Zero Hour: Part One
** Note on the text: when this work appears in the final manuscript I will include a comment of this sort, this description of my life and perhaps psychology was true at this point, since then my circumstances have changed and improved. This, then, should be seen as something that captures a particular moment and perspective and not a definitive statement of some unchanging truth about my life in Paris. It is genuine, but incomplete.**
The Frenchwoman working at the reception desk at the administration office gives me a look that I have come to know very well during my eight years in Paris. This look is not necessarily hostile, though it soon might be depending on how our interaction turns; it is a look that reflects confusion. She can't place me. I speak French confidently, albeit with a strong 'English' accent and here I am describing my fraught circumstances, stemming from a lack of money. Eyebrows raised briefly, she moves her head back in a quick movement and then she starts calling me 'Madame'.
Looking down towards a computer out of view, the French public servant takes out a piece of paper and starts using the language of obligation; it is necessary, you must, you have to … Madame, you must fill out a dossier, the three most recent quittances de loyer (for the flat where I have lived, without interruption during my entire Paris residence); a bill that demonstrates proof of address; a photocopy of your passport; the three most recent pay-slips and/or tax declaration from the past year; proof of any social security payments, or any other forms of income, alongside this you also need to provide documents relating to your son, for example an extract from the Livret de famille.
In this official French nationality document I appear as a hand-written comment, his mother 'is said to be called …' My son's French father has a page filled out in the livret; on the facing page, the part for the (non-French) mother is left blank.
It doesn’t matter that I have already provided photocopies of these documents, repeatedly to the same service and often to the same person each year and that my circumstances haven’t changed. Everything needs to be done again. Write a letter if need be, she says, to explain your circumstances. And then we shall see, Madame.
Within the space of a few minutes the direction of my life changed dramatically eight years ago, as I sat listening to my son's father speak of his unhappiness. In that moment, everything fell away: all of my certainty, security and sense of the world as a neutral space. The next day I woke up to a new identity as a mother responsible for a son who had only started walking a few months before; alone in this wintry-cold hostile city where Monoprix shop assistants snarled at you if you didn’t understand an archaic, slang word for ‘bankcard’.
Before writing anything else, I need to acknowledge how this experience of being left has scarred me and then informed the way I interpreted the world for a long time (many of the ‘side-effects’ of this experience have faded now). Back then, in those early years, I faced each new day in Paris broken down by reality that I could neither understand, or on base level accept; such generalised resentment has now passed, but it took time.
Conversations with French people follow a typical pattern when they hear that I come from Australia – they say 'c'est loin' ('that's far away') and then ask why I came to Paris. For me, though, the interesting question is not why I, or any other immigrant leaves their homeland but why we decide to stay on in the new country. My earlier self would have said that I had no other choice, but to remain in Paris.
From the moment my son’s father told me that he was leaving, my life reduced to the basics (earning an income; being able to pay the rent each month; ensuring that my son was well-cared for when I was at work; being able to buy food and pay the bills). But there is no doubt that France has been a good option for us then and since in many ways.
I will always be grateful, for example, for the fact that the French government paid half the salary of a nanny in the years before my son was eligible for a place at the free, full-time preschool at the age of three. I will always remember how Donna, a kind-hearted woman from the Philippines turned to me one evening near the Mairie of the 18th and said quietly against the sound of the traffic, ‘Don’t worry, I will care for you son,’ she said. ‘Your son will be fine. I will care for him. He will be fine.’
Another reason why I stayed was that my son has two sets of French grandparents and extended family (two great-grandparents, cousins ...) three hours away from Paris who immediately offered to care for my son during the holidays after his father left. Having time alone was extremely important for me then and knowing there was this extended family available to care for my son if anything ever happened reassured me.
My son's father has since returned to France with his partner and both have a close relationship with our son; he also contributes some money each month. While my father in Melbourne visits Paris as often as he can, has offered financial help in the past and looks out for us from a distance. (My mother passed away when I was in my late 20s).
Truth is, though, I was not 'thinking' much then: I was reacting. It was only after some years had passed that I saw how I had been living a kind of otherworldly life, not really present. It was as if a fog had shifted and I no longer perceived the world through a film, or kind of gauze.
I could say perhaps that my decision to stay in Paris reflected a 'poverty consciousness' where better options for my future were ignored as I responded to the demands of the present. Not so long ago a friend from Mali asked me (as have dozens of others before him) why I had left a 'rich country like Australia' to come to France; why had I chosen such a hard path, outside my culture and language, so far from family and friends. Unlike many other immigrants, or refugees, I always had the option to leave. I was not trapped like them. I could leave.
And it’s true when I look at my employment situation in Paris; the fact that over the past eight years I have never had a fixed salary, or any other core benefits such as illness or holiday pay; such a response is justified.
There have been times in Paris when I've had money, gone on holidays with my son or alone; or been able to spend money on books, without thinking about how it might affect my ability to pay what needs to be paid each month. Yet this occasional wealth is tricky, as inevitably you focus on this momentary financial success and forget problems linked to not having a secure income.
You think if it happened once (I earned enough money) it could repeat; maybe next month it'll be okay. You end up gambling with your life, getting high on the feeling of not having to worry as much as you usually do: so the quicksand-cycle continues and nothing changes.
