Friday, 20 September 2013

The immigrant's story

Photo credit: Chareles Platiau/Reuters
My girlfriend works in a school in a poorer area of Lyon in which almost 90% of the children are of immigrant origin. It's a hard job. Violence is never far away and social problems are rife, but the staff does their best to educate their pupils against the odds.
The school recently hired a secretary to the headmistress. She is a young woman of Algerian origin who arrived in France from Algeria not long ago to join her husband, who earns a small salary. She too is on a low salary and they have a young child.

The secretary does her best and has many qualities. She is kind to the children and has earned their respect, she has an agreeable personality, she gets to work on time and she dresses impeccably.

But there's a snag. She was hired on a 'Contract of Insertion', a kind of contract which is destined to integrate immigrants and poorer people into a working environment despite what may be considered as being rather inadequate qualifications and abilities. Her level of French is very poor, she has problems writing from left to right - she was educated to write Algerian Arabic from right to left - she is very bad at taking messages by phone, and she refers to those who do so by saying things like 'an important person called who is called Mme Dupont', when Mme Dupont is just a teacher like everybody else. In other words, she is overawed by it all.

Not only that, she may be good at dealing with children but her social skills with adults are, shall we say, of a finite nature. The regional School Inspector turned up the other day and she welcomed him with a cheerily offhand 'hey hi, how're ya' doin'?' NOT what is expected in a socially rigid country like France, in which hierarchies are rigorously and respectfully respected.

Error after error, gaffe after gaffe, it has got to the point where emails she writes are checked and changed before being sent and in some cases the staff do her work for her. The staff feels for her and tries to help her as much as possible, but it's an uphill (losing?) battle and everyone, including the young woman concerned, knows it.

My girlfriend says that the secretary recently pleaded, begged, her and other staff to try and ensure that the school don't fire her after her trial period. She said that she would do her very best to improve her French and her ways of dealing with people in the context of French culture. My girlfriend answered that she would try to get her enrolled for free French lessons. 

Everyone likes her a lot, but it is as plain as day that she is just not up to the job. Despite that however they are trying to rally round and help her.

The poor girl is petrified of losing her job and ending up on a state pittance for doing nothing to contribute to the country. She wants so much to succeed and she is desperate to do so. But even with the best will in the world of everyone concerned, it is by no means certain that she will still have a job in a few weeks from now.

And if she loses her job? Oh, her husband may well abandon her and her baby because they are a financial liability, and she may well end up living in poverty. 

An awful dilemma this. Not all immigrants want to milk the system, but not all are able to find and keep work either. What can be done about it? That is for the movers and shakers of France to decide.

Meanwhile, her immigrant's story, that of a courageous young woman who wants no more than to earn an honest living, shall remain unheard and unread, except for those who have just taken the time to read this little blog post, parked up as it is, anonymously, in a tiny corner of the Internet........


  1. Glad to see you back Frip!

    This is a very thought provoking post. From the information you give my reaction is - why don't the school staff help her to improve instead of leaving her floundering while they engage in behind closed doors criticism. Can't someone take her under their wing and teach her the basic social skills expected by the new and foreign ( to her) society that she has entered?

    Why does she need French lessons - surely one of the staff could spend 15 mins of each day in French conversation with her on a social level. The same with encouraging her in writing in the western style. And can no-one think laterally and find an opening to do with the children at which she is clearly more suited, rather than office admin which sucks for many better educated "interns".

    A bit of a rant Frip - but you ( very wisely) opened the discussion. Also, her being Algerian - might that not be a factor in the situation? I am old enough to remember the Algerian war of independence when was at school in the early 1960s. It was very bloody if I remember. So many factors at work here I think.Cx

    1. Hi! Good to be back. Change as good as a rest as they say...

      As I mentioned in the blog, everyone feels for her and is doing their best to rally round and help, but there's only so much they can do. They all have their own jobs to do and they're all under enough presure as it is.

      But the bottom line in all this is to be found in your reference to the Algerian Civil War and tha fact that many French people have never really been able to swallow the bitter pill of defeat. Add to that the practical result of the Evian Agreements, the policies relative to the Harkis and the obvious and enormormous cultural differences between the Maghreb and France and you have all the ingredients for what we are seeing today...