CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition
“Of course I had to explain to them that I was merely an investigator, a social student, seeking to find out how the other half lived. And at once they shut up like clams. I was not of their kind; my speech had changed, the tones of my voice were different, in short, I was a superior, and they were superbly class conscious”.
Jack London, The People of the Abyss

1When I decided to sign on as a volunteer firefighter in the outer suburbs of Paris ten years ago, I expected to encounter experiences very unlike those of my customary social environment. In particular, I anticipated questions of a political nature to arise relatively infrequently in such a predominantly working-class setting, [1] where individuals are quick to proclaim their disinterest, bordering on disgust, for all things political – both in the institutional sense [2] and under the guise of informal sociopolitical debates that are largely viewed as pointless. [3] Thus, the environment appeared to be highly unpoliticized, regardless of how broad the definition of the term.

2In perusing academic literature on ordinary attitudes toward politics [4] and politicization in the working class, [5] I found support for my initial perception. Numerous studies reveal the multiple forms of political incompetence, [6] disinterest, [7] and even apathy that allegedly exist in this milieu, while others point out the absence of politics, its diminishing presence or even its avoidance. [8] For quite some time, I believed that I was experiencing a similar phenomenon.

3However, as time went on and I gained more experience, I began to witness increasingly open and straightforward political discussions, debates in which my opinions were solicited, problems and opinions were shared [9] and taking a stance was expected. [10] This unexpected situation drove me to radically rethink my initial hypothesis and to consequently become more attentive to the ways in which political opinions were manufactured and expressed in a working-class environment. This discovery also steered me towards a more interactionist approach to politicization, [11] seeking to elaborate an ethnographic study of ordinary relationships to politics. [12] In this article, I propose to reconstruct certain elements of this study, which fulfilled the criteria of the “Malinowskian revolution”: long-term immersion, primacy conferred to context, and beliefs inferred by the researcher without having exclusive recourse to propositional content. Political opinions appeared less as “a deliberative choice based on free will according to everyday notions of the political game, surveys, and political intellectuals”, [13] than as variable translations of specific social and professional conditions. [14] In this sense, this study contributes to the debate around the arguments set forth by Anne Norton, [15] who has prompted us to reflect on the “ordinary relations” of American citizens to politics by entering fully into their daily lives. According to Norton, a better understanding of individual behavior during ordinary periods of time may shed light on their political behavior in general, as well as on their individual political behavior during highly politicized events such as elections.

4The existing literature on modes of politicization in professional settings suggests that it is primarily in the work setting that we meet people who hold political opinions that differ from our own. Such research also emphasizes strategies for avoiding political questions, on the one hand, and the effects of homogenization [16] which operate between colleagues, on the other. In the firefighting world, it is important to highlight three characteristics that add an interesting dimension to this study. First, French firefighters carry out as many firefighting missions as rescue missions. Hence, in the execution of the first type of mission, they embody a highly valued model of virility which borrows heavily from the military model: organization, grades, respect for order and hierarchy and physical risk-taking. But as emergency rescue professionals they also respond to physical, psychological or social distress, and must therefore demonstrate the ability to listen and empathize, as well as psychological finesse in interpersonal relations. In short, it is fair to say that they simultaneously embody the right and left hands of the state, more or less successfully: order and security on one hand, aid and assistance on the other. The tension between these demands, which is particularly evident, in this line of work, is not without impact on firefighters” political and social ideas, which may fall within extremely different registers – not just between different firefighters but also within the same individual – depending on seniority, experience, or the situations and requérants (callers, or other members of the public seeking help) [17] encountered.

5The second particularity of this socio-professional setting relates to the wide variety of social milieu which firefighters encounter in the context of emergency rescue. In addition to the technical knowledge that firefighters must master, experience leads them to develop specific professional skills that consist of identifying and interpreting the clues necessary to rapidly analyze a situation and adopt appropriate behaviors. Their gestures, posture, diction and tone vary depending on their analysis of the type of intervention. [18] Over time, this ability to decrypt what is “actually” happening, sometimes independently of what the key participants tell them, becomes a sort of professional reflex that is activated – consciously or otherwise – in response to representatives of the institutional political sphere. [19]

6Finally, the third essential element in this professional realm is the powerful injunction to respect a code of ethics, [20] founded on equal treatment and the absence of value judgments. Yet this deontological and moral context sometimes seems ill suited to the realities that firefighters face on the ground, especially as they accumulate “years in the force”. [21] The increase in the number of non-emergency interventions may lead to the stigmatization of a free-rider society, insults or violence arising in certain neighborhoods may generate misunderstandings and hostility towards “thugs”, [22] and the need to intervene alongside the police may further accentuate tensions between the two models I have described above. While keen to differentiate themselves from police officers through their mode of intervention, firefighters often view themselves as objective allies of those who frequently ensure their security. The paradoxes unique to their line of work resonate with their social being and fuel recurrent debates on all of these topics: thus, politics, as we shall see, is far from absent in the French firefighting community.

Getting out… and being brought back

7How best to sum up the firefighters whom I worked alongside? [23] Firefighters stand on the border between the working and middle classes. [24] Professional firefighters [25] are part of the French public sector and thus benefit from a relatively protected status. The vast majority are men – although officially, women may serve as firefighters, they are still scarce in emergency centers [26] – and individuals of North African or African descent are largely underrepresented. As for volunteer firefighters, who are only affiliated to the French public service and paid an interim hourly wage, most are manual laborers (skilled and unskilled) or technicians, if not unemployed or students (usually in the STAPS, Sciences et Techniques des Activités Physiques et Sportives, the university course aimed at future sports professionals). Professionals are often former volunteer firefighters, but these two categories of firefighters share a common denominator of low levels of education, rarely obtaining the Baccalauréat (the bac, French academic qualification marking the completion of secondary education). Broadly speaking, the common characteristics of these firefighters would broadly classify them amongst the petits-moyens (the upper strata of the working classes). [27]

8I was struck by the search for social recognition manifested by the majority of firefighters I met. They hadn’t gained this recognition in school, which for most remained a bad memory. The majority had endured painful and humiliating academic experiences, which caused a few problems for me in the early days as all those who didn’t like teachers made sure I knew it. [28] But on several occasions, my status enabled me to act as a resource-person on academic matters, such as counseling, job training and qualifications. These firefighters had held – and in the case of the volunteers, still held – socially and financially undervalued jobs. They worked, variously, as stretcher-bearers or nursing aides in public hospitals, as ATM repair technicians, technicians servicing medical measuring equipment, automobile assembly line workers, and fire security technicians. Their wives were hairdressers or sales people, or worked in the city hall, in banks or insurance companies, or as nurses or primary school teachers.

