st-honore

The French really do win at lifestyle. One of the essentials of the good life in France is that they work to live, not live to work.

This is possible in no small part thanks to the minimum wage, or salaire mimimum interprofessionel de croissance, aka the SMIC (pronounced smeek. The French LOVE abbreviations.).

It is possible to live on the minimum wage here. Granted, it would be difficult in big cities where rents are high. But here in the rural south of France, it’s hard to find jobs that pay much more than the SMIC. And everybody I know is doing just fine anyway.

meery-3For 2017, the SMIC is €9.76 an hour or €1,480.27 a month (that comes to €17,763.24 a year, but I’m not sure whether it would be more because people generally are paid a 13th month of salary in order to be able to go on vacation). The workweek is 35 hours.

Looking at 2015 figures from the OECD that compare a bunch of countries using a constant exchange rate, France was at $10.90 an hour vs. $7.20 for the U.S.

The OECD also looks at how countries’ minimum wages compare to average wages of full-time workers. So 1 would mean that everybody earns minimum wage while the closer you get to zero the worse off minimum-wage earners are compared to everybody else. For France, folks earning the SMIC are at 0.62 of the median wage (which the OECD says is more accurate than the mean wage), while in the U.S., minimum wage earners are at 0.36 of the median wage.

In other words, there are rich and poor in France, but the poor are less miserable and the rich not as extravagantly wealthy as in the U.S. (If this post seems simplistic, it’s because it is a blog post, not a book. For the book, check out “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by French economist Thomas Piketty.)

The way to measure this is called the Gini index, with zero being absolute inequality (a few rich have everything and everybody else is destitute) to 1 being absolute equality (no rich, no poor, everybody gets the same thing). Obviously neither extreme is good—one is pretty much slavery and the other gives no incentives. You want some incentives but nothing crazy. In Chile and Mexico, the indexes for 2014 (latest year) are 0.465 and 0.459, respectively. Both countries have rich elites and large poor populations.

The Gini index for France is 0.294. For the U.S., it’s 0.394. Switzerland is at 0.295, almost the same as France, which shows that low inequality doesn’t mean poverty for all. In fact, the poverty rate in France is 8%, in Switzerland is 8.6% and in the U.S. is 17.5%.

meery-2There are a lot of reasons why life in France is good. Socialized medicine is a major factor. Workers pay about 8% and employers kick in about 13% more–so folks with big salaries pay more than folks earning the SMIC; the rates aren’t set according to your health. You don’t lose your health insurance if you lose your job because coverage is universal. In addition, low-income families get help, with public preschool starting at age two (that’s a benefit for rich and poor families), benefits for children and subsidies for nannies/daycare.

France is a lot more like how the U.S. was in the 1950s (a period of low inequality), with white-collar and blue-collar workers living in the same neighborhood in similar (modest) homes. (The average new home size in France is 1,206 square feet, vs. 2,164 square feet in the U.S.)

This makes sense when you start looking at salaries in France for professions that pay more than the SMIC.

I was quite surprised when the manager of my bank branch divulged that she makes €1,800 a month—€21,600 a year. But that’s more than a first-year school teacher, at €1,616 a month (€19392 a year) before taxes (it rises to €3431—€41,172—after 30 years of service). Firemen make €2,311 a month (€27,732 a year) on average.

Nurses start out the same as teachers and max out at €47,710, while general practice doctors earned €72,500 to €83,120 a year in 2011. Among specialists, radiologists are the best paid, at €186,250 to €212,980 a year.

Are you choking on your coffee?

meery-4There are two big reasons for doctors’ low pay compared to U.S. doctors (an average of $223,175 a year for internal medicine): malpractice isn’t like in the U.S. and they have no giant loans to pay off from med school.

My doctor lives in a house a tad bigger than the French average, maybe 1800 square feet, on a street with teachers, nurses, bus drivers, plumbers, acccountants, electricians and lots of retail workers. She has a nicer car and goes on cooler vacations than other people I know around here–and she totally deserves it–but she doesn’t live in a luxe bubble.

When I moved here, my new acquaintances told me I would be able to find a job easily because of being bilingual. The supermarkets would be sure to snatch me up, they said, to help deal with tourists and British expats who don’t speak French. I thought, there is no way I am going to be a checkout clerk at a supermarket. I have a master’s degree.

After living among people who are retail clerks, restaurant workers and other professions, I see things differently. I still don’t want to work in a supermarket. But I had lived in a circle of intellectuals and Type A overachievers who work hard and succeed, yes, but who always got straight A’s. Now I know lots of people who work hard and who never in their lives got an A or even a B, no matter how hard they tried. Unlike in the U.S., they aren’t punished for it.

meery-5I have a friend here who was thrilled when she was hired at McDonald’s. To me, McDonald’s is a good job for high school students. Here, high school students don’t work, certainly not after school. Their job is school, and it’s a full-time job. And here, a job at McDonald’s might be harder than, say, selling dresses, but it’s still a decent job. My friend proudly showed up at school pick-up while wearing her uniform, so all the other parents could see where she worked. Contrast that with a U.S. chieftain of fast food—NOT McDonald’s, which raised its U.S. wages—who said he hires “the best of the worst.”

Let them eat cake.

meery-1Obviously we need incentives for people to do jobs that require training, higher education or a lot of stress. Making a mistake on the job has different ramifications and different stress for a doctor versus a janitor and they need to be paid accordingly. Nobody would spend years studying and then hours bent over a microscope to try to find a cure for cancer if they were going to make the same thing as if they had a job that required no education or dedication. There are jobs that aren’t about clocking in and then switching off when you clock out, and nobody would do them if they paid the SMIC.

