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Europe or Bust

A once-solid safety net is beginning to fray

A slow-motion crisis unfolds in famed welfare states as the middle class feels the pinch of a sagging economy. The French are eating near-expired food, and Italians are shoplifting pasta and Parmesan.

March 30, 2009|Sebastian Rotella

PARIS — Italian supermarkets report an increase in shoplifting by first-time offenders, especially among the middle class and the elderly. The most popular target for rookie thieves: Parmesan cheese.

French shoppers, famously insistent about freshness, no longer snub foods that are close to the expiration date. Discovering an underground market for almost-expired products fished out of dumpsters, stores decide to keep the spoils on the shelves.

Spanish police detect a shift in car thefts, from luxury brands to the sensible, midrange models now in demand on the black market.

These are the signs of a slow-motion crisis in continental Western Europe. The street-level repercussions of the economic meltdown have been less brutal than in the United States or Eastern Europe, because of the strong government-backed social welfare network in France and its prosperous neighbors. But experts warn that the safety net is starting to fray as the global crisis persists, unemployment rises and benefits run out.

"France lost 90,000 jobs in January alone, a real dramatic jump, and we haven't felt the impact of that yet because those people will get benefits for a while," said Olivier Berthe, who directs Restos de Coeur, a charity that runs soup kitchens for the needy nationwide. "We get more and more clients, and the worry is that we haven't yet seen all the ones who will be coming."

The charity has served 12% more people this year than during the same period last year. In the rural heartland of France, there has been a sharp increase in demand at soup kitchens as work dries up in agriculture, construction and other sectors.

In a recent French poll, half of the respondents said they could imagine themselves ending up on the street.

If the American dream is opportunity, the European dream is equality. Europeans don't grow up believing that anyone can be elected president or build an empire out of a small business. But they trust the state to help make a middle-class lifestyle widely accessible with solid health and education infrastructures, ironclad labor protections and a generous system for the unemployed and the poor.

In France, the percentage of people beneath the poverty line fell steadily in the last 40 years, from 14% to 6% in 2000. During the last two years, however, the percentage has risen slightly, Berthe said.

No one is predicting that economic woes will produce riots or the kind of government collapses occurring in Eastern Europe. But the quiet repercussions could get louder if factories and companies continue mass firings or shutdowns, Berthe said.

"You could see social and union conflict by the victims and by people who are not in the same situation, but are afraid that they are next," he said.

And the middle class feels the chill. The crisis has changed longtime habits, such as a finicky preference for the freshest foods that led supermarkets to throw out goods before they expired. In recent months, Berthe said, a subculture has developed of scavengers who retrieve and sell the products. Now, French supermarkets promote sales of close-to-the-limit goods. People snap them up, even if it means forgoing style and variety to eat the same thing for several meals in a row, he said.

In Italy, quiet despair has led to a wave of pilfering by unlikely culprits who do not fit the profile of professional shoplifters, said Giuseppe Politi, director of the Italian farmers' association. Shoplifting increased 7% this year compared with the first months of 2008, he said in an interview. The trend started with thefts of expensive items, especially Parmesan, then widened.

"The association is worried," Politi said. "Compared to a couple of years ago, we see that people don't steal just Parmesan or meat, which are considered expensive items, but they also steal pasta, which is a relatively cheap item. Supermarkets don't usually report to the police when they catch a senior stealing a product. . . . For many of them, it seems they have only two choices: stealing food or begging in the street."

Italy's economy is not as big as France's. Nonetheless, until recently Italians enjoyed a high-quality lifestyle driven by large and medium industries, thrifty savings habits and a sometimes chaotic but protective social services system. Moreover, experts say, the meltdown last fall did not hit Italy as hard as other countries because its banks and businesses were less plugged in to the global financial sector.

Nonetheless, a survey published by the Corriere della Sera newspaper in November found that more than a third of Italian families had economic problems and their monthly salary lasted only the first three weeks of the month.

In Rome, the clientele has changed at the charity known as Save Mamas, which provides parents with counseling as well as diapers, secondhand children's clothes and powdered milk.

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