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1In the late 1970s, Jean-François Laé and Numa Murard conducted a survey in Elbeuf, a working-class town in the Seine-Maritime département. [8] They were interested then in the lives of families settled in the temporary housing estate of Ecameaux, [9] built in 1975 to rehouse people living in insalubrious conditions. It was assumed at the time that the last “pockets of poverty” still in existence toward the end of the 30-year economic boom known as the Trente Glorieuses would disappear as overall living conditions improved. But when the same researchers returned to the field in 1995 [10] and then again in 2010, what they found was a different, much grimmer reality. This work presents the epic story of a research undertaking that spans a period of over 30 years; it depicts the destiny of two generations of “poor workers” and a territory paralysed by de-industrialization.

2The book is exceptional in several respects. First, for its methodology: few studies are conducted over such a long period or draw on such a variety of sources. The work is much more than an ethnographic study of inhabitants of the temporary housing estate; the authors also visited the different institutions its impoverished respondents had dealings with (courts, public reconciliation authorities, commissions for striking recipients from the unemployment rolls). The book is also remarkable for its colourful narrative style and well-suited tone; the authors show “from the inside” as it were how these people of working-class origin cope with unemployment, revealing attitudes, emotions and an atmosphere that usually remains in shadow.

3The lives of this set of poor people are characterized first and foremost by residential instability and poor housing conditions. In the 1970s they moved from dilapidated buildings into the temporary housing estate; when it closed in 1987, most were resettled in state-subsidized housing units. [11] But the housing the authors discovered in 2010 was once again in poor condition and some of the buildings were slotted for demolition – as if the problem had simply “moved house” with the respondents. This study of two generations forcefully demonstrates that poor people cannot break free of poor housing conditions. They seem caught in a circuit of “second-category” dwellings and pursued by demolition programmes: “Every ten years the washing machine turns and rinses away the dirt,” write the authors (p. 60). With every demolition, 20% of the building’s inhabitants disappear from the renters’ rolls.

4The lives of these people, especially the men, were rife with the dangers and scars of the working-class condition: exposure to health risks, work accidents, the hazards of working on scaffolding, for example, or near a vat of acid. But the effects of massive unemployment in France are just as pernicious and they heavily impact on everyday social life. That life is now shaped not by work shifts but economic precarity; these people cannot leave on vacation, and particularly vulnerable individuals simply drop out, as attested by the men and women who gather around a supermarket where beer are relatively cheap or become drug addicts or end up in prison or a psychiatric hospital.

5Though these people’s living spaces are unhealthy and segregate them from other people, they are nonetheless attached to them in both senses of the word: chained and emotionally attached. As several studies have shown, the territory can be a resource for the destitute. When they were living in the temporary housing estate, explain the authors, these people were almost a separate society and their poverty resulted less in “dis-affiliation” than excessive “affiliation”; that is, becoming deeply embedded in a tight network of relations. When the Ecameaux estate was demolished, its inhabitants were rehoused in different places to resolve the matter of “problem families.” Relationships became more a matter of preference than forced proximity, but that change also meant that individuals lost the protection and power represented by the group. Their new independence must be qualified, however, because family solidarity remains strong when it comes to coping with economic precarity, and while some inhabitants want very much to escape estate living, most are captive to their clan and would have great difficulty moving away.

6The poor people studied here also had repeated run-ins with the law: debt, fraud of various sorts, drunk driving, and domestic violence. Being prosecuted for a crime increases social insecurity and further separates the poor from workers. Generally speaking, the lives of jobless persons on welfare benefits are regulated by institutions. Job-seekers are required to be active all the time: to write applications, make phone calls, move around in search of work, and to prove that they have been doing all this. The grip of institutions on the poor is so tight that some compare it to the power the “boss” had in their working lives.

7But people are not passive in this situation and many try to succeed in it. They are ingenious when it comes to dealing with administrations, as attested by how they manipulate names and addresses to confuse the authorities, move away temporarily to avoid law suits, escape creditors, etc. They also implement distinction strategies to differentiate themselves and draw social boundaries. In this connection, small details of daily life take on great importance, like smoking manufactured cigarettes rather than rolling your own so as not to look like a “beggar.” Material necessity, then, is not the only behaviour determinant; it is still important to appear respectable. The authors finely analyse these people’s reasons for acting as they do, for engaging in behaviour that at first sight appears irresponsible and cavalier.

8And though precarity did not disappear in the 30 years separating the two studies, the authors do note a few positive developments. First, the precarity is less pronounced. Despite the limitations of the RMI and RSA minimum income benefits, they do enable people to get off food stamps and eat two meals a day. Moreover, family size is smaller than in the 1980s; young people stay in school longer, and the new generation is less dependent on family and neighbourhood. Another decisive change: respondents speak with greater ease, more readily denounce injustices, and are able to get greater perspective on their lives.

9In addition to recounting respondents’ difficult experience, the authors relate their own research proceedings, explaining how they groped about in the field, the difficulty of ferreting out former Ecameaux inhabitants, how they tried to get a dialogue going with people and gain entry into their apartments, how they ended up becoming involved in respondents’ private lives. They also express their discomfort and doubts about their position as sociologists. For whereas the respondents took the authors in as if they were household members, the authors acknowledge that their friendship with respondents was both strategic and temporary. This leads them to raise a fundamental question for all researchers studying precarious populations: “What is to be done with all the kindness and generosity [respondents show] given that we never give but only receive?” (p. 238). Likewise, how could the authors negotiate their departure from the field once the study was done given how inhabitants were still questioning them about their “desertion” 30 years earlier?

10The book reads like a novel, yet it would have been helpful to specify certain facts; for example, it is hard to have a clear idea of the places these people were resettled in after the housing estate was demolished. Moreover, though obviously it was difficult for the authors to obtain information on the few people who had left for good, they say next to nothing on the subject. They do mention one case, but it would have been interesting to know more about those who managed to distance themselves from the world under study. Furthermore, in analysing poverty, the authors seem to reason on the basis of an opposition between Paris and other cities: “Poverty is present in all French cities; to realize this, all one needs to do is to get out of Paris and be willing to see it” (p. 259). But poverty also exists in the capital, even though it may look different there: to observe this, all one needs to do is to set foot outside the wealthy neighbourhoods. Lastly, though the writing style is definitely one of the book’s strengths, the research is not well served by excessive metaphor. Despite these slight reservations, the reader does have the feeling at the end that s/he has acquired an almost intimate knowledge of these characters and their tumultuous lives – persons whose faces remain unseen unless one ventures into France’s hardest-hit deindustrialized areas.


  • [8]
    The findings of this first study were published in L’Argent des pauvres [The poor’s money] (Seuil 1985). That text figures as an appendix here and is presented as an archive.
  • [9]
    Estates like these were understood as a temporary stop for persons who would later be allocated a rental unit in a public housing estate or HLM (Habitation à Loyer Modéré).
  • [10]
    See the article “Célibataire à la rue” [Single and on the street], 1996, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, vol. 113, pp. 31-39.
  • [11]
    The others obtained assistance from the city for private-sector housing or ended up in insalubrious private-sector rental units.
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