If you look at the stats, it seems Americans are far more generous than the French. According to the 2010 World Giving Index, France ranked 91 in charitable giving out of 153 countries surveyed, far behind the #5-ranked USA (Australia and New Zealand tied for first).
It would be easy to surmise from this that the French are a bunch of stingy “none for all and all for me” humbugs. I’ve certainly said that a few times myself when my own attempt to make a living has been interrupted by their protest marches and strikes to protect their comfy public sector retirement benefits.
But even I have to admit that this survey doesn’t reveal the full picture. I can’t argue with the donation figure or the hours of volunteer work, but I think the French are actually inherently more generous than Americans.
First, let’s look at the incentives for charitable giving and volunteer work.
In the United States, all charitable donations (up to 50% of adjusted gross income) are 100% tax deductible. This encourages the rich to donate considerable chunks of their fortunes, à la Carnegie, Rockefeller, Gates, and Zuckerman. In France, only 75% of donations up to €513.00 are tax deductible by individuals. They can deduct up to 66% on amounts over that, but donations are capped at 20% of their adjusted gross income. Even worse, French companies can only deduct 60% of donations up to 0.5% of their annual revenue.
Despite this, it’s interesting to note that in France, these charitable donations must be for “humanitarian organizations” according to the Loi Coluche (named for the founder of the Restos du Coeur food banks). Yet the author of an article in Stanford University’s Social Innovation Review titled “A Failure of Philanthropy” argues that American philanthropy does more to benefit elite schools, concert halls and religious groups than to help the poor. In any case, the real questions remains: would Americans give less if the tax incentives disappeared? Would the French give more if the ceiling on donations was raised?
And the incentive for volunteer work?
Growing up in the US, it was drilled into me and my classmates that it was essential to do a significant amount of community service to get into good universities. And at university, we were told it would “look good on your résumé”. I don’t want to imply that I think this is the only reason people volunteer. I certainly did enough volunteer work that I never needed to show on any résumé (primarily because working for myself means I don’t have one). But I still remember in college, during a Spring Break volunteer week at a Habitat for Humanity building site, that the students from another university couldn’t believe we chose to spend our vacations on dusty construction sites. They were required to do it for graduation credit. And they clearly would not have done it otherwise.
And I remember my surprise when I realized that the French students did not have the same “education”. Although there are many volunteer organizations in France, it would be considered very strange to put volunteer work on one’s résumé unless it was directly related to the job you were applying to (ie: it might help to mention you spent every weekend for four years building houses for the poor if you were applying for a construction job). For me, this shows that the French volunteer their time simply because they want to, not because it makes them look good. Would as many Americans volunteer their time if it didn’t somehow “pay off” on their college or job application?
Another issue to consider is the high percentage of French income that goes directly to the “Social Net”.
The French “give” a larger part of their salaries to charity in the form of the high social charges and taxes that pay for public healthcare, housing, child care, education, etc. Many of these public services still don’t exist in the US at anywhere near the level they do in France (I won’t get into healthcare here, but I can tell you the most expensive Grand Ecoles in Paris still only cost €4000-€7000/year; regular public universities cost €300-€700/year). I think this creates a feeling among the French that they are contributing to the well-being of the general public simply by paying their taxes know as “charges sociales”. Why donate more money to charitable associations when you already “gave at the office”?
And don’t forget the post-Revolutionary motto of the French Republic: “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”.
That last one, Fraternity, has nothing to do with Greek university clubs. To the French, it symbolizes solidarity within the community. The French, Parisians in particular, can sometimes seem like they’re cold and heartless, rude and self-absorbed, but I have witnessed more instances of true fraternity and solidarity in this city than I ever saw growing up in the US. In every neighborhood I’ve lived in Paris, there has been a resident homeless person. The locals “adopt” them, bringing them food, blankets, coffee, and — for better or worse — sometimes even a bottle of wine. The same man has been living out of his sleeping bag on the corner where I go food shopping for the past six years. Once in awhile he asks me for a smoke, but usually he keeps to himself and bothers no one. The police (who are right across the street) never ask him to “move along”. None of the residents mutter “get a job” like they do where I grew up. This kind of generosity isn’t measurable by counting monetary donations or volunteer hours.
Okay, let’s say it’s easy to take care of your own, but what about illegal immigrants?
Many of the debates I hear against public health care in the United Sates focus on the idea that illegal immigrants will be able to access health benefits. That doesn’t sound very charitable coming from the richest, most powerful country in the world. If you are an immigrant without papers in France (they call them “sans papiers”, not “immigrés illégaux”), you can get access to the French healthcare system for just €30/year (and it was free until 2011, but due to the rising health care deficit they decided to ask for a token payment). The French can be just as rabidly xenophobic as Americans, but I didn’t see anyone in Paris marching on the streets against health care for impoverished illegal immigrants.
Finally, there’s a stigma in the US when it comes to the poor that doesn’t exist in France.
In the book “Status Anxiety”, Swiss author Alain de Botton talks about the inherent “merit” system for success in the US. I think this applies to charitable giving, as well. Victims of natural disasters or terrorism “deserve” our help. Those without health insurance who become ill, can’t work, and end up on the streets are “lazy bums”. In France, a 2009 survey by the Institut CSA found that over half of French people feel that they might one day end up on the street and need help. Perhaps this is just a sign of their inherent pessimism, but it also translates into empathy and a certain generosity of spirit towards those they see begging on the streets. There is no judgment. I’ve had many French people tell me they don’t mind paying the high taxes that bankroll generous unemployment benefits, because “Maybe one day I’ll lose my job, too.”
When it comes to charitable giving one could argue it’s the result, not the intent, which counts. But when it comes to measuring generosity and making judgments about who is charitable and who is not, I vote that compassion and genuine empathy for those who are less fortunate than ourselves should count just as much for the well-being of the world as “calculable” cash and time donations. And with that in mind, I think the French are just as charitable as Americans.
What do you think?