I have always worked in my ‘other’ job here, as an English teacher, but even though I am qualified, have only ever received the beginner's rate offered to graduates with no experience. Most language schools in Paris offer their teachers contracts with an annual guarantee of hours, which means that there is no obligation to provide a fixed monthly salary. Teachers are paid for hours worked on 'zero hour' contracts. If a student cancels within an approved time, the teacher receives nothing.
I'm currently working part-time at a private university on a fixed-term CDD contract that has no monthly salary guarantee, no benefits, or protections, such as unemployment cover when the contract ends. Such contracts are meant to be for a short time, usually three months only (and given twice) before you receive a permanent contract, but this is my second year at the university and I have been told that I will receive the same if I continue working there for a third year. My salary fluctuates so much that one month it could halve, another month it could be zero. Nothing is fixed, nothing is secure.
At each workplace I have been employed in Paris, the foreign-born teachers had 'zero hour' contracts (CDII, or vacataire contracts) while the French (administrative) staff and managers were employed on a permanent basis with five weeks or more paid holiday (add to this the many public holidays, which include Ascension, All Soul’s Day and Pentecost – obscure Catholic celebrations that are even recognised by the French state school system in this avowedly secular Republic - and the so-called ‘bridges’ when employees take an extra day’s holiday the day before the weekend, or after a public holiday if it falls on the Thursday).
On top of this are many benefits available to permanent employees of large French companies: paid lunches; private health insurance; paid transport; in some workplaces, staff receive payments for their children to do activities after school and subsidised holiday camps.
I once thought about trying to find employment as a hotel receptionist, but because of the stagnant employment market such positions are relatively hard to get. Unlike London where every second person working in a café or hotel has an Eastern European accent, in Paris it is rare to find foreign-born French residents working in tourism, or hospitality.
Undeniably Paris is an international centre, but when thinking about how ‘mixed’ it is compared to other major cities such as New York, or London it seems only in certain ways.
Following the Paris terrorist attacks, the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced that his government would spend 1 billion euros on culture (matching the 1 billion euros to be spent on security); with half of the budget going to the decaying suburbs around the country’s major cities.1
‘What happened in Paris signalled a step-up in the cultural battle that we are living,” he said in reference to Daesh, or Islamic State. “They imagine terror, we answer with culture. They destroy statues, we love art. They destroy books, we are the country of libraries.’
Yet his call for a re-affirmation of cultural values and emphasis on Italy’s high culture in response to ‘barbarity’ is problematic. Who is to say that the Italian youth given 500 euros to spend on museums, archaeological sites or theatres will appreciate this gift, or find that this contact has any meaning for them? Who is to say that this culture will be more meaningful than another hybrid culture that they may be living, or expressing via popular art-forms?
Does anyone really believe that a young person, especially an alienated one leaning towards Islamic extremism perhaps will rethink any negative views about Italy, or The West, after visiting a museum? Isn’t all of this a little arrogant and condescending; a further indication of the divide and top-down approach that exists between the government and those who are governed?
Renzi’s ‘values-based’ reaction was common in Europe and Paris after the terrorist attacks in November and is a reason, I believe, why it has been so difficult for many in France to acknowledge or manage the social problems that have existed here for decades, though one of the positives of the 2015 terrorist attacks (if one can speak like this) might be the way it will force governments to act differently now, if only out of self-interest.
The French government has recently launched a 3-million euro campaign to counter racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and xenophobia called #TousUnisContreLaHaine (Everyone United Against Hate) in the wake of the Paris attacks – the overall campaign has a budget of 100 million euros over three years.
Short videos show ‘real-life’ incidents – a pig’s head fixed to the gate of a mosque; a Black man being beaten on the street; the brutal assault of a Jewish man talking on his phone – against a soundtrack of snippets of informal conversation among a group of French people where the speakers express prejudiced opinions to end with the slogan: Anti-Semitism/anti-Muslim xenophobia or racism begins with words and ends with spit (crachats), blows and blood.
The contrast between the flow of the people chatting together in a restaurant, or café and then the grainy video, as if shot on CCTV of extreme violence, or the close-up of a person in distress is effective. It’s as if you are listening in on a private conversation, while also watching something recorded secretly (even if the didactic and formulaic interjection, do you realise what you are saying? etc. at the end of each video disrupts this impression).
Of interest is the emphasis on proximity (we feel like we are eavesdropping on friends, this is intimate) and distance: there is no effort made to get us to imagine how it might feel to be beaten, or victimised, as is often the case in many community service announcements, or develop empathy. The focus here is very much about getting the dominant population to think differently about the victims.
While in the Paris métro there are now a series of billboards with a face divided in two, the first half is white/European with a welcoming phrase, such as ‘See you tomorrow’ the other half of the same face is Black/North African, with words of rejection ‘Sorry we’re not looking for anyone.’ This is linked to a government campaign to battle discrimination in recruitment and the workplace that according to one study affects one in three candidates here.
Emmanuel Macron, the French Minister for the Economy said that in France ‘there are mental and rule-based barriers that I want to remove’ and added that the Republic of the ‘aristocracy pretends to be egalitarian but keeps its social castes and divisions'2 and has supported the roll-out of mass ‘testing’ of employers that will check whether or not identical CVs (with a few identifying differences, relating to age, sex or background) are treated equally.
According to Voice of America (VOA):
Angele Malatre-Lansac, the deputy director of the Paris research group found in their research that the discrimination Muslims in France faced in recruitment was more extreme than that of African-Americans in the United States.
