployment prolonged the benefits dropped to now derisory amount but no other benefit could be claimed simultaneously. Unfortunately I still had six months ahead. I spent many sleepless nights thinking about how to get rid of the disadvantageous status. Finally, the answer was right there. I had a check-up meeting with my employment counselor once a month. That Monday I headed to the employment office by feet as I had no metro tickets left. It was one of those bright winter mornings, when you can smell the whole mix of typical Parisian aromas: freshly baked croissants, limestone, cigarettes, metro, a Croque Monsieur’s burned Gruyère icing, roasted chicken, dog shit and exhaust fumes.