9Many are familiar with unemployment or precarious employment. Most live in modest homes bought on long-term loans, or rent apartments or modern residences that, though “well-kept”, are never far from housing projects and rougher neighborhoods. One to two children is the norm; these children are usually enrolled in public school, and given the average age of firefighters, in elementary or middle school more specifically. All of the “serious” couples are married, often by the Church, generally less out of faith than tradition. Although they do enjoy relative employment security, particularly the professionals, average incomes, [29] and a relatively comfortable lifestyle, they still live on a tight budget. This “life on credit” constitutes an important dimension of how they view the social world: for many, social inequality translates first into economic inequality and the necessity of constantly monitoring their spending. Carefully planning for the future (vacations, children, loans, etc.) is a key element of their social position.

Merit as a fundamental value

10Nearly all of my colleagues worked to distance themselves from the lowest factions of the working class. This pursuit of social mobility, earned through work, merit, and a refusal to “work the system” – to use the time-honored expression [30] – was an essential part of their social being. Becoming a firefighter was one way to accomplish this. At best, they acquired a stable form of employment, and at the very least, a little extra money to make life more comfortable; and, for everybody, a measure of social recognition linked to the popularity of the profession. This commitment brought them self-esteem (or what Alf Lüdtke terms eigene Selbstachtung[31]), which they then strove to defend and sustain. For instance, even when they knew that their fire service networks and “friends in high places” may have helped them secure a position, all expressed the conviction that they worked hard and truly deserved what they had achieved. They offered frequent reminders that they were not “burdens on society, depending on free handouts”. Everything that they possessed was acquired through hard work. For instance, F., a 30-year-old volunteer who joined the firefighters when still very young, was known for his rigorous work ethic, both inside and outside of the firehouse, and for “telling it like it is, without sugarcoating!”


“What I have, I worked for… okay, maybe not so much at school, but I’ve been working since I was 18, and it’s 24-hour shifts, on the weekends and everything. Of course when you see what they get: social security, rent control, universal health insurance, allowances, no taxes… and God knows what else, why would they do anything? Take all that away, we’ll see if people don’t look for work. I have it alright, but at least I’m not a drain on society, you know, I try to be useful.” [32]

Feelings of insecurity

12In addition to the value attached to merit, firefighters are acutely aware of their insecurity, in particular on a professional level. [33] Many worry about the possible decline of their profession, both in terms of income and working conditions. Their fears take the shape of their potential inability to pay back loans, or the disappearance of the status that offers them some amount of protection. Furthermore, their physical capital, so crucial in this line of work, is always at risk: an accident can happen in a matter of minutes or even seconds and render them unfit for work. Beyond the personal ramifications of injury and potential disability, they run the risk of losing the advantages conferred by active firefighter status.

“Ok so we’re not the worst off, but if we keep going the way this government is headed, it’s going to be rough !”
“The government better not keep screwing everything up, it’s not like retirement at 60 is a luxury !” “In any case, the ones who are gonna hurt us are the Chinese, for one thing there are god knows how many of them, they work for nothing, there aren’t any labor laws or unions there, stuff like that! When one dies, there are ten more to replace him, what are we supposed to do against that?” “They know how to take advantage of cheap migrant labour: first, they take away the subsidies and everything, then after six months, they look elsewhere, for Chinks or Romanians, and we just stay here like dumbasses!a”
Many of our discussions touched on these concerns and firefighters were very attentive to political attitudes, and scrutinized matters such as the status of public service, pensions, salaries, and European legislation to determine “how we’re going to get screwed”. Understanding the professional and social concerns at the forefront of firefighters’ minds was essential to grasp the ways in which they were politicized. As was readily apparent during our shifts, politics was never absent: these topics were on the table, and frequently so.

Worrying about tomorrow

13A particular focus of firefighters’ anxiety was what would happen to their children. Parents worried that the public schools that most of their children attended lacked the conditions necessary for academic success, and they often viewed private school as a potential solution. Many of the professional firefighters worked overtime to afford private school tuition, because they did not feel sufficiently protected from the most disadvantaged rung of the working class, composed primarily of immigrants, who were often accused of using the white kids as punching bags. Their concerns stemmed from a widely shared feeling of being “social miracles”. Time and time again I heard: “I don’t have a degree, but with the bonuses, I make more than a teacher! Isn’t that crazy?” But they realized, or at least worried, that this “miracle” won’t happen twice: “nowadays, you need a degree for everything, even to be a janitor!” Yet they felt a sense of helplessness when faced with this social necessity for academic success: they fervently prayed for their children to “make it”, [34] but could not help them beyond offering financial support. So they paid close attention to educational issues: for instance, the law doing away with school assignment based on the district of residence [the “loi sur l’abandon de la carte scolaire”, intended to promote equal opportunity and diversity in educational institutions] didn’t escape their attention, quite the contrary. Many of those who were trying to get away from their local schools took note of this new opportunity, and of schools’ results and guidance for children. When necessary, parents didn’t hesitate to seek feedback, advice, and the “best way to go” from schools.