Even though many rushed to call France ‘racist’ after the terrorist attacks last year, I think the situation here is much more nuanced than this. There is an ease of interaction in Paris between people from different racial backgrounds and many interracial couples, but when other factors of ‘difference’ are added into the mix: income and education levels, religion, nationality, level of fluency in French or immigration-status, things start to change.
Angele Malatre-Lansac, the deputy director of the Montaigne Institute noted some of the resistance to employing French people with Muslim backgrounds came from ‘fears’ that their faith would be disruptive in the workplace, via the need for them to have breaks to pray. Can this ill-founded ‘fear’ be called racist, or just ignorant?
French people have told me that many in France feel uncomfortable with ‘difference’ and it is true that there is a noticeable conformity in the way most middle-class French people, or ‘arty’ French people in Paris dress, or even talk about themselves. For eighteen months I worked as the testrice for a language school, which involved interviewing hundreds of incoming students on the phone to assess their English level.
Hearing exactly the same responses to questions (both the words and the way ideas or opinions were expressed) alongside the identical expression of insecurities and reasons for their ‘bad English’ amazed me. I could almost predict what they would say as I waited for them to reply.
Now this might be the case in most cultures, including my own and there is no judgement behind this observation, but when you visit London the first thing you notice is the sheer diversity of how people look - clothes and body shapes - and how ‘loud’ everyone is in public, compared to the much more controlled French style. Considering this, perhaps it is inevitable then that many French people mix with people similar to themselves, either because of language (they don’t feel confident speaking English) or the simple fact that the only people they meet are like them.
The neighbourhood where I live, the 18th arrondissement in northern Paris – the district known for its immigrant areas, Barbès where young North African men stand on the streets selling contraband cigarettes, calling out ‘Malborro, Malborro’ at passers-by that borders Goutte d’Or; or Château-Rouge with its largely west African community – is a perfect example of what I’m describing here.
Walk five minutes down the stairs from where I live and you are in Black or North African areas; walk ten or fifteen minutes in the direction of Lamarck or Abbesses and its unusual to see a non-white face (many of the people there are foreign tourists, of course).
Having lived here as long as I have I know what the counter to this will be; of course, France is ‘mixed’ just look at the people on the streets, wait outside a French public school and see the children leaving. And it's true that Paris at night is a very different place, with social barriers of all kinds falling away.
My point is not about French people, though – that is people born in France, from various racial and cultural backgrounds - but rather France’s relationship with immigration. Befriending an immigrant who came to Paris from Bangladesh in his late 20s is a greater step than marrying Catholic Jean-Marie, who grew up in Lyon, was educated at HEC and whose biologist parents came from the Congo.
When I first came to Paris I pestered people working in bookshops here, asking them to introduce me to French equivalents of Toni Morrison, or Hanif Kureishi. While such writers do exist they are high-brow (see writers such as Marie NDiaye who won the Prix Goncourt) read by the elite or by specific age-groups, such as teenagers.
(The real ‘mixing’ in the mainstream culture is happening, or has happened, via a number of famous French comedians with North African backgrounds, it could be said: people like Jamel Debbouze).
I asked them where the local museums were celebrating the history of Goutte d’Or or Barbès (in the vein of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York) and they looked at me a little dumbfounded. There is a very well-appointed Institut des Cultures d’Islam in the 18th, which has an excellent cultural program, but it is again quite demanding in a way that appeals to privileged French people rather than the locals I see on the street.
None of this emphasis on cultural ‘exchange’ (to use the preferred French term) is intended as a criticism, as I deeply respect the general veneration for culture here. From an early age school-children are routinely taken to museums, or to see performance art, live concerts. (I remember once looking at a program for the Cité de la Musique that had an extremely detailed program for children that grouped each show by age, starting with performances appropriate for the ages 0-2).
But what happens when the non-French person is not ‘cultured’ or exceptional in some way; what kind of space is there for them here in Paris?
Over the years, I have worked in a large number of French private companies – banks, insurance and investment companies, advertising agencies - and encountered only a handful of non-French born professionals who had a high level of responsibility. International companies - Nestlé, Mondelez (formerly Kraft) and Nikon – proved no different. French workplaces have impressed me with their ‘diversity’, that is the representation of French people from North and West African backgrounds, but where are the professionals born in non-French countries?
A few of my foreign friends – from the UK mainly – work in professional jobs, often linked to their English skills, as translators, but it is rare in my social group for people similar to me to be working in high-level positions. Most people I know get by on piecemeal English-teaching employment, or working in tourism-related jobs, doing check-ins for luxury apartments, for example.
Compare this with Australia, the UK or the United States where in the major cities, you find immigrant-born residents working in supermarkets and merchant banks, or where in my direct experience, you find Chinese and Russian-born Australians teaching English to immigrants and refugees on the government-funded language program, as was the case in Melbourne when I lived there. The equivalent of which is hard to imagine happening in France.
The reasons for this are both simple and complex; reflecting the absence of comprehensive integration/language programs for (non-refugee) newcomers, or indeed any structured integration program, alongside the composition of the immigration program that is skewed towards family-reunion programs (encouraging immigration from former French colonies), but also says something about how immigrants are perceived and how they perceive themselves.
When I think about my personal circumstances, I realise that what I'm living is not poverty in the strictest sense (as sometimes I have money), but insecurity, what the French call précarité. This word is everyday-usage in French, but difficult to translate into English (sociologists in the field refer to 'precarity', but this English word sounds technical, lacking the strong emotional charge of précarité).
