In February 2009, Florence Aubenas – a French journalist well known for her dispatches from Rwanda, Kosovo and Afghanistan – disappeared from the pages of Le Nouvel Observateur. Was she taking a break or was she in Morocco writing a novel? A year later it emerged that she had gone to the northern city of Caen as a jobseeker. For almost six months Aubenas witnessed the recession from the frontline, working as a cleaner in offices, holiday villas and on the ferry that brings tourists to Normandy. She split shifts and worked nights, earning at a rate perilously close to the minimum wage, at that time €8.71 an hour (it went up to €9 in January). The Night Cleaner records her time among those for whom the job of supermarket cashier is ‘prestigious’ and a refuse collector is ‘well paid’. When she arrived in Caen, her aim was to do any job until she was offered a Contrat à durée indéterminée, a permanent contract. For most of the people she worked with a CDI was unimaginable. They work varying ‘hours’ and have fixed-term contracts (Contrats à durée déterminée, or CDDs), many of which last less than a month, mixing and matching and making do. Despite having been kidnapped in Iraq in 2005 and held there for five months, Aubenas was unprepared for this sort of life. ‘It’s pouring down on the road home,’ she writes after a shift at a holiday campsite, ‘and the van seems to be travelling under the waves of the sea. I wish it was true and that the van would never rise to the surface.’
With its regulated banking system and extensive welfare provision, France was at first considered to have weathered the economic downturn better than most. Sarkozy delighted in telling the country that it had entered recession later, exited sooner and generally fared better than its European neighbours, ignoring the fact that unemployment, the old bugbear of the Chirac years, was going up. During 2009 it rose from 7.8 to 9.6 per cent. More than 2.7 million people were out of work. The figure hasn’t changed much since then. In the first quarter of this year, France posted growth figures of 1 per cent, not as good as Germany’s 1.5 per cent but better than the UK’s 0.5. Then in the second quarter growth fell to zero, making it clear that France, along with most of the rest of Europe, was back in deep trouble.
Aubenas began her project in March 2009 and assumed, until she visited the Pôle Emploi and local temping agencies in Caen, that she would be made all sorts of job offers. ‘I triumphantly announce: “I’ll take anything.” “Everyone will take anything in this place,” says the boy behind the computer. I ask him what’s available right now. “Nothing.”’ Competition was fierce for even the lowliest positions. A woman rejected for a job at the town council raged at her adviser: ‘I-need-to-work!’ A man came in to ask for his phone number to be erased from his file because he had been cut off; he was told to phone up and make an appointment. But he didn’t have a phone. He could use the ones at the agency. ‘You can be waiting for ages.’ ‘Ages?’ ‘Sometimes for several hours.’ Aubenas heard a man in the adjacent cubicle offer to work for less than the minimum wage. ‘Is this the latest fashion or something?’ the adviser asked. ‘You’re the third person to tell me that today.’ A job as a receptionist, paid at the Smic – the minimum wage – required English to bilingual level, a driving licence and a car. When she inquired about a sales assistant vacancy, the man at the employment agency was ‘almost shocked’. That job is ‘really top drawer’, he explained, while she is ‘more like, scraping the barrel, Madame’. To be more convincing, she had removed her qualifications from her CV and to explain having gone decades without work pretended to have been jilted by a long-term partner. She didn’t change her name, insisting to anyone who paused as if about to recognise it that she wasn’t a journalist, but she dyed her hair blonde and wore glasses. The mask occasionally slipped, however. Didn’t the woman responsible for finding Aubenas a job smell a rat when she declared her love of ‘classic writers, 19th-century novels, especially French or Russian’? Or the recruiter who described a job that involved working on the shop ceiling ‘in a pod, like on a big wheel, 25 feet up, with some screwdrivers’, to whom she replied: ‘I’ve always found the big wheel so romantic!’
One adviser, sizing up Aubenas’s blank CV, told her to focus on a ‘speciality: clean’. A second agreed: ‘The cleaning professions are the future, but you need to make your mind up now.’ She accepted, and was signed up for a one-day training course and a CV workshop, courtesy of the state, as well as three years of jobseeking ‘assistance’ from a private company subcontracted to supply long-term support for people deemed high risk. Madame Astrid, the adviser to whom Aubenas confessed her love of Dostoevsky, told her that the CV makeover would ‘be like having a new hairstyle’.
New hairstyle or not, becoming a femme de ménage was the only option Aubenas had. She toured the cleaning agencies and signed on with several, more hopeful than expectant. Her day’s training or ‘work placement’ prepared her for what lay ahead. ‘In a business, you’ll meet a lot of people who won’t say hello to you, or won’t reply,’ the instructor explained. ‘This is no reason to hang your head and sulk. You need to grin and bear it. Cleaning work is a state of mind, too.’
On her first day scrubbing the lavatories on the ferry between Ouistreham and Portsmouth, she welcomed tourists to France with a smile and a ‘Bienvenue’. ‘Nobody replies,’ she writes. ‘Sometimes, one of them looks at me, as amazed as if the bundle of rope coiled on the deck had started to speak to him.’ It doesn’t do to interact with the public. On one occasion, she had to hoover round a couple obviously unbothered about carrying on in front of the cleaner. A suntanned and smiling manager called her and her workmates ‘morons’: she said nothing. A colleague threw water in her face: she didn’t react. When, after six months, one of her bosses took her aside, she was prepared to be reprimanded. Instead, an offer: a permanent contract cleaning offices for two and a half hours every morning. A CDI! Her investigation was over and she could go back to her real life.
