France, as one of the most advanced industrialized countries, has been able over time to introduce a complex system of social protection, together with a widespread and varied structure of education and training. Within this system, many professionals help people in difficulties to function again in society. Also, there are safeguards within the system to insure that people’s rights are respected. Everyone should benefit from these safeguards, especially those lacking basic security.

Nevertheless, even with our limited data, the facts presented in Part One of this report show that people continue to live in chronic poverty or to lack basic security in their lives. Considering only the lack of financial resources (which is most likely accompanied by other needs), we estimate that over two million people are in unacceptable poverty. We do not question the premises on which our social protection system is based, but we must ask why the institutions charged with providing it become increasingly ineffective when people have the most need of them.

In Part Two we shall examine the social service structures in light of the needs of the chronically poor. Are measures and objectives reassessed in relation to the living conditions of the poor? Is the priority then to eliminate these conditions because basic rights are not respected? Are the measures taken effective in preventing situations from worsening? In considering needed measures, is attention paid to experiences gained in the field? Throughout this part of the report, we shall present significant and innovative responses to these questions.

Chapter I presents an abridged historical review of the approaches to poverty to provide a better understanding of what is being done today.

We shall also see that the issue of poverty is increasingly considered a matter of rights both by the poor themselves and by various public leaders.

In subsequent chapters we shall examine whether the existing structures guarantee basic security in income, housing and health services; whether social services, education, job training and employment provide the means for people to take an active role in their community; and whether people can participate in society as a whole.

An Appendix will briefly describe what is being done in other member countries of the European Community.

In the Conclusion we shall present short- and medium-term recommendations that are based on our findings and that take into account the existing social structures and the expectations that those directly affected have for themselves and for their children.


We feel that an examination of the past is valuable, especially in considering responses to poverty. Even though the notion of poverty has changed over time, the experiences of the past have influenced how we think and act today.

In this historical review, we shall see that the growing sensibility to the concept of human rights is relatively new. Perhaps this explains the present dissatisfaction with anti-poverty measures that would have been considered satisfactory not long ago.


Since the Middle Ages, two main attitudes toward the poor have emerged in European societies, sometimes mutually reinforcing and sometimes counteracting each other. Societies have traditionally wanted to protect all their members, but they have also cast out those whose presence represented too much of a risk or too much of a burden for the community.

The desire to protect members from the uncertainties of existence led to more complex institutions as the communities came to possess greater material wealth and realized that greater guarantees were needed for their members.

Nevertheless, the tendency to cast out those who seemed to present too heavy a burden has been constant throughout history. This partly explains the present inadequacy of measures at the political level and the distrust, even today, of the most vulnerable populations.

In the past the outcasts were people who had leprosy or the plague, who were insane or destitute, who had been imprisoned for begging, or who were needed for war but were considered superfluous in peace.

Today, depending on current economic and social conditions the outcasts may be itinerants, families considered asocial, immigrants, the homeless, or the long-term unemployed with no skills. All are in some way excluded from the rest of the community or are living in neighborhoods feared as breading grounds of crime.

These people arouse the same suspicions as in the past: they are considered to be responsible for their own situation, to have too many children, and to take advantage of the help given them.

The continued existence of excluded groups may be better tackled if we try to understand how society treated the poor during earlier periods of history.

Historians cite three main attitudes toward the poor and ways of assuming responsibility for them [1]. These attitudes have succeeded one another and sometimes overlapped. Each attitude prevailed for a time and shaped community relationships with the poor in a given region.

A. Feudalism: Protection of the Poor by the Feudal Lord and by the Church

From the Middle Ages to the beginning of the Renaissance the mass of people were poor but working within the institutions of feudalism. Depending on the region, they were considered to be free, to be in serfdom or something in between; all, however, were bound to perform manual labor and to pay taxes to the feudal lord. In return, custom demanded that the lord protect these workers, whatever their level, against poverty, hunger and invasion.

This relationship of dependency and protection was based on the idea of reciprocal duties, but the poor who were mainly rural were unable to enforce their rights if the feudal lord defaulted. Nor were they able to put up any effective opposition when the often excessive demands of a more distant overlord were added to those of the local lord (tithes, taxes on essentials like salt, etc.). Nevertheless, under the feudal system (10th to 12th centuries A.D.) the poorest, whether working or not, had a recognized place.

Early on, the Church spoke of the claims of the poor on its possessions. Saint Anaclet in the 1st century A.D. stated that "any man who is oppressed may, if he wishes, appeal to his bishop." And Saint Gregory the Great in the 6th century A.D. proclaimed the right of the poor not only to survive, but also to share in the riches of the Church. Throughout the feudal period, the bishops undertook to manage the possessions of the diocese in the name of the poor. Depending on the bishop, the disadvantaged were treated with more or less respect and generosity. In general, the bishops continually pressed the princes and feudal lords to contribute to this charitable work. The bishoprics and especially the abbeys were among the first advocates of "social transfers," and they were often very occupied with this task.

The feudal system neglected a whole group of people who were not part of its organized work or structures. These were the landless men and women, often wanderers, who lived by gathering what they could from the land, by peddling or even by robbery. They survived by all sorts of expedients: displaying strange animals, for example, or hiring themselves out for whatever work was available. Some were camp followers of armies, hoping to receive regular pay, or at least to eat or share in the pillaging. Most likely, this group, which did not benefit from any organized protection, could depend, at best, on the alms of others.