Precarity affects poor people, but differs from poverty, in that whereas poverty can be assessed in a purely financial way, precarity has an affective element and includes how people perceive themselves. 'Precarity' according to the definition provided by the French State refers to an unstable income and the inability of individuals and families to 'take charge of their basic responsibilities and exercise their fundamental rights.'
This definition appeals to me because it conveys the essence of what means to be poor. It's never 'only' just about not having enough money, it is also how not having money denies you the right to participate in society; how not having money excludes you.
Living with financial insecurity connects with a state of becoming; you are aware that if x, y or z happens, you could easily lose your home, or become destitute. You are alone and at risk. What might have previously existed in the abstract, suddenly becomes very real: a felt reality. You can be employed as a professional, as I am and still have such fears. You never escape the feeling that at any time you could fall further. Nothing is certain, nothing is secure.
Such fears relating to insecurity and loss are common in France and behind the 70 per cent of young people, for example who when asked in 2005 – three years before the global financial crisis - about their future career said that they wanted to work in the public service because of the employment security offered (most of the time, it is impossible to fire a French public servant) but also in every day conversations.4
A number of French women have expressed surprise to me, for example, that so many 'Anglo-Saxon' women stop working when their children are young; leaving aside questions about access to childcare, they are amazed that the women risk being so dependent. What if the man leaves, they ask, what then?
This anxiety is found not only in France, but across the 'Latin' countries in Europe; in Portugal, Spain and Italy.5 Countries that do not have the same social security net as in France, but share the same difficult twentieth century war-time history. According to the French sociologist, Régis Pierret this spill-over into the broader society is a central part of the 'paradigm' of precarity.
When talking about precarity, he suggests we think about degrees of vulnerability (first, those who are at 'high' risk, for example those who are already homeless or suffering extreme deprivation; then 'medium' risk, workers in certain industries or professions that are either threatened by closure, or employees with unstable conditions and those at 'low' risk; people protected by the system; 'public sector employees and those belonging to the privileged social class, the grande bourgeoisie'.)6
Those in the middle group who represent large swathes of the French population are most affected by the psychological dimensions of precarity. It is here that you find one of the reasons for the continuing success of Marine Le Pen's reinvigorated National Front, as her party is one of the few to have explicitly focussed on and given voice to such concerns (certainly far-Left political parties have as well, but such parties are generally considered too marginal within mainstream politics to have much of an impact on the national politic.
Meanwhile, the Socialists have largely avoided the issue.
François Hollande's 2012 campaign speech at Le Bourget – a suburb in Seine-Saint-Denis the poorest department in France is a case in point. I will analyse the contents of this speech in detail elsewhere in this book, but this speech interests me in the way Hollande, as representative of the Left in France chose this moment to reinforce his support for abstractions, principles and values in a way that discounts the daily, felt experience of the audience he was speaking to. It was in this speech that he announced: 'My true adversary … has no name, no face ... He will not be elected, yet he governs. My enemy is the world of finance.')7
Precarity, Pierret argues, is a direct consequence of industrialisation and not particularly new. Indeed, he likens precarity to the idea of 'pauperisation' developed by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 – a phenomenon Tocqueville saw as an inevitable consequence of industrialisation, linked to the movement of rural workers to the city.
Interestingly, Tocqueville also noted the psychological dimensions of precarity, whereas poverty was found in all historical eras, 'pauperisation' was modern, defined by the loss of community and family ties and 'frustration' of what was denied.
Capitalist systems depend on an excess of labour. In France where there are more than three million registered unemployed – a situation that has not changed since the 1990s – even if they are not in competition with you and your job, it is inevitable that you think that they could be (such fears are then manipulated by National Front rhetoric where mass unemployment is linked with immigration; the immigrant is both unfairly receiving benefits and also posing a risk to French labour).
The current unemployment rate in France (as of the 27th January 2016) is almost 3,600,000 people out of work. When the number of people who are under-employed, that is working around 76 hours a month, or those unable to work are included the figure rises to more than six million people.9
Considering the harmful psychological effects of unemployment, the real concern I believe is the dramatic increase in long-term unemployed in France, that is people who have been unemployed for more than a year: this category has seen the greatest increase since the beginning of the crisis, rising by 152.5 % since June 2008.10
Those most affected by long-term unemployment are also those traditionally most affected by precarity and social disadvantage: 'blue-collar workers, employees, young people, people without a degree, single parents and those living in disadvantaged urban areas and immigrants'.11
With the exception of the final group (though there were cases of immigrant-born French people voting for the National Front in last year's regional elections) this could be a breakdown of the core voters for Marine Le Pen's National Front - including her strikingly resilient support among young French people nationwide.
The essential trap of precarity is the way it reinforces a tendency of low-income people to remain stuck, as even if the low social security payments do not match a salary, the recipient fears losing protections that co-exist with the payment, as Pierret writes:
This is my current situation (I am working, but not enough). I am fully aware that my salary is not enough to support myself or my son adequately, and yet not having to worry about core expenses (health-care; or transport for a period of time before this was cut) and also gaining some marginal help paying electricity bills, or being considered poor enough to apply for emergency financial aid from the Mairie de Paris (if things get really bad) makes me wonder if it would be worthwhile to take up a job with more hours where, because of the unstable income, I would be struggling anyway.
My favourite passage in Orwell's Down and out in Paris and London is his extended meditation on what it means to be a plongeur (dishwasher). This writing perfectly conveys the way, with time, you take on the role – not only the lived economic reality – that being poor bestows on you.