Aubenas had always planned to end her experiment once she got a CDI: ‘I didn’t want to block anybody else’s chances of a real job,’ she explains. Such are the moral complications of journalistic projects that involve the privileged classes playing make-believe with poverty. But if Aubenas says little else about it in her book, such qualms are addressed head-on by Polly Toynbee and Barbara Ehrenreich in their accounts of going undercover, Hard Work: Life in Low-Pay Britain and Nickel and Dimed. Both of them insist that what they are attempting is not to experience in an authentic sense the lives of these workers but to conduct an experiment, to observe and take notes. ‘Several times I almost abandoned the whole idea,’ Toynbee writes. ‘It was play-acting, Marie Antoinette as a milkmaid in the Petit Trianon.’ Ehrenreich, too, is frank about the limitations of her plan: ‘With all the real-life assets I’ve built up … waiting indulgently in the background, there was no way I was going to “experience poverty” or find out how it “really feels” to be a long-term low-wage worker.’ Despite their concerns, Toynbee and Ehrenreich both eventually decided to go undercover because they felt that both the mainstream media and traditional ‘outsider’ reporting were failing to describe the daily lives of this section of society. ‘Everything seemed to suggest that the world was collapsing,’ Aubenas writes. ‘And yet, all around us, things still seemed in their places, apparently unaffected. I’m a journalist: I felt I was facing a reality which I couldn’t explain, because I couldn’t get my head round it. Words themselves failed me.’ Aubenas largely removes her ‘real’, middle-class self from the narrative, while Toynbee and Ehrenreich reflect often and effectively on the contrast between their normal lives and their temporary ones. When Toynbee, who has spent years rubbing shoulders with the political elite, found herself working at the Foreign Office nursery, she clenched her teeth in fear that passing figures – including Peter Mandelson, ‘the ever elegant, sharp-suited paragon of style’ – would recognise her. She needn’t have worried: in her uniform, she was invisible. Mandy glanced, gave ‘half a nod’, then looked away.
A sense that all good things were out of reach came to dominate Aubenas’s experience of being on the poverty line. Not for her the France of the 35-hour working week, the work/life balance, the Sundays kept for family and the long lunches. Take the country’s health service, judged by the World Health Organisation to be the best there is. Like anyone with a reasonable and regular income, Aubenas the journalist presumably valued it for the usual reasons: choice, efficiency and universal provision. Looked at from below, things seemed different. As one of her new friends put it, doctors ‘cost a lot, you can’t follow what they say, they’re difficult to get hold of. You need to do loads of paperwork to get your money refunded. And then it takes ages to arrange an appointment! And you have the feeling the doctor doesn’t really want to see you, because you don’t have any money.’ Many of Aubenas’s new colleagues turned to less scientific solutions: one of them recommended ‘the holy well at Dozulé’ for skin problems, while another suggested a trip to Little Lourdes, a replica shrine nearby. Built in the 19th century for workers too poor to travel to the real thing, it is still serving workers at the beginning of the 21st. ‘Poor Virgin Mary,’ the custodian said. ‘If only you knew what people ask her for.’
Like the undercover writers, almost all Aubenas’s fellow workers were women; most CDDs in France are taken by women, many of them working part-time. Politics rarely came up. When Aubenas mentioned the European elections, she was teased. ‘We’re always wrong, even when we win,’ one of her friends said, referring to her votes for Sarkozy and Le Pen. She didn’t think any politician would ever fight her corner.
What about the unions? All the time Aubenas was in Caen, French newspapers were dominated by the demands of the syndicats. Every month seemed to bring a new demonstration (‘Oui, oui, oui à la dignité, non, non, non à la précarité!’). Just before Aubenas started her experiment, on 29 January 2009, there was a general strike to protest about the way the government had handled the economic crisis. In April, staff from EDF and GDF went on strike for more than five weeks – blackouts were threatened – over salaries, among other things. In July the newly redundant workers at a factory that made car parts for Renault and Peugeot threatened to blow up their workplace unless they were paid €30,000 each.
On the quay at Ouistreham, Aubenas found that the unions were regarded with a dislike that bordered on contempt. The older cleaners brought up their failure to stem the collapse of local industry in the 1980s. Victoria and her friend Fanfan had tried and failed to interest the Mitterrand-era union leaders in the fate of ‘breadliners’, many of them new to the service sector, having been laid off from jobs in industry. Supermarket employees, temporary workers and cleaners got the impression that the macho union bosses felt embarrassed to be seen ‘with check-out women from Continent and women carrying mops’. Victoria felt that ‘she was not really part of their noble class struggle.’
Nowadays, ‘if you openly declare that you belong to a union, or to certain revolutionary groups, you’re finished. It’s serious. Any employer who learns about it won’t hire you,’ Madame Astrid told Aubenas. Monsieur Mathieu, the head of the cleaning agency for which Aubenas worked irregular shifts, prided himself on protecting the ‘dignity and respect’ of his employees. But, having won the contract to clean a holiday camp by promising to complete the job in three and a quarter hours, he held his staff to it, though he knew it was impossible. Aubenas and her colleagues panted and polished their way around the holiday cabins, anxiety building because they knew – M. Mathieu had told them – they wouldn’t be paid for overtime. A shift that was supposed to end at 1.30 p.m. came to an exhausted halt at 3.30 p.m. There was no one to complain to, no one to help them act on their ‘wild, desperate rage’. They went home and waited for the next offer of work.
This is far from the padded working life of Gallic legend. Though a French person in Aubenas’s situation would be able to apply for housing and other benefits, as far as the work itself is concerned, her experience is not as different from Ehrenreich’s or Toynbee’s as the French political classes would like to think. The people these three journalists meet, and whose lives they temporarily ape, work at American diners, British care homes and French campsites; but they have more in common with each other than they do with their countries’ middle classes. And while ‘l’exception française’ may still mean something to those in the middle, there is little sign of it in the world documented by Aubenas. Perhaps she has hit on the exception to the exception.