This social structure, with the poor inside the system and the very poor largely outside, changed with the rapid urbanization that took place between the 12th and the 14th centuries. A succession of bad harvests, destructive wars (the Hundred Years’ War) and epidemics (the Black Plague in 1348) led to a massive movement to the towns, where only a few of the poor could hire themselves out. As the traditional protective systems were overwhelmed, an ever larger number of people were forced to wander or to live by begging. They were even more outcast than before.

Many of those who got work in the towns took jobs that were considered degrading salvaging the carcasses of dead or worn out animals, carrying away human waste, dyeing cloth and digging graves. They were needed for their services but still considered "unclean." As such, they were despised and often treated as outcasts. However, they and their families could count on the charity of various institutions. These organizations took over the role of protecting the urban poor who fit within a work relationship, while the feudal lords continued to protect the poor in the countryside.

In the towns and cities, the poor might find either new structures set up to help them or new forms of exclusion, depending on their circumstances. Already in the 13th century, and more especially in the 15th, parish organizations (for example, "The Tables of the Poor") and religious fraternities provided support and aid, while attempting to create a spirit of mutual assistance. To help people avoid a state of extreme distress, "funds" were set up in the 15th century to lend money against pledges at low interest rates (the original pawn shop). This was considered better than handing out alms because it did more to preserve human dignity. It is doubtful, though, that these funds did much good for people who had nothing to pledge.

B. Civil Authorities Take on Responsibility for the Poor

The second main trend reached its height between the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. This response was marked by the emergence of a greater esteem for those who enriched themselves through work.

The system of private charity continued, but communities and the central government took over more and more of the work of the Church. The protection of the "poor and beggars" ceased being simply a personal responsibility based on religious faith and became, instead, the collective responsibility of towns and cities. This major change evolved during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

It should be noted that the French Revolution of 1789 continued this tradition. The new government intended to eliminate extreme poverty. It established a "Committee on Begging" to inquire into the causes of want and to make proposals. But a lack of resources prevented it from following up on the "social security system" that it had worked out. The only aspect that survived was the affirmation that the poor ought to be able to earn their living through work [2].

Between the 15th and the 18th centuries, general hospitals and other care institutions took the place of religious hospices. Other signs of the shift to collective responsibility were the establishment of workhouses, asylums for the poor, children’s homes and orphanages.

There were many reasons for these changes. The intention was not only to put people away or get rid of suspicious wanderers or fake "invalid beggars." The fact is that during the period, any poor child over the age of ten acquired the previously unheard of right to become an apprentice to a skilled tradesman in a guild. And this right was preceded by the right of the child to live in a family:

"We shall leave children under the age of ten in the care of their parents; if they are too poor we shall supply all or part of their nourishment, so that they may be fed." [3]

In reality, the desire to maintain order was as strong as the new sense of responsibility toward the poor and their rights. Repressions took place and recalcitrants were "to leave the said town and its suburbs within one week" or risk being locked in jail. Actually, the poorest people long time homeless and wanderers were the target of the efforts to get rid of potential troublemakers. Depending on the period, some ended up in galleys or were impressed on to merchant ships.

Even at that period, the ambiguity in the attitude of society to the relationship between work and the poor was evident. Did they have the right to work, or did they have to work in order to improve their moral character? Was the right to work invoked in the name of human dignity? Today, we still seem to be trapped by this enigma, since we expect the unskilled unemployed continually to prove that they want to work.

In any case, during the 17th century, workshops spread rapidly in the cities, and schools multiplied in the towns and villages. The work of Jean Baptiste de La Salle was preeminent in this field.

Despite these efforts, the ranks of the destitute continued to grow. They were coal miners, clog makers or woodcutters who could not earn enough for their families, or later on, unemployed iron miners in the hills of Normandy. Unfortunately, when these unemployed workers began to steal game or waylay travelers, they were no longer considered woodcutters or miners, but poachers and thieves. A similar situation exists for today’s young unemployed; once they start stealing, they are seen only as "juvenile delinquents."

The ambiguity of trying to distinguish between the "good" and the "bad" poor - rescuing some and repressing others continues to this day.

C. The Industrial Revolution and the Emergence of the Subproletariat

The third trend began to appear very strongly in the middle of the 19th century, with the progressive establishment of the working class.

Workers who could organize bettered their condition through their collective economic power. Increasingly, they compelled the employers and the authorities to grant them a role in society.

Those workers who were less skilled in the productive tasks of the period became the residue of industrialization they were the "subproletariat." Karl Marx was the first to describe them when he invented the term "lumpenproletariat" [4]. These unskilled workers were at the mercy of economic fluctuations because they were systematically denied access to any skilled occupations. Parents passed on to children the same low level, marginal or seasonal work, which offered neither the chance of a career nor an adequate or stable income.

Because they lacked any organization, the "subproletariat" turned for help to the social services that developed to assist them. They received almost no support from more established workers who had too recently achieved respectability and security to take the side of these unproven comrades. A major characteristic of this period was the separation between a working class struggling to assert its rights and a "subproletariat" apparently unable to make a case for itself, because it seemed to have nothing to offer that would entitle it to the same rights as organized workers.

The development of the working class had certain advantages for the poor. Besides the assistance they had been receiving from public and private groups, they were now organizing to help themselves and defend their rights. Mutual aid societies, which had been known since the Middle Ages, flourished anew. The poor were now seen as agents in the fight against poverty, and this struggle had become a political fight.

