Why there are so many beggars in Paris

There are historical reasons for the large number of beggars in Paris.

Le mendiant et son enfant Yves
Le mendiant et son enfant Yves, “The beggar and his son Yves,” dated to 1317. Picture source: http://classes.bnf.fr/ema/grands./084.htm

The typical stereotype of Paris is as a beautiful, majestically historical city that just oozes romance, and indeed, Paris is all that.  But, visitors are often surprised to find that it is also a city with a sometimes astounding number of beggars on the street. The reasons behind this are many, and varied, and, I think, interesting.

In the pre-modern period, the vast majority of the French (like the vast majority of everyone else in the world) were farmers.  Most children didn’t live to adulthood, and you needed a lot of hands to work the farm, so people had big families.

In the 1500s, the French death rate took a relatively sudden drop.  People were still having those big families, so there were a relatively large number of people making it to adulthood.  The inheritance laws of the time included primogeniture, i.e. inheritance of everything by the oldest son, so lots of those people wouldn’t have a farm of their own to work.  Options were limited, and if they couldn’t find other employment, a lot of people hit the road.  (There’s an excellent description of the mechanics of this phenomenon in Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre and other episodes in French cultural history.)

If you hit the road in France, you’re eventually going to end up in Paris, if for no other reason than that it’s the hub of the road system (and today, the rail system).  If you can’t find other employment, your options come down to begging or stealing, and most people aren’t thieves.  So: begging.

Begging actually has a very long and somewhat respectable history in Europe.  As Robert Cole puts it: “In the middle ages, ‘Christian charity’ perceived the poor as God’s special children and therefore deserving of alms.”  Begging can be a profession, really.  (Old Eastern European Jewish joke: beggar hits a guy up for money.  Guy gives him some helpful hints on improving his approach.  Beggar responds: YOU’RE telling ME how to beg?  This would make total sense in a French context: a métier (profession) is a métier, whether you’re a doctor, an engineer, or an elevator operator.)

If you’re gonna be a beggar, though, it helps to have a schtick.  Physical lack of ability to work was a good one, and Parisian beggars were known for faking such a disability, leading to their squatting areas being known as Cours des miracles (“Courts of miracles”) for their recovery at the end of the working day.  (There was one just to the north of what is now the Place des Vosges, I believe.)  By the 1500s, begging wasn’t viewed quite as kindly.  Robert Cole again:

In sixteenth-century Paris the poor were viewed as merely layabouts who preferred to live off public welfare.  Meanwhile bad harvests, plagues, inflation and religious war increased their number dramatically.  Public begging was outlawed in 1536, and in 1551 laws were enacted which limited eligibility for public assistance and forbad women to have their children in tow when selling candles outside churches.  To do so, went the rationale, evoked sympathy from prospective customer, which proved that such women were really only begging.  A traveller’s history of Paris.

So: there have been a lot of beggars in Paris for centuries.  In 2007, the European Union was enlarged to include a couple countries with large Roma populations.  There have always been Roma in France, but now a lot more came (the Roma rights group FNASAT says 12,000 currently, and that’s after 10,000 being expelled in 2009 and another 8,000 in 2011; other estimates range from 20,000 to 400,000), and they are a prominent part of the Parisian begging ecosystem.  (There is, indeed, a Parisian begging ecosystem, and there are actually a number of distinct genres of begging in Paris–a subject in and of itself.)

To be clear: if you don’t give charity, your life is pointless.  Let me point out that this is a teaching of at least Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, and–for my fellow secularists in France–Rousseau, the revolutionary Constituent Assembly, National Convention, and Directory, and modern French philosophers from Sartre to Alain Finkielkraut.  (All of those links are to citations on the subject, not to their biographies.)  The Buddhist view of charity is especially appealing to me, as a (really bad) student of judo:

Buddhism views charity as an act to reduce personal greed which is an unwholesome mental state which hinders spiritual progress.  What Buddhists believe, Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera.

Judo’s view of the best human relationships is mutual welfare–we’re taught that human interactions should be mutually beneficial.  So, if it’s the case that charity benefits both the giver and the receiver, then it’s very judo.  Seriously, give charity–if for no other reason than that you’ll feel better about humanity if you take part in it being more humane.

  • le mendiant: beggar.
  • le gueux/la gueuse: beggar (literary).  A number of other, more pejorative meanings–highwayman for men, whore for women, etc.  Probably obsolete, but keep it mind for when you read Tartuffe.
  • le clochard: beggar; also bum.  (Slang.)
  • le/la clodo: beggar; also homeless person, tramp, hobo.

Some additions from native speaker Phildange:

  • le vagabond: wandering beggar, hobo.
  • le chemineau: same as above.
  • faire la manche: to beg.

9 thoughts on “Why there are so many beggars in Paris”

  1. Actually gueux didn’t really mean beggar, maybe at some point of history it did but I always read it in XVIIIth or XIXth century books as meaning the opposite of noble or rich . It could designate a poor peasant or worker, not only a beggar .
    Clodo is only a slangish form for clochard, it’s not a word by itself . ( working class French historically transformed in many different ways any words endings and some of these mutations managed to become common ).
    There is un vagabond, a wandering beggar, a hobbo .
    Higher level : un chemineau, same meaning as vagabond .
    Colloquial for begging : faire la manche .

    In a far past beggars were indeed many but when I was a kid only poetic clochards were found in France, like in some books, the philosopher beggar who wants to remain free and drink his wine . Before the Romas flood beggars became more and more visible everywhere starting from the loathed 80s and the result of worldly deregulation led by Reagan and Thatcher . Massive unemployment, more and more miserable people, third-worldization of France, Europe and all yore civilized nations .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Phildange. I added your words. I’m sure you’re right about gueux–I came across it on WordReference.com as a translation for beggar, but in real life, I’ve only ever seen it in Molière.

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      1. You mean you had an affair with Molière ? Not bad for a hairy Barbarian . Molière crossed a bad pass in the XIXth century . The opinion makers had decided his work was outdated and too much this/not enough that .
        But of course, as we could see in different occasions, genius recognize each other . And there is a poem by Alfred de Musset starting so :
        “J’étais seul l’autre soir au Théâtre Français,
        Ou presque seul . L’auteur n’avait pas grand succès .
        Ce n’était que Molière…”
        ( Le Théâtre Français is another name of the Comédie Française venerable theater ) .
        What had since long impressed me is the fact those starving and later illustrissime unknown geniuses did recognize themselves, even in a different art than their own : between 1860 and 1914 famished poets and painters befriended in Montmartre and recognized each other’s value while the world ignored them . Imagine you going to an “estaminet” of Montmarte and sitting not far from Verlaine and Van Gogh . And all this in the real Montmartre, the one who started the Commune de Paris !
        Well, it’s no more possible, there are no more miserable hotels there for these guys although the number of homeless has again become equivalent …

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Agreed. I am always on the lookout for addresses where I know that writers and artists starved in Paris, and indeed, every one of those neighborhoods is completely unaffordable.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Charity is good, but there’s also the “teach someone to fish” rather than give them a fish theory. Which is why the Roma are not appreciated in many countries – they’re meant not to want to enter the mainstream. Oh, and you forgot Buddhism 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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