14Thus, the personal life of these firefighters is emblematic of the fragmentation of the working class, of which they compose the upper layer: they remain marked by a (strongly resented) proximity to the most disadvantaged of the working-class population with regards to leisure, residence, and their children’s education. A socioeconomic context characterized by crisis, mass unemployment, the devaluation of qualifications, outsourcing, lay-offs, and the changing status and benefits of civil servants fuelled their deep concerns, which they more or less clearly experienced and articulated. Unlike the binary world between “them” and “us” described by R. Hoggart, [35] firefighters seem instead to exist in an in-between world. Situated in the middle ground between “the people at the top” (managers, the “bourgeois”, officers) and “the people at the bottom” (those on benefits, immigrants, or low-income families), they struggle to maintain their position and defend their dignity. [36] In the end, this intermediate position tends to reinforce divisions and aggravate conflicts between different factions of the working class. For the firefighters, security is, in a way, a constant necessity. And finally, given that their profession is about helping everyone, especially those who have least, it is understandable that they express anxiety, distrust, and sometimes animosity towards those who appear to them to embody this threat. [37]

15Hopefully, this brief recapitulation of this social habitus sheds more light on the conversation excerpts reproduced in this article than any attempt to infer political opinions, convictions, or ideologies might do. [38] Let me now address more specifically how this profession produces and shapes shared social and political notions.

Tricks of the trade

16Firefighters carry out safety missions while also embodying the principle of helping others; many feel an obligation to increasingly shoulder “all of the world’s misery”. Their profession places them in constant contact with underprivileged populations who frequently call upon them for help. Firefighters provide a free service [39] and are not authority figures of control or repression – unlike the police, for instance. Therefore, while suffering from the instability of these populations, they also depend upon them to earn a living. This situation generates tension and internal ambiguity that feed contradictory feelings and contrasting worldviews. Despite their self-identification first and foremost as defenders of civil security, firefighters must address the ills of society with as much empathy as possible. Consequently, they are sharply critical of the left, which in addition to being too lax in terms of social control for their taste, is always suspected of seeking to help the most disadvantaged populations with no demands made of them in return


“In any case, all they have to do is make a mess, burn some cars, and you’ll see the left saying: poor things, it’s not their fault, we need to help them…”

18But others criticise the right, especially after Sarkozy was elected:


“They act hard on TV, but nothing is changing in the projects.” “They were supposed to clean up the ghettos with water blasters, yeah right, they’re all talk like all politicians; when we go to the projects it’s not with 300 CRS [riot police] to protect us.”

20Firefighters deal with all social milieux, but in particular they intervene at times when social performance is either heightened or entirely absent: [40] most often, those seeking help are reacting spontaneously as the action is unfolding. It is important to rapidly decode the situation in order to adopt the appropriate stance. Beyond evaluating the gravity of the victim’s physical state, a firefighter must also – and sometimes this is the most important thing – be on the lookout for clues that might provide an idea of the social milieu in which he finds himself.

“Knowing what we’re getting ourselves into” during an emergency

21The job leads firefighters to develop the skills necessary to decipher social environments; I was often surprised by the mental alacrity and perceptiveness of my colleagues, who were capable of determining within a few minutes, thanks to a few telltale signs, what kind of person they were dealing with. This skill is acquired with time and experience, and thorough knowledge of the field. But it is reactivated – almost like a reflex – when they watch the news or comment on images in the newspaper. The task of deciphering and contextualizing what is being said – especially in terms of politics – is almost constant. These skills, acquired on the job, are necessary to make an accurate assessment of each situation and take the appropriate measures.

22The first kinds of information gathered in emergency situations are addresses and timescales, but everything is scrupulously analyzed, especially by the more experienced chef d’agrès [C/A, the firefighter responsible for planning and managing the personnel]. A lavish or modest interior, a person’s clothing, accent, language register, the model of his or her car, etc.; anything and everything can be the object of a rapid first analysis to determine how to proceed. The firefighters may be more polite and distant with “bourgeois” individuals; they may listen more carefully to those with more limited means; and they may adopt a harsher tone and attitudes with “kids from the projects”, or wealthy callers who call the emergency line unnecessarily to address non-urgent problems. In reality, the latter is not the most frequent occurrence, but this type of situation often comes up in discussions, which play an important role in the development of shared opinions regarding the social world. These shared opinions are a result of these tensions and the means used to transform them, such that firefighters often believe that their work enables them to decode the hypocrisies of the social world. The fact that firefighters often interact with people who are putting up less of a front than in ordinary situations, in addition to the necessity of maintaining distance from what is happening in order to ensure impartiality, reinforces their confidence in their ability to fully grasp the truth of social relations. This professional imperative also sharpens their judgment; makes them less gullible and more cynical, because differential treatment of victims is explicitly prohibited in firefighting ethics. [41] They are aware, however, that certain segments of the population receive more attention than others, due to their place in the hierarchy (certain “VIP” interventions involve systematic visits by the officer on duty). This near-daily confrontation with the social hierarchy leads to a constant need to negotiate one’s own position in the social space: firefighters calculate and adapt, but always fight to stay on top of the lowest echelons, as is evidenced by the following anecdote.

“The yuppie [42] who doesn’t get his hands dirty”

23In the winter of 2004, around 7pm, we received a call regarding an unconscious person on the highway; upon our arrival, a man in his fifties dressed in a suit and tie – “an executive type” – greeted us. Behind him, his BMW was double-parked with the warning lights on; on the sidewalk, a somewhat inebriated homeless man appeared to be asleep. According to our witness, the homeless man was unresponsive: he claimed to be worried, hence the call. We approached the homeless man and spoke to him, tapping him on the shoulder. He woke up with a start, revealing that he was clearly not unconscious. We explained the situation to him: the homeless man grumbled that there was no cause for worry, that he just wanted to sleep… On the verge of leaving, our witness, appearing embarrassed, asked us to take the man to the hospital anyways, just in case, because it was cold outside; but somehow, his attitude didn’t ring true. The chef d’agrès commended the witness for his altruism, but explained that we did not take people to the hospital against their will. This prompted a rather unexpected conversation revealing that the true goal of the phone call to the firefighters – though the witness couldn’t say so outright – was in fact to move the homeless man, who was inconveniently lying in front of the caller’s garage. Despite our surprise and annoyance, we did as he asked, doing our best to make him feel as awkward as possible, and then left. As soon as the chef d’agrès climbed back into the VSAV (Véhicule de secours aux asphyxiés et aux victimes: emergency vehicle for first aid and transport to hospitals, but different from an ambulance in the legal sense), he exploded.