The very poor were not yet involved, and their absence from the struggle was a further sign of their exclusion. For them, progress would only mean that social and educational charities would gradually take the place of special courts, and that asylums and poorhouses would pay a little more attention to nourishment and health care and less to forcing their occupants to work. Education became more important than imprisonment and corporal punishment. Yet the lives of the very poor were still controlled by others; their situation had improved but there was no fundamental change.

This brief historical summary shows a clear evolution in society’s response to poverty. The attitude to both poverty and the poor has changed. Professor Michel Mollat in his testimony to the Social Affairs Section on March 18, 1986, explained this in the following way:

The Christian concept of the poor as the image of Christ had been replaced by the view that human beings carried within themselves certain basic rights. This evolution is reflected in the changing vocabulary of the response to poverty: first "charity," then "good works," "philanthropy," "fraternity," and finally "solidarity." Despite the change in vocabulary and practice, Mollat showed that there were certain constants: first, the essential feature of impoverishment is the downward passage from one level to another, chronic poverty being at the bottom. Second, chronic poverty has many components: demographic, economic, social and structural, of which one or more dominate depending on the period. Lastly, efforts to help people move out of poverty have to be constantly renewed because the causes of exclusion keep recurring. Periodically, private and public efforts would waver as people became discouraged. The responses to poverty then become inadequate and the delay in introducing new initiatives has serious consequences for the poor.

The periods of withdrawal can be made worse by the confused analysis that is often applied to the complex problem of chronic poverty. In the past, for example, the poorest were considered marginal people or delinquents. Moreover, proposals and actions are sometimes the result of a current fad that may have an emotional appeal at the time but will not provide any serious prospects for the future. In concluding his testimony, Mollat stressed the danger of being misled in trying to understand chronic poverty and initiate appropriate institutional responses. It is essential, he said, to have a sound knowledge of the people we are trying to help, and particularly of their difficulties and hopes. When we proceed in this manner, we demonstrate the respect and trust needed to bring together the efforts required on all sides. The quality of the responses that a society offers to the needs and expectations of its poorest members depends very largely on the idea it has of their lives and of the dignity they should be accorded.

Today, this idea is strongly influenced by the concept that all people have inalienable rights because these rights are inherent in the dignity of human beings. As mankind has progressed from the concept of sharing to the acceptance of rights for the poor, a broader response to the needs of the poorest has emerged, as we shall see below.


In France the concept of human rights as a cornerstone of democracy was explicitly stated for the first time during the 18th century, most notably in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789. This public declaration attempted to state the concepts of freedom and equality, not only in terms of rights, but as the basis of a political charter.

The idea that people are free and equal and that the state has clearly defined obligations toward them had been developing for centuries. The disappearance of slavery in western Europe during the first centuries A.D. was one early manifestation. Nor was it a new concept that the state should guarantee a number of rights, particularly those enabling a citizen to feel free, or that citizens should help one another as a sign of solidarity. In fact, the Declaration of 1789 was an attempt to give a public and political stature to a notion and practice that already existed in more diffuse forms. We have described above how the right to work and the right to receive an education became established practices in daily life. From that point, however, to understanding the relationship between freedom and responsibility, between power and duties, between equality by nature and inequality by situation, between security for some and insecurity for others, the road has been long. We still have not reached that goal today. But to know where we stand improves our chance of formulating proposals that are acceptable to contemporary opinion.

There has been substantial progress since the declarations of the late 18th century, which gave only a general idea of the rights that could protect an individual against the arbitrary exercise of power. Over time, the concept of economic and social rights has become precise and comprehensive enough to translate into increasingly elaborate legislation. Progress to date shows:

  • the increasing application of such rights. They are now called universal rights and have been adopted worldwide, despite some halts and temporary setbacks;
  • the growing understanding that rights are interdependent. If there were no right to education, to employment or to job training, then the right to vote or participate in community affairs would be meaningless;
  • international agreements on the application of rights.

In France the Constitution of the Fifth Republic (1958) referred specifically to the 1789 Declaration of Rights, which the preamble to the Constitution of the Fourth Republic (1946) had already confirmed and enlarged.

In addition, France has adhered to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, signed under the auspices of the United Nations. As a member of the Council of Europe, France signed the Convention on Safeguarding Human Rights and Fundamental Liberties and the European Social Charter. These actions demonstrate that the country continues to affirm that democracy in France is solidly based on the Rights of Man first proclaimed in 1789.

Yet there still seems to be some doubt whether these rights apply to everybody. The restrictions of the past seem to appear in today’s attitudes toward poverty. When people fall below a certain level of inequality and poverty, we seem to hesitate in recognizing that they have the same rights as others. Or perhaps we feel that the efforts to insure their rights are too costly and, in the name of the greater good for the greater number, we allow injustice to fall on a small minority and accept their exclusion from society.

The principle of insuring human rights for the poor has often been attested.

In 1790 La Rochefoucault Liancourt, president of the Committee on Begging, said:

"From times past we have always been ready to offer charity to the poor, but never to recognize the claims of the poor on society or those of society on the poor. The organization of assistance ought to be written into the Constitution. Public charity is not an expression of compassionate virtue; it is a duty, it is justice. Wherever there are people without the means of subsistence, the rights of people have been denied; the social order has been broken."

Similarly, Barère, speaking for the Committee of Public Safety, told the Convention on May 22, 1794, that the poor had a right to the charity of the nation:

"Yes, I am speaking of their rights because in a democracy... everything ought to lift the citizen above basic need, by work if he is fit, by education if he is a child, by assistance if he is ill or old."