As he writes: 'At this moment there are men with university degrees scrubbing dishes for ten or fifteen hours a day. One cannot say that it is mere idleness on their part, for an idle man cannot be a plongeur, they have simply been trapped in a routine where thought is impossible.
If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them.''13
Researchers into the psychology of poverty have noted how not having enough money affects not only how people perceive themselves, but also impedes their cognitive functioning (and their ability to make decisions that could improve their quality of life and their future).
One 2013 study published in the US magazine, Science presented research that showed that people experiencing the condition of poverty had reduced cognitive functioning by up to 13 IQ points. The clinical tests with low-income people at Princeton, Harvard and Warwick universities showed that people from low socio-economic backgrounds were less able to resolve a test about how to manage financial resources, compared to their richer peers. This loss in functioning resembled that of chronic alcoholics, compared to normal adults.15
Another experiment in a New Jersey shopping mall cited in a paper, 'The psychology of poverty' published by the Institute of Research on Poverty in 2011 showed that asking poor people to think about money-related tests similarly depleted their cognitive resources:
Repeatedly low-income subjects demonstrate an inability to plan long-term (what the researchers call 'time-discounting' that is the ability to hold out for long-term rewards, or the ability to even imagine that long-term rewards are possible), but there is also evidence to show that their how they feel affects their ability to make 'good choices'.
Low-income participants in another study were shown film clips that were known to induce a negative emotional state and then asked to choose between a smaller amount of money that would be available now and another higher amount that could be accessed after a delay. 'Subjects who had viewed the sadness-inducing film clip were less likely to choose larger, delayed payments than those in the controlled condition,' Haushofer and Fehr note in a 2014 article, 'that is they discounted future payments more strongly, indicating that sadness reduces patience.'17
To give voice to another low-income writer, consider this comment on a piece, 'Why I make terrible decisions' that featured on the platform, Gawker:
'We don't plan long-term because if we do we'll just get our hearts broken. It's best not to hope,' the writer concluded.18
When looking at the research into the impact of poverty, it's difficult for me to know if I have suffered in a similar way as the participants in the various studies. If I have lost my ability to think, or plan and make 'good' decisions about my future and that of my son.
But I know the feeling of being constantly overwhelmed, where stress lodges in the chest like an iron-bar and you can feel your ribs hurting; the being unable to focus, constantly getting distracted and seeking out escape; the forgetting (leaving saucepans to burn on the stove; leaving the key in my front door; leaving documents in a supermarket); the kind of low-level anxiety that you can feel under the skin, where the worst possible scenarios are not only possible, but likely; the 'blocking' (not opening bills; not opening official letters) and the way I force myself not to think about certain things until I feel stronger.
Over time Paris also came to mirror what I felt inside; all around me I saw a culture of scarcity, rather than abundance, where everything was finite, and to ensure your survival you needed to fight and trust no-one.
Foreigners living in France, even the most privileged complain about the administration, but all quickly learn how to make it work for them (immigrants, the poor and dependent make do through regular, routine visits to over-worked social workers). For the French middle-class – or the so-called cadre class - who access better public services, for instance at the unemployment office they have a separate area without a queue and direct access to people with knowledge, responsibility and the ability to make decisions, the objective is avoiding contact.
Privileged French people write letters - stiff, formal letters that reflect their social standing. Everything in France, my students have told me, must be written down. Do you remember the expression, 'Les écrits restent les paroles s'envolent' (written words remain, spoken words fly away), they ask. If you absolutely must go there in person, they tell me, make sure you write down everything.
Trust no-one, even if they take your documents, they may do nothing with them. Make sure you have proof of every interaction, so when you write your subsequent letters you can refer to these visits (time and day mentioned). And then, of course, you have to send all correspondence registered post. (Keep copies). You must be ready to fight, they tell me. Nothing will come easily, especially to those who they consider to be weak; either because the fonctionnaire knows no better, or they are lazy. It is a struggle, but in the end you will succeed.
The temptation is strong to recount my various negative encounters with the administration that so dominates our lives here in France (in a way that is difficult for non-French residents to understand): the time the electricity was cut by EDF and how for three days I battled with the agency to reconnect it (repeatedly returning to the office with even more documents and proof of identity and residence, my increasingly stressed son buckled up in his pram beside me).
Or the time la Caf - the agency that controls family and social payments - accused me of fraud because the lease had my former partner’s name on it (it is impossible to modify this document) despite the fact that the separation had been declared with all agencies, including la Caf, many years earlier. In the end, I had to ask a French friend to pretend to be a lawyer to resolve the situation.
(But I'll avoid the temptation to do this because I know what the rejoinder will be; she was not trapped there in Paris – if she was unhappy she could have left. No-one had handcuffed her to the Paris-photo staircase that she sees out the window of her flat that looks out over the lovely gardens of Sacré-Cœur).
I'm waiting inside now after having already waited for more than an hour outside in the cold in the grey-sheeted streets of Marx Dormoy, not far from the périph the ring-road that separates ‘Paris’ from the banlieues to the north. Outside, a Black woman with a shaved head heckles the Black security guards at the entrance.
'Four have left, come on now. Let us in,' she says.
The security guards ignore her, or offer her a smile (inside the building there are already another hundred people waiting, I hear them say: the office was closed all of the past week – in order to 'better resolve our files'. Few trust the service enough to leave documents in the mailbox at the entrance. This is why now more than 50 people are waiting on the street outside).
