The poor of Paris flock to `supermarket' giveaway

Mary Dejevsky discovers the festive season brings out the generosity in the French

In Britain we tend not think of the French as particularly charitable, but in case you need convincing that the British do not have a monopoly on good works, consider this: French television's Telethon - an almost exact counterpart of the BBC's Children in Need - raised a record 377 million francs (pounds 49.6m) this year, more than four times the BBC's pounds 11.9m. This was achieved when all France was at a standstill because of the strikes, in a country where the national, and many other, lotteries are institutions of long standing.

Charity ventures organised in Paris this Christmas - and for many Christmases past - range from bazaars set up by parishes, clubs and other organisations, including the French Navy to help fund its charitable work, to premisestemporarily converted into giant hostels to house the Paris counterparts of Crisis, the UK charity for the homeless.

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Secours Populaire - originally, but no longer, linked with the Communist Party - decided that instead of distributing food parcels to those on its register, it would set up a three-day "supermarket" where people could choose, within limits, what they wanted. Each "chequebook" contained 15 coupons, each for a different group of goods: groceries, soft drinks, sweets, dairy products, fruit, meat (including one turkey per family); small presents, even Christmas trees.

The Bercy palace of sport in a benighted redevelopment area of east central Paris is not the first place that springs to mind as a repository of the festive spirit. But in the days before Christmas it rang with excited voices as a seemingly endless stream of people - young mothers with small children, adolescents, and wizened elderly women - made their way around the concrete "palace" and across a muddy building-site to join a teeming queue waiting in front of a half-renovated warehouse.

Everyone carried large empty bags or pulled little shopping carts and, when courteously stopped at "checkpoints" along the way, waved their books of coupons - or offered complicated hardluck stories in which the words "local council", "postal strikes" and "it must be a mistake" figured large.

They were all benefiting - or hoping to benefit - from Supermarche libre - mounted by Secours Populaire to supply poor families in the Paris region with Christmas provisions. Many arrived by coach; gathering obediently in labelled groups before joining the hundreds-strong queue. Others came on the now working - and temporarily free - metro and suburban railway.

The project was greeted with enthusiasm. "It was an hour's journey in the coach, but it's brilliant," said Martine who had two small children in tow. "You can choose, without worrying what it costs." She had two large bags, completely full, including the turkey and a pack of giant leeks sticking out of the top. Her only disappointment was the dearth of toys. There were books, but she thought they looked too like textbooks.

Some people tried with varying degrees of guile (and success) to swap their grocery "cheque" for sweets - something the system was devised to prevent. Others were frustrated with the queuing; some complained about people with "photocopied" cheques. Some of the helpers worried at having to make so many snap decisions about who to let in and who not. But in the course of three days more than 16,000 people cashed their "cheques" worth more than 400 francs per book, and went home happy.

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