How far the country has been faithful to that principle, and how far it has been extended, can be judged from the remarks of the President of France to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on September 30, 1982:

"The struggle for human rights has become a struggle to ensure that none shall be excluded from their benefits: neither the Third World immigrant in a developed country, nor the member of the Fourth World, where people have been poor and illiterate for generations, nor the nomad wishing to preserve the ancient tradition of moving from place to place, nor the person leaving prison trying to rejoin society, nor the handicapped, nor the elderly, too often neglected."

In testifying for this report, Peter Leuprecht [5] commented on the interdependence of rights and on the joint responsibility of the nations seeking to advance human rights in Europe. He first recalled the three main ideas on which human rights are based:

  • the dignity of all human beings;
  • the solidarity needed at national and international levels to promote and defend human rights;
  • the desire to offer special protection to the weakest.

By their nature, human rights are indivisible and universal; therefore, all people can claim these rights, including those in deep poverty, the illiterate and the powerless. Through the intermediary of nongovernmental organizations, these people can join in seeking the goal proclaimed by the international organizations "to free humanity from fear and want." In this way they are part of an international struggle against the practice of might over right. The emphasis of present efforts is on insuring the right to meeting basic needs, which is the prerequisite for all other rights. This means more than simply the guarantee that people should not be threatened by hunger; they should also be able to live in dignity.

Leuprecht cited some recent examples of this international effort:

  • The Council of Europe has questioned member states on how they protect the basic rights of minors placed in institutions.
  • The European Court for Human Rights issued a ruling that protects the right to family life, particularly the right of parents to bring up their own children and the right of children to be brought up by their own parents.
  • The European Court has directed a member state to change its legal assistance laws to ensure that all citizens have access to justice regardless of their socioeconomic situation.

Destitution and social exclusion are increasingly viewed as violations of human rights. To promote this view, the Fourth World Movement launched an appeal calling on people to reaffirm this aspect of human rights. In 1982 and 1983, more than 200,000 people in three European countries signed the appeal. Awareness is spreading and the public is now faced with new questions. If people have enough resources to prevent them from starving but have no way of escaping their dependence on others, they are hardly free to enjoy economic and social rights.

When we give benefits to the unemployed and the handicap-

ped without making any effort to reintegrate them into active social roles, we discriminate against them in a way contrary to their inherent human dignity.

This brief overview of modern history has given us a background for the next chapters in which we shall consider current legislation and regulations and the practices and problems that led to adopting them. We shall also examine whether they meet the need of the poorest people, not only to survive, but to live in dignity and freedom with their fellow citizens. How far does the protection extend and who is still excluded?

The Economic and Social Council, through its Social Affairs Section, is responsible for "studying the problems raised by the most disadvantaged segments of the population" (Article 2 of Decree No. 84 822, dated September 6, 1984, on the organization of the Economic and Social Council), and the Council itself is obligated "to examine and suggest any eco-nomic or social changes that have become necessary" (Article 1 of Regulation No. 58 1360, dated December 29, 1958, establishing the charter of the Economic and Social Council, as amended by Regulation No. 62 918, dated August 8, 1962).

This task is particularly important because there are few groups, public or private, that undertake comprehensive surveys of a population whose interests are seldom taken into account in political discussions. It did happen during the French Revolution in what was called "The Records of Grievances by the Fourth Order, a correspondence of good will between the dispossessed, men of conscience, and the Estates General, to compensate for the lack of the right to appeal directly to the Estates General, which should be available to all Frenchmen, but which this Order does not yet enjoy." (Dufourny de Villiers, Cahiers du Quatrième Ordre, No. 1, April 25, 1789. Reprinted by Editions Histoire Sociale, Paris 1967.)

In the following chapters, we shall examine how the poor live, sometimes with social protection, sometimes without it, and sometimes entirely on their own.


From the earliest days of the Christian era, the Church declared that the poor are entitled to share in the benefits of society. But under the feudal system, lords protected only the rural working population from destitution. Very quickly a distinction arose between the poor who were part of society and the landless and jobless whose misery made them outcasts.

Between the 12th and the 14th centuries the face of poverty changed. Now in the rapidly expanding urban communities, the poor were supported by works of mercy and loans from the "funds" of religious fraternities. The assistance continued to take the form of either material goods or money.

When responsibility for the poor shifted from being viewed as a personal duty of Christians and became the collective obligation of the urban community (between the 14th and the 17th centuries), the poor began to be treated more severely. However, at the same time the idea developed that the poor had the right to earn a living and that their children were entitled to grow up at home and learn a trade. Help ceased to be purely in kind and began to include a whole range of apprenticeships.

In the 19th century, the rise of the working class was accompanied by organized efforts to create self help, solidarity and a collective defense against exploitation, all of which continue to the present day. The poorest, however, remained unorganized, only marginally employed or forming a pool of casual labor, a practice that was to persist for many years. They received little benefit from the gains of the working classes and still depended on charity.

In the past 30 years, the problem of poverty has been rephrased in terms of human rights by private groups and political and religious leaders. A significant change in our time is the recognition of chronic poverty as a flagrant violation of human rights. Families of the Fourth World are organizing new forms of solidarity between themselves and other citizens. In Fourth World people’s universities throughout France, those living in chronic poverty can reflect together on their situation and exercise the right to speak for themselves.

This is one stage in a slow but steady progress; we have no reason to believe that it will not continue.


In the preceding chapters, we often referred to the interdependence of economic, social and cultural rights on the one hand and political and civil liberties on the other. If a segment of the population lacks a minimum of basic security, it cannot participate in the life of society. A person without an official address cannot register to vote. A person who is illiterate cannot be adequately informed about political issues. Families who have hardly any resources or are homeless have no real choice about where they can live. Some parents cannot even visit their children in foster care because of the distance and the money required for travel.