“Unconscious, give me a break! I was worried and blah blah blah, what he was worried about was his BMW! Honestly, I don’t understand, he can’t just go talk to him, he’s scared of catching something… or maybe Mr. BMW is just too good! Unbelievable… calling us to move a homeless person, what the fuck kind of world are we living in! It doesn’t bother him that there’s a guy sleeping outside, but his car on the other hand: it’s crazy…”
The exasperation stemmed from several intertwined feelings: anger against someone who knowingly lied, incomprehension of what we considered to be a denial of humanity, contempt for this “Mr. Perfect” who wouldn’t interact with a bum, and finally, the humiliation inflicted by a “bourgeois yuppie” who thought we were at his beck and call just to deal with the minor inconveniences of his daily life. This anecdote illustrates how a worldview might be constructed that can be reactivated on more directly political occasions. A whole series of common expressions among firefighters speaks to their disgust for the “bourgeois who don’t get their hands dirty”, people who “don’t break a sweat”, “don’t wear themselves out” – this last expression sometimes also targeting “people who depend on free handouts”. Yet these firefighters also castigate professional politicians who appear all over talk shows in the winter to “cry over the fate of homeless people, without ever taking measures to provide housing”, politicians who demand greater efforts from others without applying the same austerity measures to themselves. Everyday attitudes to politics develop from these types of situation.

Defending and promoting the public sector

24Another scene that I witnessed encapsulates the moments of tension which result from evaluating social hierarchies. Summoned by an injured 75-year-old woman, we arrived in a rather chic neighborhood. Our chief’s first comment: “Well there sure is dough around here: it’s not any time soon that I’ll be buying a place here”. We went into a plush living room with antique furniture, draperies, leather armchairs; an elderly woman was on the floor, moaning. A quick examination indicated that she had likely broken her hip, which is relatively commonplace. A man in a dark suit greeted us coldly: “This is my mother, I don’t know how it happened, but she fell down and can’t get back up. I don’t know if I should have, but I called you anyways.” Unsure of how to interpret this statement, the chief straightforwardly asked, “What do you mean, ‘if you should have’?” “I mean, I don’t know, do you have a medical qualification, at least some training? Something?” D [the chief]: “Yes of course, a first aid diploma…” “Otherwise, I’d rather you didn’t touch her…” The increasingly irritated chief: “If you don’t trust us, you shouldn’t have called us, sir”. He retorted: “I’m not saying that… either way, I pay my taxes so I pay for your services, so it’s only right that you’re here…” Dumbfounded, but forcing a smile, D responded: “OK so should we take care of her or would you rather call somebody else? Because in the meantime your mom is in pain…” “Alright well go ahead, since you’re here….” After having settled the victim into the VSAV, our witness let us know that he didn’t trust public hospitals at all ( “you wait for hours, in borderline unhygienic conditions and you never know who you’re going to get”) and stipulated that he wanted his mother taken to a private clinic with standards similar to those they were accustomed to. When it was time to leave, the chief coldly said goodbye and explained: “You know, we have thorough and up-to-date first aid training, we don’t just do whatever we like, we’re not amateurs.” “Of course, if you say so… but you won’t convince me of the professionalism of the public services… at least make sure she’s not in pain during the ride”, he said coldly. D, almost angrily: “Honestly, next time, it would probably be best for everyone, except for your mother I mean, not to call us if that’s what you think!” “Don’t worry, I always avoid doing so if at all possible!” D’s conclusion: “When it comes to public services, we all have the right to our own opinion, but personally I don’t think it’s all that bad that everyone has free access to first aid services and care… I guess that’s just my opinion but if you want a system like in the U.S. where you only get care if you can pay, feel free !”

25The debriefing heightened D’s exasperation. As he was an experienced professional firefighter and an accredited first aid instructor, D remained angry all the way back to the firehouse. He is both insulted by the man’s remarks and scandalized at having been considered an amateur or a slacker, almost an ideal type of the lazy and incompetent civil servant. “In the meantime, he’s happy to be able to call us when he needs us, even if we’re supposedly useless!” I answered with a smile: “Well yeah, the gentleman pays his taxes….” “Yeah, that’s a flawless argument right there: I pay you, so do your job, meathead, even while I insult you during the process… I love it!” This scene is noteworthy, as it illustrates an attitude in context: the negative connotations associated with civil servant status are difficult for firefighters to tolerate particularly since they display such individual and collective commitment and passion for the cardinal values of their personal and professional ethos, including sacrifice, merit and a rigorous approach to work. So it requires considerable scorn from one of their interlocutors to prompt a justification of public services as a noble, important and free institution. I was able to determine that this defense of public services, though hardly spontaneous, was expressed with relative ease on certain occasions: when ESSEC (École Supérieure des Sciences Économiques et Commerciales, a prestigious French business school) students came to do research at the firehouse and personally interview each of the firefighters on duty, they all good-naturedly mocked their “school for Daddy’s boys” “where you drink more than you study”, and “graduate from with only money on your mind”. Allowing themselves to be only mildly provocative, the firefighters attempted to explain that the nobility of their work was precisely that they did not act differently according to the victims” social position. They also explained that they took particular pride in not accepting money for their services. They set themselves up as the defenders of a free and egalitarian public service in a world “dominated by money”. This argument was speedily revived when the Sarkozy administration directly attacked civil servants and their “privileges”, or when certain MPs began to look into the cost of “our dear firefighters”, a pun heartily disliked by firefighters.

“We can’t take on the whole world’s misery”

26And yet, firefighters express a certain disgust towards the obligations inherent in their public service profession, especially when it comes to taking on “all of the world’s misery”. I was surprised at their harshness towards those known internally as “social cases”, for their problems with substance abuse, violence and various psychological issues, who constituted a very large number of interventions. The firefighters consider themselves powerless in the face of these types of problems, which, for many of them, did not quite fall within their areas of expertise. They experienced this as a blow to their professional dignity and felt exploited as “social workers” or the “garbage men of society”. And yet, they all considered that being in touch with those who suffer is what makes their profession so valuable. What did they believe in the most? Defending a public service to someone who’d called for their help but didn’t trust or respect them? Or calling public service into question when their skills and strengths are stretched to their limits? In reality, the question isn’t actually posed in these terms. In either case, their beliefs and attitudes are closer to an intermediate position, at times leading firefighters to defend opposite points of view in the opposite situation, in a constant attempt to remain at the service of others without losing their dignity.

