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European of the week: Florence Aubenas, undercover on the crisis

26 February 2010
Le Monde Paris

Former Irak hostage, French journalist Florence Aubenas spent six months undercover in the world of low-paid employment. Her book is a bombshell. (AFP)

Former Irak hostage, French journalist Florence Aubenas spent six months undercover in the world of low-paid employment. Her book is a bombshell. (AFP)

Journalist and former hostage in Iraq, Florence Aubenas spent six months immersed in the world of precarious employment. She wrote about her experiences in a book which reveals a little known aspect of the reality of life in Europe.

In many ways, it was the most unfamiliar world she had ever encountered. For her job, Florence Aubenas had traveled to many faraway places: it goes with the territory of being a reporter. In a 20-year career with different newspapers (first Libération and later Le Nouvel Observateur), she had visited lawless housing projects, war zones, police stations, courts and factories on strike. Curious, strong-willed, impatient: in 2005, her determination very nearly cost her a high price when she was kidnapped by a band of guerillas and held hostage along with her Iraqi interpreter. But she emerged from 157 days of painful captivity with her dignity unscathed, and was surprised to find that she had become font-page news.

But this time, there were no planes to catch for a destination that was almost on her own doorstep: Caen, a two-hour drive from Paris. Strangely enough, this town was to be the venue for the most psychologically demanding and difficult report she had ever undertaken. For nearly six months, Florence Aubenas became: "Madame Aubenas," age 48, no specific qualifications – an unemployed woman among others, dozens of others, none of whom recognized her. Day after day, she immersed herself in the formless mass of job seekers, who drift from one underpaid temporary job to another – the legions of the non-skilled unemployed who have no hope of finding real jobs, just odd hours here and there – that is if they are lucky.

To tell the story of people going under

When she had the idea for the project, Florence Aubenas read several books by undercover reporters, starting with one of the most famous Ganz unten (Lowest of the Low), in which Günter Wallraff recounts his experience when he disguised himself as a Turkish guest worker. At the time, she  was plagued by doubts about the effectiveness of journalism. Does writing an article really change anything? "We were told, 'There's an economic crisis. Everything's going under.' There I was sitting at my desk wondering what to do – how to render the reality of that. Ever since I entered the working world, there had always been some kind of crisis. Problems with the economy were both omnipresent and intangible, but I didn't understand what that really meant."

It was then that she decided to leave for Caen, where she signed on the unemployment register for a firsthand experience of the job seeker's life. Her goal was "to tell the story of the people in France who are going under:" to do her job as a journalist, but delve more deeply into her subject matter to reveal something real. Instead of talking to people with a notebook in her hand, "she was going to become one of them, and accept all the limits that implied." To walk the proverbial mile in the shoes of an unemployed woman, because "not everything can be conveyed by words. I wanted to break through the barrier of language: to live there, so as not to be tempted, for example, to focus on people who know how to express themselves, as I would if I had approached the topic as a journalist."

The fear of being unmasked

At the outset, she planned to continue the project until she obtained a fixed term employment contract. Four months seemed like a reasonable time-frame. But she quickly realized it would not be enough. "It took me six weeks to find something," she explains. What, a job? No, of course not: a meager schedule of hours at both ends of the day, on the ferry across the channel, in offices, camp sites, and buildings. Initially, she worked on her notes every evening, but later only every second day because she was too worn out to write. "As time went on, they began to resemble a personal journal. After a month, you just let go. I was no longer someone who is above it all, but someone who has lost control and is struggling to stay afloat."

Did it ever remind her of her experience as a hostage? No, not really. But she does admit that she would probably "not have had the guts" to do what she did, if she hadn't "endured life as a captive." She had to overcome the fear of being unmasked, of appearing ridiculous (as the author of "Miss Nincompoop visits the poor"), but even more importantly "of ignoring the passing of time, which is such a precious commodity for journalists." Time for the unemployed is made up of endless waiting, and interminable journeys, which are not reimbursed, to odd locations where you work for just one hour. This was a completely different type of time, which she had never experienced until she was engulfed by it.

When the time came, Florence Aubenas, could not resolve herself to cancel the lease on her tiny room in Caen. In was in this minuscule space, rented for 348 euros a month, that she wrote the bulk of her book [Le Quai de Ouistreham, Editions de l’Olivier]. When she arrived in the northwestern city, she decided to use the money she had earned with a book about the Outreau affair (La Méprise, Seuil, 2005). "I had set aside the money, it was sacred: I said to myself, I'm not going to buy a car with money from Outreau!" She was fortunate to have it: even though she lived very frugally, not once in six months of backbreaking work did she earn enough to survive on her income.

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