The situation of the chronically poor alerts us to a reality that concerns every citizen but is often ignored: namely, that the exercise of political and civil rights presupposes certain conditions. Even if a government does not interfere in the lives of its citizens, they are not necessarily free to think or act as they want or to associate with whomever they please, especially when they are chronically poor. In fact, their situation helps us to understand the interdependence of all human rights. We cannot compartmentalize different human needs; we have to consider the whole person. In this chapter, we shall develop this theme, showing how the basic rights of one family were violated. We shall then take the example of the right to family life and examine how administrative regulations and practices can deny the poor the rights they have by law. In conclusion, we shall explain why the poor must have the chance to appeal decisions that affect them and to participate in organized groups and political life, and we shall propose some conditions that will make this possible.


The following case was cited in testimony given to the Social Affairs Section of the Economic and Social Council by Nicolas Jacob, a lawyer of the Paris bar. He used it as an example of the abuse of power to which families in chronic poverty are sometimes subjected and against which they have no real defense.

In the early 1960s, the W. family had settled about half a mile from a village in the Department of Bas Rhin.

The family set up a wooden shed and a camper without wheels at the end of a dirt road that led to fields belonging to two farmers. The couple had ten children, born between 1950 and 1965; six were still at home. The father earned money by selling baskets he weaved himself.

The neighbors tolerated the family’s presence for 15 years, until two of the children were suspected of minor thefts. Some villagers became hostile and threatened the family. On January 13, 1974, a group from the village, accompanied by local police, arrived at the family’s encampment. The family, in terror, threw some clothing and cooking utensils into a baby carriage and fled. The next day, the mayor ordered the domestic animals left by the family to be killed, their house to be burned down, and the site bulldozed.

For more than three years the family was driven out of one community after another, tolerated for a few days, then told to leave and at times even forcibly removed by official order.

At first the family took refuge in the woods, using a canvas stretched between trees as a makeshift shelter. Then they were given the use of a trailer, but they could not stay at any one place for more than 48 hours. In May 1977, they were housed in an old cottage, formerly used by a gatekeeper of a railroad crossing. They finally had a legal address.

It was not until March 26, 1985, that the national court of appeals found the mayor guilty of "destroyong personal and real property belonging to others" (Article 434 of the Penal Code). The court ordered the payment of 20,500 francs for damages plus interest. The process had taken ten years, involved four verdicts by the criminal court of appeals, four by the city court of Colmar, two by the appeals court in Metz, and one by the criminal court of Metz.

A. Civil Liberties and the Judicial System

In his testimony, Jacob could not cover all the violations of basic rights that this family suffered. It is clear from the texts of the various indictments against the mayor that the notion of civil rights and liberties was at stake.

On February 10, 1977, the court in Colmar agreed to hear the complaint of "unlawful entry and destruction of an inhabited dwelling" brought by ATD Fourth World against the mayor of the village. Six years later, after a change in the law, the appeals court in Metz upheld a verdict of guilty against the mayor for "destroying personal and real property belonging to others."

Jacob pointed out that the court in Colmar took an important step in allowing an organization of solidarity with the very poor to enter the case. The court’s decision, he said, was a recognition of the right of the association to defend this family. Until then, the family could only count on the discretion of the public prosecutor to act, which he did not. Poverty, it seems, is not a condition deserving special consideration, such as is granted to war crimes victims, abused children, dissatisfied consumers, and even animals. In fact, it would have been easier for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to start proceedings against the mayor for having killed the family’s cats and dogs than it was for ATD Fourth World to bring a complaint against him for having wronged the family. The court in Colmar redressed this anomaly by hearing the case.

Moreover, in the course of this case, the national court of appeals stated that the home is the place where someone lives, whether it is a normal house, a trailer or a shack. As long as a person or a family lives there, even the most modest dwelling is inviolable. The first charge against the mayor made clear that no degree of poverty could excuse his illegally entering the home. The second charge accused the mayor of "destroying personal and real property belonging to others." At issue here is the right to own property and to protect it. Again, it did not matter how poor the dwelling or the objects in it; according to the court in Metz, they were someone’s belongings and so were protected. Ambiguity in the definition of "belonging" lends itself to abuse and often leads to the destruction of objects that a family considers its property. In a final appeal, the mayor stated that he had burned down the family’s shelter as a public health measure but the court rejected this argument.

B. Charges Never Brought to Trial

Apart from the case against the mayor, the family was victimized in other ways that did not reach the courts.

It is irreconcilable with the Constitution that a family could be driven out of one village after another for three years and not be able to settle down anywhere. For the W. family, the right to freedom of movement was distorted into an obligation to keep moving [1[1]].

Both the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights link freedom of movement with freedom to choose a place of residence:

  • "Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State." (Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)
  • "Anyone who habitually resides within the territory of a State has the right to move around freely within that State and to choose the place of his or her residence within the State." (Article 2, Protocol N°. 4 of the Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Liberties, adopted by the Council of Europe and ratified by the French government.)

The W. family was rejected by local authorities in every community and was forced to wander from place to place. Yet having a permanent residence goes far in identifying people with regard to their rights and obligations. People need an address to register to vote, to receive official letters, to belong in a legal jurisdiction, to register their children in school, to receive social benefits, and to request public assistance or public medical aid. Having a residence gives people the opportunity to find employment and to associate with others.

