Restos du Coeur: Why issues at France’s biggest charity have hit hard

News that the charity is struggling has been seen as tantamount to a ‘French institution in peril’, prompting outrage, disbelief, and high-profile donations

A view of a Restos du Coeur van
Les Restos du Coeur has now reached every corner of French society - but the charity was never supposed to have existed
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Les Restos du Coeur, France’s largest food bank charity, has announced that it is struggling due to inflation - prompting a public outcry and a rush of high-profile funding.

The charity blamed rising costs due to inflation, said its president Patrice Douret to TF1 on Sunday (September 3). “At this rate, the Restos du Coeur may even have to close down within the next three years,” he said.

The charity was facing a €35 million shortfall to meet current demands, he said. In 2022, the association provided 171 million meals; a 30%-increase since the pandemic, and more than a third (35%) of the total amount given via food banks and food charities nationwide.

But, such is the public feeling for Les Restos du Coeur, that Mr Douret’s call for funds was quickly answered.

Bernard Arnault, the managing director of luxury goods company LVMH - who is often cited as the world’s richest person with a net worth of more than $200bn - said he would provide €10 million, and the French state announced another stimulus package of €15 million.

The French national football team also announced it would provide funds.

Read more: $193bn: How did this French businessman get so rich?

The public’s reaction to the news of the charity’s struggles mirrored that of the Notre-Dame cathedral fire in 2019; a state of shock and paralysis, followed by great generosity from leading business people.

Indeed, Les Restos du Coeur is seen by some to be as much a monument in peril in the public’s hearts as Notre-Dame, and as important to the country’s social fabric as Notre-Dame is to its history.

Except…the charity should never have existed.

Not meant to last

“We are the country of gastronomie. No-one should die from hunger in France.”

Mr Douret could have said last week - except that it was said on the radio on September 26, 1985, by French comedian Michel Colucci, in a call for support that laid the foundation of what is now Les Restos du Coeur.

French people know Mr Colucci under his stage name, Coluche, and he is often regarded as one of France’s best stand-up comedians.

Coluche was known for speaking to every French person, no matter their social status, gender or ethnicity. His shows attracted very high ratings on TV and radio, most notably on Europe 1.

He burst into public life on TV minutes before the results of the 1974’s presidential election with one of his most famous sketches: “C’est l’histoire d’un mec…” (Once Upon A Time...One guy)

Wearing his classic outfit (a yellow shirt paired with denim jeans with braces), Coluche grew immensely popular from telling funny stories that borrowed from real life examples. Many of his jokes were compiled on DVDs, and are available on Youtube.

He particularly liked to take jabs at politicians.

“Do you know which month politicians say the least amount of bull***t?” one of his most famous jokes goes. “February. Because there are only 28 days.”

His social and political positions could be considered close to the gilet jaunes movement, before it even existed.

One poll credited him with 16% of voting intention in 1981, when he satirically announced he was running for president. He gave up his campaign after he received death threats.

Back in 1985, Coluche’s call was met with remarkable support and 8.5 million meals were served that year.

But the comedian always said Les Restos du Coeur was not meant to last, and he expected the state to step in to help instead. But 38 years later, the association still exists, and appears to be needed more than ever.

When Coluche died in a motorbike crash in 1986, he carried away the dreams of a generation and left an empty void in their hearts. “Once Upon A Time...One guy …dies” headlined Libération, in reference to the comedian’s previous joke.

But the millions - both money and recipients - of the charity he accidentally funded have skyrocketed.

Les Restos du Coeur is a warm-hearted, volunteer-run, and non-political association. But it also, even unintentionally, continues to show just how ineffective the state remains in helping to protect its most vulnerable citizens.

The sad reality

Today, the charity itself is struggling.

It is not that people have been giving less to Les Restos. The funds collected have even jumped from €4.5 million to €125 million in the past 38 years. However, the cost to keep the charity in operation has significantly increased.

The announcement of its struggles reached every corner of French society.

On BFMTV, actress Isabelle Nanty questioned how it can be possible that so many people still require Les Restos to survive today.

The struggles have reached even that most popular of sports: football.

France’s popular football podcast, l'After Foot, featured one consultant who said he was dumbstruck by player Neymar’s description of his years at leading team Paris-Saint-Germain to “a living hell” - when so many people in the city are having to queue for food.

Personally, I would go as far as to say that Les Restos du Coeur is all of us. I worked helping to serve meals for them for a year in Paris. So many people have given or give to the charity, or - worse - know someone who needs it.

As my dad, and several people from his generation have told me many times: “I always wonder what Coluche would have made of our current political situation?”

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