The guards ask, 'why didn't you come in the morning? It's better than the afternoon.'
'I'm sick; I'm sick,' the woman replies. 'I'm cold.'
Two white women go straight to the door to speak to the security guards, 'Hey, you there,' the woman calls out. 'Go back, back to the end of the line like the rest of us.' Inside the building, it's warm, but there is yet another line for us before we can access the central area.
After another thirty minutes waiting in this second queue, I enter the main space. I am given a ticket that has a number on it. A Black man in a suit, sitting near the fake-garden calls out the numbers, but only says it twice, so you need to be careful so you don't miss your chance. (I hold this numbered blue ticket in my hand very carefully as once on another visit I thought I lost it and nearly had a panic attack.
The man beside me, an older man originally from Ivory Coast talked to me about his late wife and showed me her laminated picture on his folder – 'she is always with me' – chided me about being pessimistic about my professional opportunities in France; he was sure I could get my Australian qualifications recognised and find a better job.
This man, a retired engineer, then showed me where to put the ticket so I wouldn't worry. 'Put it there,' he said. 'In your wallet, that way you won't lose it').
I wait in the French administration office, with all the other immigrants until we have our chance to explain our case to the representatives of the French State, who will take our documents and tell us to wait for a reply on our situation that they say might take up to three or four weeks.
Perhaps the most important legacy of my change in personal circumstances was the way this loss of status has shaken up my social allegiances. Though this 'process' had already started before I arrived in France. In Australia my areas of specialisation as a journalist were French/Francophone subjects; literature and immigration detention, focussing in on the use of force by police and guards against the imprisoned asylum seekers.
I was what the French call a 'militant' (part of the committee that organised the country's first non-government inquiry into immigration detention; visiting Woomera where I saw women and children being tear-gassed and shoved against the fences by the full-force of water cannons being turned on them back in 2001; speaking to frightened, jittery Iranians at Baxter on the phone as the over-exaggerated sounds of the prison environment lay heavy in the air all around them, and in voices barely audible they talked of what they had lost and the people they had left behind).
Leaving Australia was also partly, but only partly, linked to my politics. France attracted me as a country where human rights (the travel agent opposite my hairdresser has a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the window) were not considered optional.
Ironically perhaps, considering my later ‘battles’ with the administration as a resident, before I came to Paris I liked the fact that policies relating to the treatment of asylum seekers in France were codified, written down in such detail. This contrasted with what I felt to be the often arbitrary use of power in Australia and absence of human rights protections, let alone the vague to the point of meaningless contracts that were supposed to protect the rights and welfare of those detained in the centres.
So there I was waiting, with all the other immigrants from Mali, Central African Republic, Bangladesh, Algeria and Burkina Faso waiting for more than two hours at the public administration office, in the hope that I might continue to receive a payment that helped me pay the rent each month.
Speaking honestly I have to admit that I have felt this loss of status that has come with immigration keenly; it erupts in a diffuse anger at the 'French system' but also has a more intimate presence in my life, triggering all those meandering, unfocussed thoughts about money that keep me awake at night.
Key to my motivation in writing this is an awareness that I understand two points of view that are typically seen to be in opposition. I know what it is like to be an immigrant in France and have spent hours talking with other immigrants, mainly from Africa and Sri Lanka, who came to France for a better life and now feel trapped here, but I also feel sympathy for native-born French people who are similarly locked out of a hypocritical two-tier system that is anything but fair.
To survive here, the poor and immigrants find themselves forced to jump through a set of hoops to receive a bare minimum that is never guaranteed. Even if you wanted to, you can't just opt out of the system in France, it affects every aspect of your life. My emphasis on the French administration is to show all-encompassing it is for us here and how demeaning it can be.
Many years earlier, in a meeting in Metz, north-eastern France, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, summed up her political world-view when she said her party spoke directly to ‘farmers, the unemployed, workers, the retired, people living in rural France. You are the forgotten ones, the invisible majority, crushed by a financial system gone mad,’ she said. Then she added, 'For the political class, the UMP-PS (conservative and Socialist party), when faced by their god, the triple A finance rating, you are the triple nothing.’
The sad irony, if you want to use that word, is that while Le Pen correctly identifies the inability of the French political class to recognise and fix the social problems that exist, her citing of immigration as a source of poverty/insecurity and precarity misses an opportunity to further her argument, as those suffering the brunt of the much-maligned globalisation are not only the French ‘natives’, but those who have come since the 1970s and their French-born descendents.
After the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January and the terrorist attacks in Paris on the 13th of November, I felt different to many around me. I was not #je suis Charlie or #je suis Ahmed (the hashtag named after the French police officer who was executed by the terrorists). There was no way I was going to join the mass rally of one million people waving flags marching through the streets, led by solemn-faced world leaders.
What I did feel, though, is harder to express. I have experienced a kind of splitting since the violence. It has affected me on a gut level, I feel afraid and sickened by the reality of what had happened, but at the same time I feel uncomfortable about much of the official and intellectual reaction lauding 'French values', as if they were absolutes and not open to criticism.
Writing this five months after November 13 I know that I carry the effects of the violence inside me and that this impression was compounded by the suicide attacks in Brussels earlier this year. In some ways these attacks affected me more; I felt sick with the knowledge that such violence might be ‘on repeat’ now, even though hundreds of police and specialist agents were focussed on Brussels, the attacks still happened.
