Behind the French dream of entrepreneurship, the reality of bosses earning below the minimum wage

Nelly Bouet, manager of the café-restaurant Le Moderne, Saint-Germain-des-Fossés, February 22, 2024.

On one side of the coin, there is Carlos Tavares, CEO of Stellantis, and his €36.5 million pay package in 2023. On the flip side, there are thousands of small bosses, beginners or experienced, running shops or sole proprietorship, who earn the minimum wage, or even less, like Nelly Bouet, 42, owner of a café-restaurant near Vichy, in central France. In the noisy hubbub of her business, Bouet’s voice is tinged with anger mixed with fatalism. “Before I set up here in 2018, I was a wealth manager,” she said. “I wanted to stop so that I wouldn’t be crisscrossing France to go and see customers; I wanted to work for myself, no longer chasing the money.” A bad bet. “Today, I’m above the poverty line and below the minimum wage,” she said.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the lifestyle changes it crystallized sent her café-restaurant into a tailspin. “Until 2020, everything was going very well. I had a clientele of elderly people who came here for lunch to break their solitude and not have to cook. Since the Covid-19 crisis, local authorities have signed contracts with companies that deliver ready- made meals at rock-bottom prices. On the one hand, they’re isolating our older people; on the other, my sales have plummeted.” The restaurateur, who has five children, three of whom are dependent on him, can no longer cope, despite drastic restructuring. “I no longer have any employees. I only take on short-term workers. I’ve canceled the bank card and all incidental expenses. I work hard to try and get by, but it’s getting tiresome working just to survive.”

Francine Morand is the manager of six driving schools in the Ain region in eastern France, employing 15 people. Competition and rising charges have forced her to cut her own salary by 30% since 2019. “I’ve been self-employed for 35 years, working from 8 am to 7 pm and every Saturday morning, and at the end of the month I earn between €1,500 and €2,000,” says the 60-year-old. “I’m resigning to the fact that there’s no hope of paying me more.” With five years to go before retirement, she might consider selling her business, as she doesn’t own the premises. “But this business would sell for a pittance. The clientele has no value, and people change driving schools like they change shirts.”

Read more Too many workers in France are on minimum wage

According to a survey conducted by the French Confederation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises at the start of the year, one in five owners of a very small business or a small or medium-sized enterprise pays themselves less than €1,400, that is less than the minimum wage, which stood at €1,398.69 net on January 1. A third (31%) pay themselves between €1,400 and €2,600 – which corresponds to the average salary in the private sector in 2022, according to figures from the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies. A quarter of them earn between €2,600 and €4,000 net, and a quarter more than €4,000 a month.

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