Sandra Butler, University of Maine. Originally posted in Bangor Daily News May 23, 2017.
Earlier this month, France elected a new president, Emmanuel Macron. The French presidential campaign and its results may not have captured public attention in the US to the extent that the US presidential election both fascinated and horrified the rest of the world, but it has been watched closely, particularly by its European neighbors. Macron, like President Donald Trump, won his first elected office in winning the presidency. Prior to leaving the Socialist Party to create his own party called “En Marche” — translated as “On the Move” — Macron served as the minister of economy, industry and digital affairs in now former President, François Hollande’s administration.
Macron received the most votes among the 11 candidates in the first round of elections on April 23, with Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, a far-right, anti-immigrant, anti-European Union party, coming in a close second. Macron won a clear mandate with nearly two-thirds of the vote in the run-off election on May 7.
Like the US presidential election, the French election had its share of controversy and unexpected outcomes. The early favorite, François Fillon, of the center-right Republican Party, came under investigation when it was discovered he had used government funds to pay his wife for work she never did; consequently his ratings fell dramatically. Le Pen’s popularity was of great concern to those supporting the European Union and immigrant rights, as has been the rise of such populist parties in other European countries.
But through it all, I was struck by one major difference to the US, both in party platforms and in election results: Other than for immigrants by Le Pen, the social welfare contract was not significantly threatened by any of the candidates, no matter their political leanings, right, centrist, or left.
I have had the opportunity to spend some time in France this year and while there I was a student of the language and the social welfare system. Like all western European countries, France has a social welfare system that emphasizes universality and prevention. The US, on the other hand, generally takes a “residual” approach to social welfare, meaning supports and services come into play as a last resort, when families or the marketplace break down. In contrast, all French citizens receive health care; have access to childcare; and can count on paid maternity, paternity, and general sick leave. All older adults have a right to subsidized in-home services for needed assistance to age in place.
Being aware of these programs, I was curious about whether they would come under attack during the presidential campaign. Generally they did not. Even ultra-right Le Pen suggested lowering the retirement age to 60. Unlike in the US, cutting health care and removing assistance to low-income families with children were not planks in any party platforms.
There is good reason for this: The French, on the whole, appreciate the supports they receive and understand that their taxes pay for them. The French teachers in the language school I attended spoke of their easy access to excellent health care, the comprehensive day care and early education system for their children, and the services available to their older family members needing assistance.
This spring, in Maine, a bold initiative has been put forward that includes programs offered in France. Based on a report published by Maine People’s Alliance, in collaboration with the national organization, Caring Across Generations, the Universal Family Care plan has been proposed as a bill, LD 1612, sponsored by Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook. This proactive proposal would support Maine families through paid family leave; guaranteed childcare for children up to age three; and financial support for family caregivers or paid home care workers, when older adults need assistance.
In the current harsh political environment, it is heartening to know the quest for social justice has not been extinguished. The Universal Family Care plan addresses the often insurmountable obstacles faced by many Maine families as they seek to care for their loved ones and meet their full potential in the workforce. It is not unlike the French approach.
In reality, the US and France have much in common, sharing the critical values of democracy and freedom arising from our respective revolutionary histories. A third value of importance in France is solidarity. The Universal Family Care plan will allow us to demonstrate our own commitment to solidarity with all our Maine neighbors.
Sandy Butler is professor of social work and graduate program coordinator in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine in Orono. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.