Dr Susan Milner is Reader in European Politics at the University of Bath.
In line with changes discussed in the British context, it is startling to observe how much has shifted in French policy debates since the last presidential and legislative elections in 2012. For over two decades now, as in other OECD countries, the twin discourses of welfare dependency and ‘making work pay’ have dominated public debates. In the US presidential elections, the rhetoric of ‘decent jobs for decent pay’ was powerfully articulated across the political spectrum. It has not (yet?) made its way across the Atlantic. Instead, amidst the tumult of primaries as the political parties gear up for next year’s executive elections, the idea of a universal basic income has been making its way across the political landscape in France.
The idea has a long pedigree in France where it is associated with radical thinkers such as Michel Foucault who argued that an unconditional basic income would free citizens from the intrusion of state power and the stigmatisation of means testing and conditionality. Philosopher André Gorz also advocated a ‘revenue of autonomy’ back in 1983, first linking it to the need for recipients to engage in work as a precondition for active citizenship, then later - in 2002 - abandoning this link to employment in the face of mass unemployment, and as a reaction against the spread of ‘workfare’ conditionality. Gorz’s ‘farewell to the proletariat’ (physically productive paid work as opposed to brain work) was in line with this new left utopia, and it chimes with the current mood of political debates which have been sparked by concerns and hopes about the consequences for human employment of developments in artificial intelligence.
Equally startling is the observation that the idea has gathered new converts across the political spectrum. The ruling French Socialist Party has been relatively slow to welcome it, and the mainstream right has, up until now, been mostly hostile. The conversion of key politicians on both wings has reopened debates. In the Socialist Party, universal basic income has gathered support recently from would-be leaders on both the left and right wings. On the centre-right, François Fillon - its most notable proponent - made a surprise breakthrough in the first round of the primaries on Sunday.
However, as Luke Martinelli pointed out in his IPR blog, behind the apparent consensus lie some fundamental differences which need to be acknowledged and explored if the debate is to develop meaningfully. A report by the Fondation Jean Jaurès, a think tank with close ties to the ruling French Socialist Party, identified at least three approaches to universal incomes, with a fundamental divide between libertarian-right and ecologist-left versions based on whether a universal income should be residual subsistence-level or generous enough to allow individuals to live decently without any need for paid work.
Most proponents among the contenders on the centre-right propose pegging the rate at €450 per month, which is far from the conditions of autonomy espoused by Gorz or Foucault. Some of the (less prominent) politicians in the Les Républicains party have suggested a rate almost double that, at €800 per month, which is the rate around which support in the Socialist Party seems to be gathering. However, among the more likely winners of the forthcoming primary on the right, support for basic income has been at best lukewarm - and has been based on the assumption of rates lower than current benefit levels. Mr Fillon, tagged as an economic liberal and social conservative, espouses a low-level basic income as part of a general push to lower welfare spending.
A recent Senate report modelled three levels: €500 per month (the level of the current minimum income, revenu de solidarité active (RSA)), which could potentially be topped up by existing state pensions but no other benefits; €750 (the absolute poverty threshold); and €1000. Whilst the first two would save money for the state, the third would require further funding to the tune of €153 billion. The rate of €750 per month, with an additional €250 for pensioners and €250 per child to families, is the most widely advocated option - the ‘most realistic utopia’ for the authors of the Fondation Jean Jaurès report.
This specific difference concerning income levels raises a wider question about the motives for adopting a basic income. Several politicians on the French right have been explicit in advocating its adoption as a way of saving money for the state by reducing benefit levels. The result would almost certainly be a rise in levels of poverty risk, which France has so far been relatively successful in containing, at 12.1% of the total population in 2014 compared to 16% in the UK.
Existing social transfers significantly attenuate poverty in France: before social transfers the at-risk-of-poverty rate is around 22%. However this does not mean that it is efficient: as well as the stigmatising effect, the social safety net has several large gaps, particularly around young people (who are not eligible for the RSA and who have a poverty rate of 18%) and single people, as the transfers are skewed towards families with children. The RSA is a particularly unloved benefit, as it falls short of a universal basic income and, with its plethora of conditionality rules, has become complex to administer and to claim, with little impact on employability.
A final area of uncertainty, and therefore of political debate, concerns the impact of universal income on low-paid work. The late sociologist Robert Castel, a leading scholar of social exclusion who was one of the first to theorise the ‘precariate’, excoriated the RSA for providing insufficient resources to the poor whilst at the same time encouraging low-paid, low-quality jobs. Poverty concerns, he argued, have to be raised in the context of a wider discussion about the quality of work. In the current French political debates, the universal income proposals assume that they will be widely topped up with low-paid work. Moreover, contradictions with the post-work utopia are simply sidestepped.
Almost entirely absent from the current debates is any sense of the material needs of individuals claiming universal benefits, apart from low-income pensioners. There is no discussion of how universal benefit would affect families, or people with physical or mental disabilities, who may be cumulatively disadvantaged if a universal benefit is used to shrink the state in terms of its services as well as its cash transfers. There is no modelling of how benefits interact with consumption needs, particularly housing. Unless these fundamental questions are posed and answered, the current debates could end up instrumentalising the concept of a universal basic income without resolving the problems which sparked them in the first place.
To help answer some of these questions, the new interest in universal incomes has at least had the effect of stimulating investment in local experiments. In the Gironde department, a universal income will be administered by amalgamating existing benefits for the poorest. This French experiment will be much closer to a universal citizens’ income model than the Finnish and Dutch initiatives which will take place at the same time, and which are explicitly aimed at integrating recipients into the labour market. It also has the novel addition of a citizens’ panel which will form part of the evaluation process. The Gironde experiment has already caught the attention of the Prime Minister Manuel Valls and served to re-ignite the interest of presidential hopefuls. It will yield useful results for ongoing debates on a universal basic income.