Laboring in France


The workers who did most of the plastering and painting at the Paris apartment of my friends Bob and Loraine didn’t speak much French – they were Egyptian cousins, recent immigrants who spoke mainly Arab – but I managed to communicate what was needed and they generally understood what I was saying.

Ahmed and Mustafa – the cousins – were in their 20s, quiet and diligent. On the first day of their work, as we introduced ourselves, Ahmed, tall and soulful, took out his smartphone to show me a photo of his newborn daughter. I couldn’t quite decipher his heavily accented and rudimentary French (much more basic than mine), but I could make out her name – Aya – and I could see that the joy on his face would be understood in any language.

He and Mustafa – shorter and livelier – lived just outside of Paris, not together but near each other, and each was married. Their community was, Ahmed told me, mainly Egyptian, and made up mainly of recent immigrants. They’d been working for M. Mateus for about two years. At one point I asked them why they’d left Egypt – and they said it was for opportunities in France. In particular, employment – at least employment among that part of the labor market that is generally paid by the day, and whose work is often unrecorded by the state.

I was glad to see that M. Mateus spoke to them with respect and that they themselves had evident respect for the work they did. (M. Mateus might after all have hired them and been paying them legitimately, though he was a bit fuzzy with me when I casually asked him how many people worked for him.) But I had confidence in these two young men who were, after all, rather my responsibility since I had found M. Mateus and his crew, and Ahmed and Mustafa were doing work that I was supervising on behalf of my friends.

Ahmed and Mustafa would show up around 8 a.m., take a lunch break around noon – and continue working until about 4 p.m. or sometimes 5. I don’t know if they were paid off the books (I assumed so), but I was glad they had found work of any sort especially in France, where unemployment is stubbornly high.

At the moment in France, things are tense because of continuing opposition to proposed changes to the country’s overcomplicated labor laws (everyone knows that the labor laws need simplifying and reforming, but at the same time everyone has an opinion on why parts of the laws cannot be reformed: France is often quite resistant to change). And this resistance has led to a continuing wave of strikes protesting some part of the law that might possibly affect a particular industry in a way that could lead to lower salaries or less job security (though little has been actually spelled out in a way that people can comprehend – the protests are for the most part fear-based).

So far in the past week there have been strikes among air traffic controllers, railways, metro service and gas distribution, this last due to shutdowns at oil refineries in several parts of the country.

This gas shortage plays in particular to television news, which has moved beyond coverage of the recent shocking displays of violence against the police by right-wing and left-wing anarchists who seem to have infiltrated the generally peaceful demonstrations against the labor-law reform. (No one is talking any more about the hopeful Nuit Debout, or Up All Night, movement of predominantly young people wishing for greater dialogue about their future employment – that hopefulness has given way to bitterness at the continuing lack of real dialogue about anything other than general dissatisfaction with the current government.)

Now television news crews interview motorists stalled outside gas stations in snaking lines of cars waiting to fill their tanks. It makes for standard televised frustration against what big bad government is doing to the oppressed little guy – even if the little guy isn’t exactly sure what exactly in the labor law he’s protesting. Some people have even accused the CGT – the big federation of labor unions that’s behind many of these strikes, and that has been strangely quiet regarding violence toward the police – of preferring that France not work at all, rather than find a way forward.

Living in France, you need to become accustomed to the regularity of disruptions due to strikes. In the U.S., such work slowdowns or stoppages are rare. But in France they’re practically everyday occurrences, and you shrug and find another way to get around town (it seems that strikes on the train lines are most common). It’s an entirely different way of thinking about work than an American is used to.

This view of France as a country plagued by strikes and reluctant to move forward has also led to a dismaying lack of foreign investment – according to a recent report fewer companies from other countries want to do business in France, preferring to set up in Great Britain, even as that country threatens to leave the European Union. The thing is, the French – like most people in most countries – want to work. But the right to strike is ingrained in the national consciousness as almost a constant, a means of protesting in the only way that seems to be effective against the wrongs committed by the powers that be. And strikes here can lead to results: the labor law has been changed so much it’s pretty much unrecognizable from what was proposed months ago. That doesn’t mean that people are mollified: they still feel that the government isn’t doing enough to create employment (even if these labor law reforms were designed to do just that). Sometimes you can’t win for trying.

But there seems to be no shortage of demands for certain types of work – such as home improvement. Which is why I was glad that M. Mateus and his crew were available for a few months that winter a few years ago. And that his workers – even if they were, for the moment, non-French, were so eager to show up every day for a month.

The first days were, as first days are in home-improvement jobs, messy. First came the ponçage, or sanding, and the arrangement of the rooms. And I told Ahmet and his cousin they could listen to their Arab-language radio while we all worked – they on painting and priming and me on my writing.  We made room for each other.

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