The greatness of the little people: or, how to be at the people’s service without being their servant

27Generally considered as saviours and widely enjoying broad social recognition, firefighters struggle with situations in which they are brutally cut down to size and dominated: in firefighter language, to be treated as “a servant, a skivvy”. They then deploy multiple strategies to communicate that they refuse to be treated this way. They let the offender know that their profession comprises a form of nobility that s/he cannot deny with impunity. They may serve the population, but they’re nobody’s servants – this is in essence the message; all the more so because their interventions normally constitute privileged moments during which social hierarchies are reversed. For the duration of the emergency, the firefighters call the shots and dictate what must be done, regardless of whom they are dealing with. If one accepts that, for many if not all firefighters, their occupation confers a form of pride and a status they’ve never enjoyed before and might not enjoy otherwise, we can thus understand their extreme sensitivity to underlying or explicit scorn and lack of respect. For instance, a firefighter who is also temporary employee at Carglass, receiving low wages and little consideration from his boss, will be particularly upset with someone who “disrespects” him: not inclined to express his anger, however, he will shut down into icy silence without so much as a glance or a word, as if absent from the scene. Only someone who has known him for a long time would understand that his impassive face, slow and mechanical gestures, refusal to look a person in the eye or say something to ease the tension, are foolproof signs of cold, suppressed anger, a deep rejection of the person who did not show the basic respect he believes he rightfully deserves. [43]

How to keep quiet, let nothing slide, and think it all the same

28To understand the impact of this particular profession on the political and social conceptions of firefighters, one must also remember that some emergency operations are carried out in partnership with the SMUR (Service Mobile d’Urgence et de Réanimation, Mobile Emergency and Reanimation Service), meaning nurses and doctors from Emergency Medical Services; this contributes to forging a particular vision of the social world and its hierarchies. [44] Three professional categories (firefighter, nurse, doctor) and three different social statuses are brought together and interact in these moments. In most cases, the intervention takes place without any difficulties, and everyone is happy. When there are glitches, they often arise as a result of social contempt. Two incidents, of which I had first-hand experience since I personally and negatively experienced them, demonstrate how little it takes for humiliation to be inflicted. During an emergency operation at the home of an elderly person suffering from cardiovascular problems, while the SMUR dealt with the IV and medication, I stepped aside to deliver my latest report to my supervisor. The doctor was asking the victim questions on his end. Clearly annoyed by our conversation, he snapped, “Is this firefighter going to shut up?” in a spiteful tone that abruptly cut me off. Seeing my astonishment, my supervisor took me aside: “Damn! I can’t get over how this guy is talking to us! Don’t worry, when it’s time to load the stretcher, he can figure it out on his own… and if he’s not happy, I’ll tell him a thing or two !” The nurse immediately understood what was going on, and the two firefighters on the SMUR team gave us a knowing look and took over loading the stretcher without even requesting our assistance. All of this took place in the midst of palpable tension to which the doctor, however, appeared oblivious. In this professional setting, nothing distinguished me from my colleagues, which is why I was able to experience moments of proper social humiliation in a way that I never would have been able to otherwise. It is difficult for me to say whether the experience was more painful for me than for my colleagues, but it was certainly very disconcerting each time it happened. For most firefighters, however, these are familiar and frequently recurring social situations.

29Another significant scene: in spring 2006, upon our arrival at the emergency room, we entrusted the victim to the department’s attending physician, a sharp and authoritarian man. As I conveyed the relevant information, I completely mispronounced the name of a medication and thereby triggered a burst of laughter from the doctor.


“That’s a good one! How did you say it? Come on, repeat after me, please… because if we give her what you just said, it will kill her! And you’re the boss, wow, look out! We don’t expect you to have gone to med school but at least make an effort to be interested! Take her to room 4 and whatever you do, don’t touch the meds, all right?”

31He took off with another burst of laughter and a complicit wink to the nurses present, as if to say, “we’ve got a real idiot on our hands !” A few laughed candidly, others were visibly embarrassed. Was it fatigue? Too much in the way of humiliation? Either way, I couldn’t stop myself ranting out loud:


“Who does he think he is, seriously? He thinks he can just talk to me like an idiot, who does he think he’s talking to, shit ! Let me ask him if he knows anything about axiological neutrality or the meaning of habitus cleavage !”

33My anger must have been incomprehensible to the nurses, who nonetheless exhibited a few signs of empathy. My two colleagues were annoyed by the doctor’s behavior but also doubly amused.


“You’re not used to being talked to like that, are you Doc? I think he got you good this time, huh? I’ve never seen you this furious… well in any case he’s an asshole, he’s full of himself, we’re not supposed to know the medications, he knows that, just having fun, that’s whack… so what’s it like to be a lowly firefighter when you have a PhD?”

35Then turning towards the department staff, one proudly called out:


“You can keep your Doc, since he’s so awesome! And we’ll keep ours… oh you’re surprised, huh? Forget it, you wouldn’t understand !”

37They cheered me up on the way back to the firehouse, and it was apparent that they were glad that I understood a little, that for once I had experienced what they experienced all too often. They were glad, too, to be able to use my experience to get a little revenge for their recurrent humiliations, by loudly making fun of this respected and feared doctor, thanks to their very own “Doc”. When such a tactic isn’t possible, and of course it rarely is, it is through almost imperceptible signs, gestures and looks that they express their anger, indignation and even scorn for the one who scorns them: by not saying goodbye to the SMUR doctor who didn’t greet them, by drily handing him the write-up with the first aid team’s notes that he wouldn’t condescend to listen to when they tried to tell him verbally, and by complicitly making fun of an indifferent doctor with their SMUR firefighter colleagues, because “for him, we’re all the same anyways”.