This sick feeling, I know, unites me with all those learning to live with acts of repeated violence that appear random, but also have a certain logic, forcing us then to hold onto rituals of daily vigilance to avoid harm, whether we live in Sderot, Baghdad or Ankara or indeed Paris, or Moscow.
I am at the UGC Les Halles cinema multiplex, about to see Zootopia with my ten year-old son. A man, with a Marines cap, pushes his way into the waiting area, shoves the armchair back to the wall and opens up a laptop, types something quickly over his shoulder he has a long bag made out of light-weight material. He gets up quickly to enter the cinema, in his other arm I see what I think is a bullet-proof vest.
‘Did you see this man before, he was acting strangely,’ I ask the young attendant.
He replies, ‘I see lots of people.’
I then try to explain the man’s behaviour – how he was acting strangely, aggressively – I struggle to describe ‘bullet-proof vest’ (I don’t know the word in French). The young man is completely disengaged and doesn’t even make an effort to acknowledge what I’m saying. We go downstairs, I speak to the security guard, again finding it difficult to explain myself well in French.
The security guard returns back with us, saying: ‘Perhaps it was the police,’ asking us if the man had entered the cinema, and if so which one. I notice that the security guard is mainly speaking with my young son. I wonder if there is a problem of me not having enough language, or my speaking with an accent.
Public transport is routinely stopped now, but not for a few minutes or a break because of a ‘suspicious package’ but entire lines are shut down. A friend told me how very soon after the November attacks some people, dressed in black, got onto a crowded métro and called out, Allahu Akbar - the passengers panicked; it was a joke.
In December, a preschool teacher in Aubervilliers in the 93 – France’s poorest region that borders northern Paris - said that he’d been stabbed in the throat and leg by a man in a balaclava who said, ‘This is Daesh, it’s a warning’. Najat Vallaud-Balkacem, the Education Minister, visited the school the same day; the Communist Mayor said that the teacher of 22 years experience was well-respected and an important part of the school community. Later that afternoon a Daesh-affiliated news service congratulated the attacker.
Dar-al-Islam, a publication linked with the group had previously declared that French public school were ‘enemies of Allah’ for teaching secular values and they had declared ‘open war against the Muslim family.’19 In an article on the Paris attacks, entitled ‘France on its knees’ the magazine criticised the official French policy of secularism over six pages for the way school mixed boys and girls, which was opening a door on ‘fornication’ between the sexes and called on its supporters to ‘kill’ French teachers.20 But the attack never happened.
Police became suspicious when they learnt that the school guardian had not seen anyone enter the building, between 7 am and 7.45 am when the attack was said to have taken place (an officer also told the press that if Daesh wanted to cause mass-carnage, they would have waited until the children had arrived an hour later).
Stéphane A. the teacher, it appears, had read the issue of Dar-al-Islam the month before and driven by his own fears about the lack of security in schools and his ‘fragility’ had imagined himself to be a victim, a position that he maintained during a February court case where he was fined 1,000 euro, with a two-three month suspended sentence (when the case was dropped after concerns about police conduct: they had interviewed him while he was in a hospital, with no lawyer present).
Before researching the case I had presumed he was white Gaullois, and was surprised to discover that he had dark skin and long grey hair tied in a pony-tail.
Unlike the writers who have focussed on the expressions of solidarity during and after the attacks, it’s difficult for me to feel so positive. The bravery of the Parisians who immediately offered sanctuary to those fleeing the violence during the November carnage – tweeting their addresses under the hashtag #PorteOuverte – moves me, but in my neighbourhood many many people are now being stopped and searched by the police, more than before and it’s difficult to accept the thousands of soldiers, in military fatigues, patrolling the streets now as any sign of social progress.
With this writing my goal is to explore the context behind the acts of terrorist violence last year that has scarred France and left the country uncertain as to the future, especially when facing the prospect of a 2017 Presidential election where the far-right leader Marine Le Pen is expected to do well.
My writing will be impressionistic, necessarily partial although it will focus on interlocking themes: immigration/integration; race and racism; the relationship between the police and the banlieues and the rise of the far-right under Marine Le Pen’s leadership.
None of these subjects is particularly new, what makes this writing different is my position as an often ‘reluctant immigrant’ who can understand how it feels to be looking up from the bottom of French society (as an insider and outsider at the same time).
Everything I write is informed by what I've lived here. I understand that it could be a weakness as inevitably my perspective is just that, my own, reflecting my experiences and those of my friends. It could never be universal.
I remember once calling the SOS helpline the English-language phone counselling service and the woman receiving my call reminding me that I had only just arrived in Paris, it takes time … and also how my experience as a single mother English-speaking immigrant on a low-income caring for a toddler in the ‘most cosmopolitan’ part of Paris, the 18th arrondissement in some ways gives me a very particular perspective on Paris.
It is not as if you are an 18 year-old American student spending a year at the Sorbonne, staying in a historic apartment on the Left Bank paid for by parents in California, she said. Indeed.
I also need to stress that my writing reflects my deep affection for France, perhaps because of the struggles I have had here. This country has offered me refuge. I have never felt judged. It has offered me a psychological space as I slowly, slowly came to terms with a new reality that I resisted with every fibre of my being.
The attachment I feel for Paris has a real tenderness at its core, especially my feelings for my neighbourhood, the scrappy 18th arrondissement. Like so many foreigners who are here either reluctantly, or with great ambivalence staying on, the issue is not so much leaving Paris, but leaving our neighbourhoods that we have come to love.
