FRANCE: Paris’ top of the crop discuss basic income


Paris was the ‘place to be’ for basic income last Thursday, February 4th, at a high-profile conference featuring key basic income personalities from France and beyond.

The event, which was organised by the liberal think tank Génération Libre, was held at the famous Salle Gaveau, and was attended by about 600 people.

This conference united diverse individuals, with myriad different backgrounds and values, around one common interest: basic income. Attendees included prominent foreign basic income supporters, such as Belgian philosopher and political economist Philippe van Parijs and Brazilian politician and economist Eduardo Suplicy, as well as French politicians from left to right — including former ministers Delphine Batho and Alain Madelin and European parliament members Karima Delli and Sylvie Goulard — in addition to members of the civil society, entrepreneurs, and basic income sympathizers who were simply curious to know how the idea is progressing in France.

Economist Marc de Basquiat launched the show with a presentation of how basic income could fix the complexity and inefficiency of the French tax-benefit system, and introduced key steps to move forward the implementation of a basic income. He also presented the results of a microsimulation of the redistributive effects of a basic income scheme in France. It showed a modest increase in social contribution from wealthy households, while the poorest, and especially families would benefit most.

Next, Jean-Eric Hyafil, an economist and member of the French Movement for a Basic Income (MFRB), delivered a presentation in which he emphasized the rapid growth of the movement in the past few months: “basic income had never known a surge of interest such as the one we are living know,” he said.

After these opening talks, the floor was given to Philippe van Parijs and Eduardo Suplicy, both prominent figures of the basic income movement, historian Laurence Fontaine, and Lionel Stoléru, known as a historical proponent of the negative income tax in France in the 70s.

These four panelists laid out the philosophical and economic justifications for the basic income. Philippe van Parijs stressed the three core principles of basic income – a basic income must be universal, unconditional and individual – and stressed that basic income is, first and foremost, a matter of freedom. Lionel Storélu called for a better integration of fiscal and social systems, something basic income would eventually make possible.

The liberal thinker and former minister of Economy was the only dissent voice among the speakers. He gave a very critical speech, in which he claimed that basic income would encourage idleness. As he stated, “In wanting to do too much, you risk losing effectiveness in the fight against poverty.”

Other speakers — including Diana Filippova (Ouishare), Benoit Thieulin (National Digital Council), and entrepreneur Yann Hascoet (Chauffeur Privé) — were able to relay their firsthand experience in the new digital economy.  

Thieulin, co-author of an important report on the Transformations of Work in the Digital Era ordered by the Ministry of Labor, justified basic income on the ground that we were “facing an unprecedented and much deeper upheaval than the industrial revolution. It is thus not realistic to try adapting the new digital assets to fit in the old socio-economic frameworks”. According to Thieulin, basic income allows a smooth transition toward the new economy.

“We keep saying we tried everything to fight unemployment. Well no, we haven’t tried basic income!” – Benoit Thieulin

Following Thieulin, Diana Filippova delivered a talk in which she argued that “basic income would enable a better redistribution of the wealth originating from the digital labor, and in particular the profits made from personal data collected through social networks.”

Politicians beyond borders on basic income

After the talks from the representatives of the new digital economy, politicians took the stage at the conference. These political discussions showed that, in spite of the ideological differences, it is still possible to have a common goal – which, in this case, is introducing basic income into public debate. As Frédéric Lefebvre, from the right-wing party Les Républicains, claimed, “The government has no right to miss out on this debate.”

The Socialist Party’s Delphine Batho, former Minister of Ecology, also highlighted that “basic income is not just about giving a handout, but it is about entering into a new ecological, digital and social model.”

Sylvie Goulard, member of the European Parliament (MEP) from the Liberal party, expressed her interest in the idea. As president of the parliamentary intergroup on poverty, she argued that poverty implies a significant deprivation of freedom. According to Goulard, a European basic income would make sense: “I have never believed in a complete harmonisation of social systems in Europe … However, the idea of guaranteeing a decent income for all across Europe could be shared.”

Member of the European Parliament Karima Delli insisted that basic income is part of an emancipatory project. It should allow a transformation of the economy by allowing new forms of work. “It will allow people to ask each other: what do you want to do with your life?”

Too soon to decide on an appropriate level

Both Goulard and Lefebvre agreed that, importantly, it is not yet time to decide upon the level of basic income. “There is still a lot of work to do and we need a democratic debate between possible options after we have appraised works on this,” Goulard said.

As this conference showed, basic income is no longer the utopian dream that it was considered not so long ago. In the past few months, all eyes have been turned towards the Finnish initiative to experiment with basic income; more recently, however, attention has focused more and more on how basic income might evolve in the French society, and politicians from both sides of the spectrum have started to officially support the idea.

Indeed, Ministers are discussing the idea even at the level of the national government. After the declaration of Minister of Economy Emmanuel Macron, stating that basic income was an interesting idea we should study further, the Minister for Labour Myriam El Khomri agreed that it was “a beautiful idea that we should consider.” Her statement followed the report handed out by the National Digital Council to the Ministry of Labour at the beginning of January, supporting basic income as one out of 20 possibilities that might help to cope with labour evolution due to the digitalization of the economy.

In the space of a couple of months, 3 amendments on basic income have been presented to the National Assembly, from representatives of parties on the left as well as the right.

The next important event will take place at the Finnish embassy in Paris on the 3rd of March, organized by the French Movement for a Basic Income (MFRB). Then, on March 9th, a motion tabled by Green Senator Jean Desessard will be debated at the French Senate.

Nicole Teke and Stan Jourdan

About Stanislas Jourdan

Stanislas Jourdan has written 40 articles.

Co-Founder of the French Movement for basic income. Also journalist in a previous life.

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