Although France's national motto features a pledge to equality, the gap between rich and poor is greater here than in any other modern Western country. This phenomenon is especially relevant today as the campaign for next spring's legislative election gathers momentum.
Both the conservatives headed by President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and the leftwing coalition of Socialists and Communists are promising to promote economic equality. Predictably, the conservatives favor a war against inflation while the leftists are dedicated to a combination of crackdowns on the rich and increased public expenditure.
Taking traditional French attitudes into account, however, the key question is whether either faction can really redistribute wealth more equitably without undertaking drastic measures that could disrupt the country.
Recent studies show that the 10 per cent of French families in the top bracket absorb 30.5 per cent of the national income, while the lowest 10 per cent is left with only 1.4 per cent. The "inequality gap" here, therefore, is three times bigger than that of the Netherlands and Sweden, twice that of Britain and West Germany, and one and a half times that of the United States.
But statistics are like a bikini -- extremely revealing yet hiding the essentials. The division between rich and poor here in France is accentuated by sharp differences in the quality of their wealth.
People in the lowest bracket derive their incomes chiefly from pensions and other social benefits furnished by the government. Frenchmen in the highest bracket draw their wealth primarily from business and property. The rich have the means of production largely under their control; the upper 5 per cent in the income hierarchy own 42 per cent of corporation stocks, 37 per cent of bonds and insurance, and 30 per cent of real estate.
Putting aside the extremes in income disparity, there is also a rather significant gap between the top levels of wealth and both white-collar and industrial workers.
According to labor union calculations, fewer than 7 per cent of white-collar employees earn more than the equivalent of $1,000 per month, while the monthly wage of half the blue-collar work force is below $500.
However, the very rich, whose incomes are difficult to monitor, can easily dodge income taxes. They also accrue wealth through inheritances, on which the tax is light. The white-collar employee cannot evade taxes and other deductions, which are withheld from his salary. A decade ago, only 30 per cent of the nation's income tax revenue came from white-collar employees. Today, they contribute nearly 40 per cent of the total.
The government's present austerity program has imposed further pressures on white-collar employees by limiting wage increases as a way of fighting inflation.
The Communists, who could come to power as part of the leftist coalition next year, have pledged to raise the minimum wage while putting a ceiling on salaries. This would certainly reduce differences in the income scale, but largely at the expense of the middle class.
The leftists are also dedicated to cutting down the rich. This could have the effect of discouraging business investment and indirectly boosting unemployment, which is already a major problem here.
With all this, France appears to be prosperous. The streets are clogged with traffic, fancy restaurants are jammed with consumers, and half the population departs on vacation every August. But these expenditures mostly stem from savings, estimated to total some $40 billion in the form of bank accounts and gold in the mattress.