Florence Aubenas, Le Quai de Ouistreham (2010)

Florence Aubenas is a relatively famous field reporter in France. She has investigated tribunals, police stations, factory workers on strike but also war in Africa and Afghanistan. But in 2009 she chose to investigate the day-to-day consequences of the economic crisis in a new way: incognito.

So Florence Aubenas became an average woman looking for a job in a French middle-sized town, with only a high-school diploma and no professional experience at hand. She announced to employers that she was open to do any job. But that wasn’t good enough to get hired. People at the unemployment office told her that for people unskilled like her, becoming a cleaning professional was the future. But even a small job seemed out of reach.

After 6 weeks, she got her first contract for just a few hours, cleaning offices, cleaning rooms and toilets in a ferry-boat. A temporary job, never anything long-term. She got a training organized by the unemployment office. Nothing was easy. As a temp she was scared all the time, never fast or thorough enough in her job and soon very tired. She had to queue up or wait for hours, often for nothing. She spent more time getting to a distant office building than doing the 1 or 2 hours contract, and earned often less than what she spent on gas. Yet if she refused one stint, nobody would ever call her again. She had decided from the start that she would stop her experiment whenever she would be offered a long-term job. It took her 6 months, and in the meantime she never earned enough to cover her basic needs.

The unqualified temp workers are a world away from the rest of the working population. To them factory workers seem almost like aristocrats, clinging to privileges and excessive pride. In the office buildings cleaning women (most employed are women) are invisible. Nobody knows their name. This book is an attempt to show that they have a story, a voice, a heart. When we work in an office building, we briefly see people with brooms and pails in the early morning or at night, but nothing more. We know abstractly of poverty, but we have no clue about what it means in practical terms.

What I appreciated most is that the book is quite nuanced, it’s not at all black and white among bosses, administration workers, employees and unemployed. It showed solidarity and friendships between people. If anyone believed that unemployed people lived nicely with benefits in France, this book would kill this idea in just a few pages. But despite the harsh living conditions, the absurdities of the administration and the Darwinian view of the economic system, it’s a kind book, well worth reading.

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One thought on “Florence Aubenas, Le Quai de Ouistreham (2010)

  1. This sounds really interesting. I think these sorts of undercover assignments are excellent at showing people what really happens in the sub-strata of society. We just have no idea (tv programmes dramatise or romaticise poverty, or else they paint it more traumatic than it can ever truly be).

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