Mayors are not required to grant residence to individuals or families they consider undesirable. But, without residence in a given municipality, an application for public housing may be turned down and the applicant loses any chance to establish a legal address. The result is a kind of enforced vagrancy that has nothing in common with the life of itinerant peoples. In fact, the poorer itinerant people now travel less.

We are reminded of the situation of the Hornaing family (Part One, Chapter VI) when they were obliged to move from place to place. It shows that the very poor often cannot choose where they live; they are rehoused by force.

The W. family suffered other deprivations of civil rights: their right to have privacy, to stay together as a family, and not to be discriminated against. For example:

  • Local authorities provided the family with emergency help, but offered nothing that would change its situation (for example, when the family was given a piece of canvas for shelter).
  • The family would have been entitled to receive a family allowance under the supervision of a guardian after staying for six months in one locality, but everything was done to force the family to move.
  • Pressure was put on the parents to give up four of their children.

These measures effectively deprived the parents of any sense of dignity and of the means to carry out their responsibilities to their family and to the community.

C. No Recourse Against Discrimination

Mr. and Mrs. W. knew that their way of living was held against them. In official reports they were called "nomads," "gypsies," or "manouches" (a Gypsy tribe). Some of Mrs. W.’s ancestors were, in fact, "Yenniches" (a Gypsy tribe living in Alsace), but they had long ceased to be itinerant and had intermarried with rural families as poor as themselves. An identity invented for them by others had been imposed on the family. In effect, they were deprived of their own history and culture and of any honorable social status. They alternated between feeling guilty for who they were and feeling that they had been unjustly humiliated.

As Jacob pointed out, the family came to fear the authorities because the authorities had all the power, including the power to take away their children. Jacob said that, in general, very poor families are "vulnerable to many abuses of power, even at the lowest levels of government administration. This is why it was first necessary to obtain the right for a private organization to bring the complaint on the family’s behalf."

Such families are readily victimized because they have neither the means of seeking legal redress nor the idea that legal action is possible for them. "We just play dead," is what poor families often say. But this is not a way to defend basic rights. For people who have no organized group behind them, it is only a way to back off from danger for a time.


The case of Mr. and Mrs. W. against the mayor is exceptional because it was initiated and pursued by a private association. There are many examples of basic rights being violated. When it becomes routine to ignore basic rights, the right of people to live in dignity is called into question. We shall illustrate this point by examining the right of chronically poor people to live as a family.

A. The Right to Live as a Family and the Responsibility of the State Toward the Family

To start a family and live within it is a fundamental right. Family members have obligations toward one another, and the state has the obligation to guarantee conditions in which family life can thrive:

  • "The nation assures individuals and families the conditions necessary for their development." (Preamble of the Constitution of 1946, referred to in the Preamble of the Constitution of 1958, still in force.)
  • "The contracting parties undertake to foster the economic, legal and social protection of the family in order to provide circumstances conducive to the full development of the family as the basic unit of society." (Article 16 of the European Social Charter, ratified by France.)

The second statement has been interpreted by the committee of experts who oversee its application to mean there is a co responsibility of the family and the state. In other words, not only must the state protect the family, it must also provide the means to ensure the family’s development. Theoretically, the state’s commitment should take the form of appropriate legislation in the areas of social, fiscal and family life. Thanks largely to the efforts of family associations in France, the state’s responsibilities toward the family have been more clearly defined. Nevertheless, the legal system still includes provisions that infringe on the right of the very poor to live as families. This right is also often denied through accepted practices.

B. When People Lose the Right to Their Possessions

The current laws governing possessions that cannot be seized (Law N° 72 626 of July 5, 1972; Decree 77 273 of March 24, 1977) admittedly added to the list of belongings protected against seizure, but they also established that all possessions, including those otherwise protected, may be seized if they were bought on credit and money is still owed on the original purchase. This is a retreat from former articles 592 and 593 of the Code of Civil Procedure, under which the following were declared absolutely protected against seizure, regardless of the nature of the debt:

  • "...the bedding of the person whose goods are being seized and that of dependent children, together with the clothes they are wearing" regardless of the status of the persons concerned;
  • "Furniture, linen, clothing and household utensils" of persons receiving public assistance for children or for the entire family.

Today, people have no right to retain even a minimum of furniture. This retreat from the original law strikes essentially at the poorest families. While the threat of seizure of property would induce others to pay, it is useless against the poorest families, who are simply unable to pay.

Families are now being subjected to seizure of possessions that are considered essential to life and work. The poorest families thus become more vulnerable to evictions, homelessness, the removal of children and the breakup of the family. Moreover, the goods seized bring the creditors little return when they are resold or auctioned [2]. In 1978 a law was proposed that would reestablish for very poor people the protection of essential belongings.

C. Protection of the Family Against Eviction

According to current law, leases may carry a standard clause under which a landlord, by official letter, may demand immediate payment from a tenant who has missed a single rent payment. If no payment is made within a month and if the tenant does not respond in court during this time, the court has no alternative but to order the tenant to be evicted. The only thing a judge can do at that point is delay the eviction for up to two years. A tenant’s lease can also be cancelled for failure to meet other provisions in the lease. In fact, the poorest families live in constant fear of being evicted. Even when landlord and tenant can reach some sort of settlement, as often happens, the landlord always has the power to evict tenants if they cannot pay the rent or to find some clause in the lease to use against them. A judge has no authority to look into the reasons why rent was not paid or why a condition in the lease was not met.