38After ten years in the firehouse, I feel confident in asserting that reiterated experiences of social humiliation – whether they stem from “pure domination” related to hierarchy or social status, or they recall bad memories from the schoolyard – play an essential role in the development of my colleagues’ political opinions. Because I ventured out of the social science laboratory [45] I gradually realized the full extent of how all of these personal and professional experiences leave their mark, as the burning and almost indelible stain of being a little person, a dominated person, a servant. But for all that, trying to fit in with the working class by misusing grammar and behaving coarsely does not fool anyone. Certainly, my colleagues are not offended by the expletives and grammatical errors of certain politicians, but they do not view this as a way of “getting on their level” – for many, this actually constitutes a form of inverse social contempt. Knowing one’s place and proving worthy of one’s position are just as essential in their eyes – even as they constantly question how much certain individuals deserve their own jobs. The in-between position of firefighters, socially and professionally, thus tends to generate diffuse forms of anxiety, a tense relationship with the future and nostalgia regarding the past, as well as a kind of lucidity that is at times disillusioned, and times combative. It seemed necessary to me to recreate what could be called the “spontaneous sociology” of these “street-level bureaucrats” to understand how they manage to orient themselves politically, because the skills they develop in order to decode the social settings they encounter professionally also enable them to decode and interpret the political world.

39As we have seen, political debates are likely to spring up on many occasions – and more frequently than one might think – but sometimes in unlikely contexts.

Talking politics in the shower?

40While showering after a shift, I heard a colleague ask me the usual question: “So, any action tonight?” A. started with the BSPP [46] (Brigade de sapeurs pompiers de Paris, a unit of the French army), and had been assigned to one of the emergency response centers in the northern suburb known to be rough: he was all muscle, unapproachable, deep voice, that way of smoking cigarettes between his thumb and index, right until the butt, without seeming to feel the heat. He arrived with a controversial reputation as a “tough guy” that no one could influence, but I immediately established a certain degree of trust, [47] and our joint interventions always went well. In the internal typology, he fits the profile of the “Gaulois”, with the political connotations that accompany it. In addition to the “Gaulois” – proud to be French and rough around the edges in interpersonal relations, this typology includes “le Pioupiou” – a young inexperienced firefighter, usually unassuming; “le Vieux Sarce” – a middle-aged firefighter with a great deal of experience; and the “Neuneu” – someone the others have given up on because of his hopelessly inappropriate human and professional reactions.

41I replied then that things were calm right now but probably wouldn’t be later tonight.


“And why is that?” he said.
“I don’t know, but Algeria is playing tonight [in the football World Cup].”
“Oh shit, well yeah, it’s over! Either they win and get wasted (wasn’t there something in the Qur’an about alcohol? Yeah, well that, there’s always a way to get around it, ha!), or they lose, and people get hurt… either way, they’re bound to make a mess! At the end of the day, I’d rather deal with injuries than see Algeria win !”

43I poked my head out of the shower to give him a disapproving look. With a frank smile, he took on a falsely guilty look.

44“What ! What is that I hear? Who said that? Ohhhh… no, no way ! I don’t want to hear that!”During this little scene, another professional firefighter, formerly stationed in Villiersle-Bel (which for us said it all: the station sees a lot of action, it’s a rough neighborhood, there are urban riots…) walked by smiling and reciting almost mechanically: “I don’t want to know your philosophy, or your religion…” My colleague laughed boldly, and pretending not to recognize General Casso’s text on firefighter ethics, said to me:


“What’s he talking about? Is he off in the head or what?”
“I don’t know, I think it’s something like our code of ethics… I don’t remember anymore.”
“Oh yeah, that thing the general wrote when he was bored and didn’t know what to do! General ‘social case’ !”

46This ritual joke, a reminder of the acute difficulty of respecting these ethics on the ground, made me laugh. Then A. concluded:


“In any case what I was saying has nothing to do with the fact that my wife is a cop and my kid is the only white kid in his class… no really, nothing at all !”

48Is this discussion emblematic of the “authoritarian and xenophobic syndrome of the working class”, [48] befitting the principles of their rightward shift or their Poujadism? Where should we situate these social actors on an authoritarianism-ethnocentrism scale? We can, of course, analyze the forms of racism that are expressed on these occasions, but I prefer to reconstruct the social conditions in which such discourse naturally occurs. The question, then, would be: what is he saying when he says this? What I’ve written thus far allows, I hope, to reflect the complexity of possible interpretations and offer possible answers: social intermediacy, a desire for social mobility, anxiety about the future, a commitment to public service despite recurrent humiliation, confrontations with urban violence, the underrepresentation of immigrants in the firefighting corps: all of these elements play a role in the development of this kind of political attitude. There seems to be an academic bias that seeks to make discourse match an unchanging political orientation in an excessively univocal way, suggesting that one is the perfect reflection of the other. Indeed, in the firefighters’ locker room, it is common to hear friendly greetings or jokes along the lines of: “Tell me l’Antillais (West Indian), you managed to come to work today? Wasn’t too hard?”, calling for a response such as: “Come on, surely a Portos (slang for Portuguese) isn’t giving me this lecture? Did you finish your house or watch football on TV all weekend?” Or to me: “So Prof, traumatized by the 24-hour shift? A day as a firefighter works out to almost six months’ worth of work at l’Éducation nationale (Ministry of Education), huh? You gonna make it?” [49]

49It certainly took me some time to get used to it, but spending time in this environment also taught me not to take this sort of provocative declaration too seriously. The same man who calls me out on a regular basis for the easy lifestyle of the “slackers at l’Education nationale” regularly comes to me for advice on his children’s education or to edit letters and resumes, explaining:


“You know, I make fun of you a lot, I’m just giving you a hard time… I had it rough with teachers, for sure, because I spent all of elementary school yelling `Help ! Help` and no one came to help… but deep down, I know you’re not all like that.”

51Thus I encountered social actors who were capable of considerably changing their views, depending on the situation and who they were talking to. It might therefore be unwise to give a somewhat reified interpretation of their relation to politics.

52Moreover, it is important to take into account the context of such interactions: the shower that fosters community building. [50] Other factors to consider include: the humor of statements, which can both lift the taboo on the unspeakable [51] and mark a certain distance from what is being said; the explicit moral condemnation of the statements (by the speaker, listener, and/or a third party); the commonplace professional dimension of the discussion, which simply seeks to evaluate the probability of a busy shift; and finally, the rough sociological justification that concludes the discussion about familial, professional and educational circumstances ( “my wife is a cop”: therefore very exposed to delinquency and assaults of all types, which I know because she works in rough neighborhoods; “my kid has a hard time at school”, because he is the only white kid in his class; and finally, what isn’t said because I already know it: I myself have been a firefighter in the roughest areas of Seine-Saint-Denis and “you can’t tell me anything I don’t already know about what goes on there”…). For me, it is indispensable to take into account all of these elements – which is possible in an ethnographic study – to enrich the interpretative work of the researcher.

