Shopping in Paris Is Fun for Tourists. If You Live Here, It’s a Nightmare.

An American in Paris crunches the numbers.
Jan. 29 2014 11:52 PM

Boo to the Boulangerie

The Parisian shopping experience is fun for tourists. But if you live here, it’s a nightmare.

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That’s not to say France is a paradise for the poor—far from it. But France does have a fundamentally different perspective on what workers deserve.

Here’s another example. Large businesses in France often provide their employees with a subsidized lunch in a cantine, or a cafeteria—my husband works at a large research institute, and he eats a subsidized meal in their cantine most days, which costs him around 3 or 4 euros.* If a company doesn’t have a cantine, it usually provides its workers with Ticket Restaurant, a subsidized meal ticket that can be used at local restaurants, sandwich shops, and supermarkets as cash. A portion of this ticket is paid by the employee, usually 50 to 60 percent, but not over euro 5.29 per ticket; the remainder is paid by the employer. Many restaurants price their daily lunch menu around the cost of a Ticket Resto as part of their business model, so that for between 8 and 12 euros a customer can get a traditional French lunch of entrée-plat-dessert/coffee. (Tip: This is why lunch is always the best bargain in French restaurants.)

The concept of Ticket Resto absolutely floored my husband and me when we first moved to Paris. Now we knew why all the restaurants were full at lunch time! Now we knew why all the restaurants were full at lunch time: because companies were receiving government tax breaks by offering subsidized meal tickets to their employees. This felt like a shocking amount of government involvement even to progressive American Democrats like us.

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A French friend saw it differently. “But why should you have to be rich to eat at a restaurant?” she asked. She saw these Ticket Restos as a great leveling factor in the workforce, allowing low-wage workers to rub elbows with higher-level colleagues—to sit at the table and enjoy a real meal, rather than being relegated to McDonald’s or other affordable fast-food joints. These thoughts hadn’t occurred to me. While the Ticket Resto certainly hasn’t eliminated the class structure here, the fact that an equalizing rationale lay behind it surprised me. It’s something I can’t see us ever thinking about in the U.S., certainly not to the extent of creating a national program.

Even France is not immune to the idea of striking a better balance between keeping workers happy and making sure companies are productive: President Francois Hollande recently announced unpopular austerity measures aimed at helping the growth of French business, though much of the financial press argued that Hollande’s proposals don’t go nearly far enough. But in the U.S., we have swung very far to the side of privileging company profits over all else to the detriment of low-wage workers, who are working more for less money than their counterparts of 20 years ago. Income inequality in the U.S. has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 30 years, while France is one of the few developed countries where the gap between rich and poor has remained nearly unchanged. Ironically, the possibility for social mobility in France is greater now than it is in America, despite the American notion that anyone can make it if they just work hard enough. I don’t love paying tons of taxes, but the social protections that come with them guarantee my place in the middle class. It’s less likely that I’ll ever become a millionaire in France, but it’s also much less likely I’ll end up in poverty.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go draw up a list of when the stores are open in my neighborhood.

Correction, Feb. 4, 2014: This piece originally stated that French businesses are legally required to provide their salaried employees with lunch. In fact, French companies are only required to provide their employees with a separate area in which to eat lunch; many satisfy this requirement by offering subsidized meals in a cantine and/or by offering subsidized meal tickets that can be used at local eateries. The article also suggested that the French government directly subsidizes employees' meal tickets; in fact, businesses receive government tax breaks for subsidizing these meal tickets. (Return.)

Claire Lundberg is a writer, literary scout, and former New Yorker now living in Paris.

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