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Welfare policy change leaves reknowned French ape expert in homeless shelter

AFP / Romeo Gacad | In this photograph taken on April 10, 2013, an endangered Sumatran orangutan with a baby clings onto tree branches in the forest of Bukit Lawang, part of the vast Leuser National Park.

She is one of the world’s leading primatologists who spent her time in the jungles of Sumatra. But a loophole in the French welfare system means that 85-year-old Francine Neago now finds herself in a homeless shelter in the Paris suburbs.


Neago, who was born in Paris, trained in London and speaks five languages, is renowned for her work with orangutans.

In 1970s she spent six months living inside a cage at Singapore Zoo with eighteen of the endangered apes to study their behaviour while she also ran the first-ever programme to teach an orangutan sign language and the phonetic alphabet.

But since early January, she has been living in a former maternity ward that now serves as a shelter for the homeless in Ivry-sur-Seine on the southern outskirts of the French capital.

“I live in the jungle. I’m not used to sharing a room,” she told French daily Le Monde in an interview published Thursday. “People are nice, we are well fed and cared for, but I just wonder what I'm doing here.”

Used to the warm climate of Indonesia, she says the harsh Paris winter is affecting her health.

“Over there, I’m never sick,” she said. “But here I’m not well.”

€800 benefits stopped

Neago returned to France to sort out a problem with a social security payment – a sum of €800 that until recently the French government had paid into her bank account each month as a benefit for elderly people on low incomes.

She brought with her enough money for four nights in a hotel, believing that would be enough time to fix the problem so she could return to Sumatra where she heads a conservation centre caring for orangutans and other animals.

However, the issue was as not as easily resolved as she’d hoped: a rule change by the French government which stipulates that since she spends at least half the year living outside of France, she is no longer entitled to the benefit.

It is a change in the law that could have significant implications for the some 1.68 million French people who are officially registered as living abroad, according to the latest figures.

Of these, around 15 percent, or just over 250,000, are aged over 60.

In Neago’s case, the French consul in Jakarta tried last June to get the government to grant her an exception, but their efforts were in vain, reported Le Monde.

“This is ridiculous. I have no desire and no reason to live in Paris, where I could not live anyway [on €800 a month]. It is, however, more than enough to live in Sumatra and even fund care and food for the animals,” said Neago.

In a separate interview with France Inter radio station, she said she did not have enough money to buy a plane ticket back to Sumatra and that fulfilling the government’s requirement that she spend half the year in France to receive her benefits was not a possibility.

“I can’t leave my animals alone for six months,” she said. “I don’t intend to come here and twiddle my thumbs waiting for death when there is a lot of work to do over there.”

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