53Provocation, humor, plain speaking and an indicative interpretation of politics: a few constant elements in political attitudes in the firefighting world

54From the discussion described above, what are the main interpretative conclusions? When talking politics in this professional setting, having a sense of humor is key. In these things, as in so many others, we cannot take ourselves too seriously. The scene described above shows an entirely typical sequence within this relationship, sometimes distant and (self-)-critical, yet still direct and “straight-talking” – as firefighters like to say – in relation to politics and the real world.

55Humor allows us to say what we think without rushing or attacking our interlocutors; it also indicates that we can be attached to an idea without being fanatical about it. For firefighters, initiating a political discussion in any another fashion is almost unthinkable. This is true not only of political matters: taking ourselves and political affairs seriously is almost indecent (as it makes people uncomfortable), and also reveals a misunderstanding of the reality of our position. Taking a serious stance means forgetting our condition and imagining – indicating a simultaneous lack of realism and modesty – that we could have any influence whatsoever on political or social decisions. Most working class people know very well that they are not socially destined for this game. The expressions used to gently stigmatize this type of attitude are legion:


“You’re nothing but a pawn, don’t forget that!? ™Don’t get yourself worked up, boy, they don’t care what you think anyways…a ™What do you think? That they give a damn about us, you’re just a lowly firefighter.”

57The second important element is how firefighters play with plain speaking, blurring the line between what can and cannot be said. Because we don’t take ourselves seriously, because we play with words and codes, we can say “terrible” things (which would undoubtedly be considered as such, if taken at face value and out of context) that are in any case very far from the “politically correct”. This is also a crucial point in understanding firefighters’ attitude towards politics: in the face of “stonewalling” and the “politicians” BS’, what you say should be frank, direct and without embellishment: firefighters dare to say what the rest of the social world would find more decorous to euphemize. Firefighters are avid commentators of the human drama that they deal with day after day. Their cynicism, socially tolerated because they confront the social world in all its crude ugliness on a daily basis, is a gauge, in their eyes, of their lucidity. First and foremost, they want to show that they are not duped: politicians should not be trusted. Schemes, string-pulling, and blunders are there to prove that they are first and foremost “men like any other” and that they give in quite willingly to the most common and everyday human passions.

58This dimension of the political discourse of firefighters must be highlighted for two important reasons: on one hand, because mastery of language and rhetoric is undoubtedly the prerogative of the wealthy social classes. Although there may be some admiration for this rhetorical prowess, firefighters are primarily convinced that this skill is used maliciously in the service of a continuous lie, a sort of cheating. Consequently, they award a great deal of credit to other forms of verbal virtuosity like puns, jokes, teasing, etc. It’s not the baseness or the unacceptability of the language which is the most important thing, but rather the pride of belonging to a group that speaks frankly and “tells it like it is”. We can also observe in this a reversal of stigmatism. Consequently, the Front National’s political trump card of “speaking the truth” – “saying out loud what everyone thinks anyway” – can attract much sympathy. The tension between what can and cannot be expressed, a taste for provocation and a game of censorship and self-censorship, but most of all the ultimate value attached to frankness and simplicity, are thus essential elements in firefighters’ relations to politics.

59A third characteristic: most situations that I observed demonstrated that few firefighters believed in the importance of political programs and discourse. On the contrary, there exists a predominant idea that the best way to know whom you’re dealing with, politically speaking, means looking at his or her lifestyle. This corresponds with what was said above with regard to firefighters’ specific professional skills: deciphering and interpreting situations and individuals, in addition to, or independently of, what they say. This indicative interpretation of politics is in fact crucial. It allows us to relativize the importance of the notion of political competence and modify its meaning: political competence, here, is bound to the ability to analyze the clues given, whether they like it or not, by politicians. Sometimes firefighters watch the memorable sequences of the week online, commenting at length on politicians’ photographs, homes, choice of vacation spots, etc. A great deal of credit is given to those who know how to read and interpret these signs; their lucidity and perspicacity is lauded and their intelligence is admired.

60A lack of interest, either private or declared – which is not at all the same thing – in institutional politics can be read as the consequence of what I have described above. If the sophistication of political discourse masks the crude reality of power, then it is pointless to dwell upon it. It is important to not delude oneself. Therefore, it is no longer a matter of discussing political options but of deciphering, often with a fair degree of sophistication, the signals that each politician gives out. In a social and professional setting in which one of the most popular expressions is, “Don’t tell me what you’re going to do, just do it !”, firefighters act without saying, whereas politicians are always suspected of saying without acting. [52] Hence the attention given to concrete details: salaries, benefits, housing, but also clothes, watches, shoes, glasses, cars, and even expressions, gestures, tones of voice, physical postures: everything is scrutinized. Before his election, Sarkozy had scored points with this constituency because he had shaken hands with the police officers and firefighters who were in charge of his security during his visit to the department. This anecdote contributed enormously to his popularity: whereas a local Socialist representative had distinguished himself by neglecting those who opened the doors for him (“we were transparent, he seemed to think that doors open themselves !”). Sarkozy had covered his bases. [53]

61Finally, email exchanges are very valuable: they clearly shed light on what is considered the duplicity of politicians, their willingness to “line their pockets while they’re in power”, and most of all, their insufferable habit of giving self-righteous lectures and then failing to apply them to themselves. [54] Such email exchanges [55] on firefighter-only lists to which union activists are frequent contributors – demonstrate firefighters’ interest in politicians, their lifestyles and the scandals in which they’re implicated. Comments circulate on pensions, the fate of Europe, immigration, security, and foreign policy: topics that do not fall strictly within their professional sphere. Among the vectors of politicization, the Internet occupies a central position. Another privileged moment for exchanging ideas about politics occurs over the morning paper. As civic-mindedness is an important value in this milieu, the firehouses subscribe to Le Parisien (a newspaper meant to be accessible to all, and which includes an extra section dedicated to the department, where the firefighters can read short news items, and occasionally find a photo of themselves during an important operation). Reading the paper usually takes up the majority of the morning break. Over coffee, the firefighters comment on current events in the style described above. It is preferable for firefighters not to get het up when the shift is just starting, but this is nonetheless a ritual in which politics occupies a salient place.