But we still need people to wait tables, pick up garbage, clean houses, and sell us stuff in stores. If they do it all day every day, shouldn’t they be able to make a living? In France, they can.

These workers do their jobs, do them well (the professionalism of French waiters is legendary), and go home to their families. In France, they are able to pay their bills as long as they live comfortable but modest lives, which really is all they want. Because they work to live, they don’t live to work.

What matters to them is a good meal with family and friends. With dessert.

tarte-au-citron
This tarte and the Saint-Honoré at the top are from Noez bakery; all the others are from Meery Cake, two great places for desserts in Carcassonne.
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42 thoughts on “Let Them Eat Cake

  1. Terrific post! I have shared it on Facebook…too many Americans have no clue…deriding France for being a “socialist” state…as if that was a horrible thing…no clue. Thank you, Taste of France.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Believe me, I will do a post on some of the economic weaknesses/bad ideas of France. But I think that many Americans who feel the economic rug has been pulled out from under them aren’t blaming the right places. They’re right to be mad; they’re wrong about whose fault it is.

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  2. Terrific post, with which I heartily concur. One small point, just something I happened to learn the other day — the average age of a fast food worker in the US is 29 these days, and those jobs are rarely fulltime. Teenaged schoolkids earning some pocket money don’t get a look-in anymore. There are too many of the working poor who are desperate for any sort of job, even one that pays c.$4 an hour and doesn’t guarantee any minimum hours per week and doesn’t offer any benefits such as health insurance. They live in the outer suburbs of cities that are so spread out they can’t get in to the centre where they might get better jobs, because they can’t afford to run a car and there is no public transport.

    The average household income in our village was about €14 000 the last time I looked. We have a population of 1000, a third of whom live in the retirement home (who is the single biggest employer).

    One of the things I like about France is that people are not defined by their jobs. It is not uncommon to be on perfectly friendly terms with someone, yet not know what they do (or did) for a living. I’m thinking of situations where you are members of a club. I’ve been to family parties and other events held by the president of our local history club. I know who his wife worked for, but he was already retired when we arrived here, and although I can guess what his profession was, I don’t know for sure, and I have no idea where he worked, and it simply doesn’t come up in conversation, ever.

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    1. There’s a whole trend of employers shifting risk onto workers. Not in competitive, well-paid professions, but in those for unskilled workers, who are least able to take on the risk.

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  3. What a fantastic post! I couldn’t agree more. The mindset has completely changed the way I see the world (and live.) To be honest things started changing for me when, more or less at the same time, Piketty published his book and Hollande said that a person making 4k a month was well off in France. Bells rang in my head and I knew it was time to get off the hamster wheel and just move.
    I’ve been studying the salary curve, though, and I think the perception of very high wages existing in some countries is heavily skewed. The actual percentage of people who are high earners is tiny, but television, the media, and certain political groups make it seem like it’s the norm. It really, really isn’t. The substantive difference in France is people admit how much they’re actually making.

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  4. You have perfectly expressed what I often try to explain to my family and non-French friends in the States when they freak out about our salaries in France. I’m about to share it on FB and directly email your post to my family members… 😉

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    1. The interesting thing is the US/UK view is rather narrow. A Spaniard is more likely to earn less than the average European but more likely to own a home. An American is more likely to earn more than a whole range of nationalities but also more likely to have substantial personal debt. I saw a figure the other day in an economy magazine (can’t remember which) that only 5% of Americans have a positive net worth. Isn’t that shocking?

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Certain things are more expensive here–gas for the car, utilities, even housing. But some food and especially health care are cheaper. It’s more about quality of life–people–rather than about stuff.

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  5. I am loving the title “let them eat cake” and I have been eating and tasting those cakes in my mind too, we live here on only our pensions but manage quite well but we are quite frugal, as you say the french are more interested in what is on the table and who they are sharing it with, long may it continue..

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  6. Seriously? As in seriously seriously?

    This is one of the smartest, most en pointe step-by-step explanations of why life here can be worthwhile and how that plays out in a societal context…that I have ever seen.

    Bravo. While I am off in my poésie yadayada, you are talking simple truths.

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  7. Excellent post and by the way I like simplistic, I do not have a Master’s! I am shocked at the wages of those professionals you listed. But what you say about general contentment makes sense to me now. In the UK there seems to be a growing air of entitlement regarding consumerism, I don’t see this in France. I’m going to be dreaming of that chocolate gateau!

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  8. You really did your homework which makes this post an interesting read – aside from the mouth-watering cakes! It is true that the French place a high value on professional work and that is how it should be; you should be able to live on the minimum wage. One point I would make on the negative side, however, is that the part-time jobs of the McDonald’s type are simply not open to everyone. I hope the day never comes when I have to consider such work in order to make ends meet, because I have found that in France over 50’s are considered entirely past their prime and unfit for work like retail. I’m not even sure than pensioners are allowed to work, which is really silly as the population ages and stays healthy longer. A bit more flexibility in the attitudes and laws towards part-time work would be welcome.

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  9. Brilliant post! And love the cakes.
    As you know, I was recently taken very ill while traveling in France, spent nearly a week in a (large teaching) hospital. That was followed by several days of home visits from the village nurse, visits to the village doctor, etc. The total bill is going to come in at considerably less than one day in a US ICU unit.
    When they checked me in at the hospital, they asked for my passport and “national card”. I had to explain that Americans don’t all have health insurance, and what they have is limited and does not leave the country. They had trouble getting their minds around that.
    Vive la France.

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