Over the years I have lived many different lives; reinvented myself countless times. Eight years is a long time (very soon it will be nine).
Daily life in Paris is made up of small interactions, certainly with the couple working at the boulangerie, who live locally and send their children to my son's school, but also those working at the gleaming library at the Arab neighbourhood, Goutte d'Or, or the Halal butcher at Château-Rouge where to pay you take a hand-written ticket to a man in a white uniform, sitting in a glass cubicle.
When I cross the river with my son, the first thing he says is 'look how clean it is' (compared to where we live). But I don't feel comfortable in this elegant, other Paris; even though it is the Paris immortalised in films and glamour advertisements for Dior perfume.
There have been moments when walking past the now-disbanded refugee camps, men sleeping rough under the train-lines of La Chapelle; past the beggars prone on the ground with missing limbs or the wailing Roma woman with her dirt-encrusted bare feet who begs, clutching a motionless baby to chest, I have pinched myself and questioned my life choices. But in the end, this is where I am; this is the Paris where I live.
Nothing compares with walking at night towards the cinemas at Jaurès, or sitting beside the canals; the water's slow-movement in ever-diminishing circles; catching line 2 high above the mass movement of people to then see (that great representation of State power) Sacré-Coeur shining fluorescent-white in the distance, rising high above the bone-coloured buildings of Goutte d’Or. Over time, you make peace with Paris, as the city transforms itself, remakes itself in your own image.
My French university students have told me that they will never be safe, but don’t seem to be too affected by it, even my 10 year-old son talks about last year being a ‘bad year’ because of the terrorist attacks in Paris, but shows no real sign of being traumatised by what has gone on here.
I think of the young man, who had been in the 11th arrondissement on the same street, minutes before the gunmen started shooting, but then left because his mother said he had to return home for dinner; the young woman who had been at the Stade de France. One student gave me a piece of writing that included the following:
No matter how much I might critique Paris, or France, both are close to my heart and always will be. I could have left, at any point, but I didn't. I stayed.
All translations from the French, the author's own, unless otherwise stated.
1Nolan Feeney, ‘Italian Prime Minister Wants to Fight Terrorism By Giving Youth 500 Euros to Spend on Culture’ TIME 25 November, 2015, http://time.com/4126952/italy-matteo-renzi-culture-terrorism/ (accessed 17/05/16)
2‘Emmanuel Macron promet des ‘testing’ contre les discriminations à l’embauche’ L’Express Emploi 05.02.2016 http://www.lexpress.fr/emploi/gestion-carriere/emmanuel-macron-promet-des-testing-contre-les-discriminations-a-l-embauche_1760932.html (accessed 17/05/16)
3Lisa Bryant, ‘French Campaign takes on Hate Speech, Discrimination’ 11th May 2016, Voice of America http://www.voanews.com/content/french-campaign-takes-on-hate-speech-discrimination/3326086.html (accessed 17/05/16)
4Sondage Ifop (http://www.ifop.com/europe/sondages/opinionf/jeunesfonctionpubl.asp), avril 2005, cited in 'Précarité, Wikipedia https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pr%C3%A9carit%C3%A9 (accessed 10/02/2016)
5Ibid, 'Précarité, Wikipedia
7François Hollande, cited in 'My adversary is finance,' French candidate says' by David Marsh, Market Watch January 23, 2012 http://www.marketwatch.com/story/my-adversary-is-finance-french-candidate-says-2012-01-23 (accessed 07/02/16)
8Pierret, op.cit. Qu'est-ce que la précarité?'
9Matthieu Deleneuville, 'Taux de chômage et chômeurs en France : les demandeurs d'emploi en hausse de 0,4%' http://www.journaldunet.com/economie/magazine/1038148-chomage/ (accessed 07/02/16)
12Pierret, op cit.
13George Orwell, Down and out in Paris and London (London: Penguin Books/Penguin Modern Classics, 2001) pp.124-124
14Cited in Rha Goddess, 'The Myth and Reality of the Struggling Hip-Hop Artist' Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop, edited by Jeff Chang (New York: BasicCivitas Books, 2006) p.340
15Emily Badger, 'How poverty taxes the brain' CityLab/The Atlantic (www.citylab.com/work/2013/08/how-poverty-taxes-brain/6716, (accessed 05/02/16)
16 Institute for Research on Poverty, “The Psychology of Poverty,”Focus 28, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2011): 19-22.
17Johannes Haushofer and Ernst Fehr, 'On the psychology of poverty' Science Vol 344, Issue 6186, 23 May 2014, p.865
18Anonymous, cited in Badger, 'Your brain on poverty'
19FranceTVInfo, ‘Un enseignant d'Aubervilliers agressé au cutter par un homme se réclamant de l'Etat islamique’ 14/12/2015 http://www.francetvinfo.fr/faits-divers/un-enseignant-victime-d-une-agression-a-l-arme-blanche-a-aubervilliers-en-seine-saint-denis_1221821.html (accessed 17/05/16)
20Soren Seelow & Lucie Soulier, ‘Aubervilliers: l’instituteur reconnaît avoir inventé son agression’ Le Monde, 14/12/2015
En savoir plus sur http://www.lemonde.fr/police-justice/article/2015/12/14/agression-au-cutter-d-un-enseignant-en-seine-saint-denis_4831556_1653578.html#DShA2GMkkqdXQUJO.99 (accessed 17/05/16)