Article 26 of the law of June 22, 1982, made provision for future legislation that would set out conditions under which a judge could annul the cancellation of a lease when a tenant became destitute and could not pay rent or other expenses. This future legislation was also meant to establish procedures for compensating the landlord and for relocating the tenant. Unfortunately, none of this seems likely to happen in the near future. The provisions of Article 26 were not retained in the law of December 23, 1986, which superseded that of June 22, 1982.

Tenants are always at the mercy of an automatic application of clauses in a lease. But nothing in the law assures tenants of alternative housing when they are evicted. In effect, our legislation allows destitute individuals or families to be put in the street without also immediately giving them the right to be rehoused.

There are provisions in the law to suspend evictions during the winter. But there is no legal obligation to rehouse the homeless, even in winter. The lack of an effective guarantee of the right to housing compromises the future of any tenant who cannot pay rent and poses a constant threat to family unity.

D. Poverty and Family Breakup

1. The poor family and the individual rights of its members

Anyone involved with poor families knows that the law considers the family to be a group of individuals, each with their own rights. What action can be taken, then, in the case of a family in which the father has been unemployed or in and out of work for several years and receives no benefits?

Should the efforts concentrate on helping the husband so that his wife and children will eventually be provided for? Or should the wife be advised to leave her husband and so become eligible for the allowances for single parents? Similarly, when a household cannot ensure the healthy development of the children, should the children be helped outside their family, or should the help go to the family as a whole?

The value that social services, government agencies and judicial authorities place on preserving chronically poor family units depends on how they perceive the parents in such families. The various agencies face difficult decisions that, for the poorer families, are crucial to family integrity and dignity. Yet the poorer the family, the less able it is to defend itself.

This might explain, in part, the high rate of couples breaking up, and the large number of single parent households and of children in foster care among families in the lowest socioeconomic level. The high rate of family breakup again illustrates that when economic and social rights are not fully assured, civil and political rights are eventually impaired. In turn, the weakness of civil and political rights accentuates the denial of economic and social rights.

2. Is the value of the poor family recognized?

We have to realize that men, women and children struggle, often desperately, to stay together as a family. Nevertheless, chronically poor families remain threatened by the placement of children in foster care, either temporarily or permanently (see Part Two, Chapter V).

Although the official reason for child placement may not be the poverty of the family, poverty is always an aggravating factor. We have seen throughout Part Two of this report that protective measures become less effective, or even nonexistent, when families have little to offer in return. In the end, the family is not protected and its right to exist is denied. It seems that the value of a family is assessed on a sliding scale: the poorer the family, the lower its worth. The poorest families are always suspect, and people readily intrude in their lives. "We can’t shut our doors," the families say. "Anyone who wants can just walk in."

E. Questioning the Right to Have Children

The right to have children is a serious matter. This right, more than any other, involves a person’s conscience and freedom of choice. The previous chapters have shown that a minimum of security must be ensured if a family is to freely choose and plan its future. The choice of how many children to have is connected to the question of what resources the family has to provide for the children’s future. The answer should be sought in policies designed to provide security, educational opportunity and the means to participate in society.

Certain current practices must be denounced. There are cases in which socio medical institutions exceed their prerogatives because they have few means to deal with a family’s deprivation. In such cases, for example, they may exert pressure on a woman to have an abortion or tubal ligation, without her really understanding the full implications of the operation.


In a democracy, injustices can be redressed when people have the right to be heard and to bring pressure to bear on appropriate institutions. They can achieve this in two ways: by contesting administrative or judicial decisions; and by participating in civic associations, labor unions and political parties.

A. The Avenues for Appeal

Most citizens find the process of appealing a decision to be complex. An appeal is possible for people able to understand the process, hire a lawyer, analyze the situation and express their opinion about it. When people seek redress against an injustice, their lifestyle and conduct are important considerations; it is better for them not to be seen as having done wrong themselves.

We saw this in the case of the W. family. They did not even consider filing an appeal about what happened to them. For persons from a poor background, communication with lawyers and judges can be difficult. The cause of this problem often lies with the professional who lacks the necessary training to deal with such situations. Examples involving doctors, social workers and teachers have already been cited. The same lack of understanding affects communication between the poor and members of the legal profession, on whom the poor depend to untangle their often complicated situations. If there is a lack of understanding, a lawyer can begin to mistrust a client. This can also partly explain the reluctance of the very poor to seek legal help, even when it is free of charge.

A person involved in a court case can request legal aid. The legal aid office decides whether to help, based on the applicant’s resources and the validity of the case. The approval process can be long, and only a senior judge can grant emergency assistance. In criminal matters, the public defender’s office is poorly remunerated by the government, and lawyers, by giving many other reasons, may refuse to accept clients. However, in the Department of Seine St. Denis, the bar association has set up a system of advance payments for lawyers acting as public defenders. This simple step has greatly improved the availability of public defenders.

A person who has been assigned a lawyer by legal aid or through the public defender’s office may ask the president of the bar association for another lawyer if he or she is not satisfied. In the case of legal aid, people may choose a lawyer from those registered with the court involved (Article 11 of the law of December 31, 1982). This is not yet possible in criminal cases, where there is no choice of public defender. But, slowly, the very poor are beginning to have some freedom to choose the lawyers who will defend them.

B. Participating in Public Life

The right to participate in associations: a privilege or a necessity?

Throughout Part Two, we have seen many examples of laws that do not adequately cover the situations of extremely poor people. This is almost to be expected, because the poor have had no voice in establishing the laws.

