Lizzy Davies

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.’

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