The Prime Minister recently pledged €60million in ‘sustainable’ food aid for 2023, which France’s network of centres communaux d’action sociale (CCAS) will have a role in distributing.
This is just one of the ways these centres can support local residents, particularly as inflation bites.
A CCAS is mandatory for towns of more than 1,500 inhabitants and optional for smaller villages, but even many French people are unaware of services they offer.
“In France, there are lots of institutions, and it is complicated to know who to turn to when you have a problem,” said Jean-Baptiste Meaux, who works for the UDCCAS for the Nord department, a union of 205 local CCAS.
Every CCAS has three main duties
They must provide a permanent address to people without a fixed address, or who require administrative independence from a violent partner, for example; maintain a database of local residents who receive benefits; and analyse the needs of the local population.
The CCAS can decide which additional forms of support to offer.
For foreign residents in France, the CCAS can be invaluable in providing guidance and support when completing forms and applications related to every kind of social benefit, including:
- The Allocation personnalisée d’autonomie (Apa), which helps elderly people cover the costs of continuing to live at home;
- The Complémentaire santé solidaire, free or subsidised top-up health insurance for people on low incomes;
- The Allocation aux adultes handicapés (AAH), which ensures disabled people have a minimum level of income.
How much help you can get with filling in applications depends on your town.
“Certain CCAS will say it is not their role to do the job of the Caf, for example, which is supposed to help people with the process [of applying for APL housing benefits].
But since certain institutions no longer take face-to-face appointments, a large majority of CCAS will do so.”
They can also help people understand which support measures they qualify for.
“We don’t expect people to be familiar with every support package,” Mr Meaux said. Around a third of households eligible for the ‘back-to-work/work top-up’ social benefit Revenu de solidarité active (RSA) do not claim it, and a fifth do not use the chèque énergie voucher, even though it is sent out automatically.
Lack of knowledge and pride stop people from claiming
Mr Meaux believes this is due to a lack of knowledge, as well as pride, stemming from the demonisation of benefit recipients.
“Instead of talking about social aid, we could talk about social rights, instead of food aid, food rights, because being fed is a condition for living.”
He said that since the pandemic new categories of people have been arriving at the CCAS, notably more students and those in precarious employment.
The centres are presided by the local mayor but run on a daily basis by a director who is often someone from the field of social work.
They are administered by a board composed of councillors and ordinary citizens selected by the mayor, often representing associations, which decides what additional programmes to offer.
“It depends half on the mayor’s campaign promises, and half on the analysis of social needs which is undertaken after every mayoral election,” Mr Meaux said.
This research, which can be purely statistical or involve feedback from local associations, highlights local demographics and ways residents could be better supported.
Many CCASs cater their services to seniors, with meal deliveries, retirement homes, home help, and events and other actions to combat social isolation.
Another common service is food aid, either through vouchers, food packages, or by partnering with associations to offer organic vegetables, for example.
One northern town offers a shuttle service so elderly people can do their shopping in a nearby town. Another recently held a workshop to demonstrate ways to reduce electricity usage.
Some centres also offer microcrédits – small, short-term loans to help residents manage unexpected problems, when they are unable to get a bank loan due to a lack of income or an unstable job situation.
“The larger the town, the more funds it has, and the likelier it is to offer different things,” Mr Meaux said.
While much of their work is aimed at certain categories, particularly those on the margins of society, many social and educational events are open to all.
How to discover more
You can visit the CCAS directly without an appointment to learn how they can help.
You can find details at the town hall. It might also be possible to volunteer at your local centre – for example, to phone and check in on vulnerable people.
Since the deadly heatwave of 2003, town halls must keep a registre des personnes vulnérables, a list of elderly, isolated and disabled people to communicate with in case of emergency.
This list is often delegated to the CCAS, and you can usually contact your centre to request to be added.
Since the CCAS operate at commune level, you can only be served by the centre for the town in which you live.
Smaller towns sometimes come together to run a centre intercommunal d’action sociale (CIAS), often in addition to the CCAS, which might focus on a specific topic, such as helping people back into work.