French democracy has shown itself ready to propose legislative remedies for many social ills. Society pays attention to new needs and hardships as they become known through the workings of national institutions and especially through civic groups and labor unions. Sometimes new organizations arise in response to new needs. For any issue at stake, they sort out what is the responsibility of citizens and what the responsibility of government.

Being part of an association can provide people with necessary information. It can also be an opportunity for them to take on a civic or political commitment on behalf of fellow citizens in difficult circumstances.

We have already explained that it is essential for individuals and families in poverty to be part of associations (see the reference to the Théry report in Chapter V of Part Two). When people belong to an association, it helps ensure that they are part of society. In this regard, the role of government cannot simply be to avoid placing obstacles in the way of the poorest people joining associations. The right to free association must be accompanied by the means for people to become part of a group in which they are genuinely interested. Otherwise the group does not serve its function for the people for whom it was intended; and society fails to broaden the scope of public life if it does not include new partners in a potentially richer dialogue.

Very poor individuals and families sometimes do participate in various groups. Their participation, however, is often at the level of mere attendance rather than active involvement. And their attendance is generally very irregular. A mother may attend a parents’ meeting at school or a father may go to a tenants’ meeting, but it is difficult for them to be part of what is going on. The topics discussed may be foreign to them, while their own concerns may not interest the average participant. Initiating a dialogue requires a learning process on both sides.

Conditions for participation by the very poor

The very poor want to participate. The fact that they come together in local and national groups is a proof of this desire. These associations can promote the progressive involvement of the poorest people in the following ways:

  • The group must reach out to people who are in a very insecure situation and, at the same time, respect the liberty of people to choose how they are involved. Whether they choose to come to meetings or not, people must be informed and have the chance to contribute their ideas and knowledge.
  • The disadvantaged must find people with whom they can speak on an equal level, in a comprehensible manner, about subjects that are important for them.
  • The very poor have concerns that are crucial for them. But they know that they will not be given the attention they deserve unless fellow citizens and specialists in various areas are on their side.

Associations, both small and large, that work according to these principles have shown that real participation by the very poor is possible. Some examples are the Workers’ Mutual Aid Society (Entraide ouvrière) in Tours, various groups working among Gypsy people, and a number of projects launched by ATD Fourth World, a movement that brings together very poor families.

The approach of such groups demands that the members know how to integrate the more disadvantaged participants into the workings of the group. People who are constantly struggling against poverty need to find ways to come together in a common cause. Existing organizations have to take this into acount and defend the interests of the poorest.

Participation in the political process

Direct participation in the political process is not easy for the very poor. It requires a minimum of education, self assurance and security. For people who are illiterate, who depend on public assistance, who lack proper housing, or who do not understand the different agencies that dominate their lives, political involvement is very difficult. If they visit a local party office, it is only to seek emergency assistance.

Poor people abstain from political involvement, or even from voting, for various reasons. They find the voter registration procedure difficult to follow, or they miss deadlines to register. They cannot always offer proof of residence. Some of them think that having been in prison deprives them of the right to vote. But, besides these reasons, many of the poorest people think that politics is not concerned with their situation.

In such a context, the current move toward decentralization may be both an opportunity and a danger for the more disadvantaged. The Foundation for Developing Participation in Associations (Fondation pour le développement de la vie associative) states:

"At the local level, where each community is now being given greater control over its affairs, it is evident that marginalized groups will have greater difficulty in finding their place in the community. When responsibility for social assistance is shifted to the Departmental level, people who are largely dependent on public assistance are more likely to be viewed as a financial and social burden, and even more so when they are considered incapable of integrating into the community. In such circumstances, there will be a greater temptation to exercise social control over them or even to exclude them."

In this context, government officials and the general public should be aware that the most deprived people are potential partners and should resolve to give them the means to achieve the equality that such a relationship demands. A number of associations, especially at the local level and often at the urging of social workers, are already trying to include the very poor and to incorporate the interests of the very poor into their agenda. For the very poor, as for anyone, participation in organized groups is essential if they are to express themselves publicly and to be initiated into the political process.

It would seem that chronic poverty, in itself a contradiction of the notion of human rights, is also a major obstacle to the attainment of those rights. The economic, social and cultural deprivation that chronic poverty entails makes a dead letter of civil liberties and political rights. If people have no means of redress and no way of participating in social and political life, they cannot regain economic and social rights that have been denied to them.

Before concluding this chapter, we call attention to an important development. In 1976, as a result of 15 years of prompting by an association, a number of representatives in the National Assembly formed a nonpartisan group to study the problems of the Fourth World. The Senate formed its own group in 1980. In itself, the existence of those study groups is not unusual. The groups are unique, however, because the initiative came from an association whose members are families from some of the poorest neighborhoods. What is even more unusual is that the families are linked in a nationwide association that keeps the representatives informed of their situation and their views. Following the French example, members of the European Parliament established their own "Fourth World Committee." This group meets regularly, both during and between sessions, with representatives from areas of poverty throughout Europe.

The members of the Fourth World Committee consider that the contribution of the poorest is not simply an exercise of their right to speak out, but something that the members of the Parliament need to know. They consider that defending the interests of the poorest is not a choice, but a permanent obligation whatever the current social and economic trends. In France, where the idea originated, there is potential for much more collaboration of this kind.

  1. aretrouver

catégorie:France - Conseil économique et social

Ad blocker interference detected!

Wikia is a free-to-use site that makes money from advertising. We have a modified experience for viewers using ad blockers

Wikia is not accessible if you’ve made further modifications. Remove the custom ad blocker rule(s) and the page will load as expected.