62However, as attached to these practices as they may be, and as detached from political discourse as they claim to be, firefighters can be sensitive to political issues, as the following discussion attests. But these discussions occur under particular conditions and usually on topics that concern them directly; the same undoubtedly applies to other social actors endowed with stronger cultural capital. It is probable that academics, for instance, talk more about LRU (Loi relative aux libertés et responsabilités des universités: Law on the Freedoms and Responsibilities of Universities) and mastérisation, [56] than about European hygiene and security norms.

“I don’t know how to vote for the right anymore”: talking politics in confidence with friends and colleagues

63Admittedly, taking a political stance strictly speaking remains the exception rather than the rule. Why? First of all, because there is a professional requirement for firefighters who don’t share the same political opinions to frequently live and work together for 24 hours at a time. Group cohesion must be sufficiently strong, and hostilities sufficiently controlled, for the emergency operations and life in the firehouse to proceed smoothly. So controversial topics such as politics are carefully avoided. But the relative absence of partisan or activist political expression cannot simply be equated with an absence of political opinion.

64Twenty or so of us met in a pub for a going-away party for three of the most emblematic and charismatic figures in our emergency response center. Three women came and quickly regrouped in one corner, leaving the men amongst themselves. The conversation centered on the changes affecting the fire station. I ended up chatting with a particularly popular chief warrant officer, an “old school” union leader with the Autonomes (national union of autonomous trades unions) – “and therefore apolitical!” as he liked to say – and asking him about his feelings on the Fillon government’s possible pension reforms. The conversation rapidly took an explicitly political turn and attracted the attention of several other firefighters who jumped in as well.

65The chief warrant officer was known for his union activism; he’s a pied-noir (a term referring to French citizens living in Algeria before Algerian independence), and the son of a firefighter. He enlisted at age 18 with the parachutists and served in several military operations in Africa, then signed up with the firefighters at age 23. Then 45, he had had “22 years in the force”, moving up through the hierarchy rung by rung, before ultimately failing the competitive examination for major, for reasons he believes to be eminently political: “If I wasn’t a union activist, always opening my big mouth, I think I would have gotten it, don’t you?” He was one of the most well-liked non-commissioned officers, appreciated for his hell-raising, his affection for his men (he was the only non-commissioned officer at the firehouse who attended gatherings with the ranks), his “old school” and relaxed style, and his willingness to stand up to the hierarchy, in the firehouse as well as in the Department. For all of these reasons, he ws often teased but also always listened to. He explained:

ADC: “You know, I never thought they’d give me the whole ‘civil servants are privileged’ bit, when I hear people saying we’re the well-off ones, it’s a hard pill to swallow!”
Me: “You really thought Sarko thought otherwise?”
ADC: “Well yeah, I don’t know, I guess I’m naive, but I went along with his ‘work more to make more’ thing, the ones who get up early… damn I’ve been at this job for 22 years, been getting in the trucks day and night for 22 years… and now I’m the privileged one! I gotta tell you, I wasn’t expecting this… not like this.”
Me (provoking him a little): “With all the bonuses, the fringe benefits for housing, early retirement… you’ve got a pretty good deal, don’t you?”
ADC: “I’m not saying I don’t, but how many people are willing to spend nights and weekends far from their families, get up at night, at all hours, to go take care of a fire… and when it’s really burning, you have to look out for yourself, because risk premium, fire premium, whatever, is the least of your worries at that point if you ask me! And it leaves its mark (a firefighter cuts in: ‘Well yeah look at him, chief warrant officer, he’s only 45 and doesn’t have any hair left!’)… Ok don’t exaggerate! And my knee is all messed up, I’m going under the knife soon, I don’t know if I’ll be operational after that!”
Me: “That’s expected, rough but it comes with the job…”
ADC: “Are you kidding? They’re putting everything in the same basket, hardship, disability, medical visits, all at the client’s expense!… and I’m only at 3% for disability, it’s bad enough as it is, so 20% is pushing it! Do I have to end up in a wheelchair or what to not be ‘privileged’?”

66At this point in the discussion, three other firefighters who had been listening distractedly sat down at the table to join the conversation. T., a 25-year-old professional firefighter, is the son of a colonel who worked his way up through the ranks (a rare case). He was known for his far-left sympathies – the Besancenot type – and had a “No to the European Constitution!” poster taped to his locker. P., a 31-year-old professional, was married to a very politically active woman, who served as a councilwoman in a socialist city council and handled educational programs for the most disadvantaged families in the city. The daughter of communists, she defined herself as belonging to a far-left fringe of the Socialist Party. P. was also known for his sympathies with the left – the far left even – and his gruff nature; always ready for a strike, he was one of the rare few who, on strike days, refused to do any work apart from carrying out interventions. He was not afraid to confront the center chief by refusing to sign his annual grading sheet because of what he considered to be an insufficient raise. Feared for his local political friendships ( “he knows everyone at the city hall where his wife works, even members of parliament and the mayor”, people would murmur in a half-fearful, half-admiring tone), he never missed a chance to remind everyone that firefighters didn’t scare him – specifically the bosses – because he knew the real bosses, at the general assembly and other political authorities in charge of the SDIS (Service Départemental d’incendie et de secours: administrative establishment that manages firefighting and rescue personnel by department). Finally D., a 30-year-old professional firefighter, who was married too and the son of a craftsperson, was known for his markedly right-wing opinions. As a “traditionalist” Catholic (his locker sported an anti-abortion poster, and a virgin), pro-Vendée, and a nationalist, we knew him to belong to the most conservative right-wing fringe, without him ever explicitly mentioning whom he voted for. As we shared the same specialty (water rescue), we talked often. After some time, he began to open up some more about his family history ( “artisans, from father to son since at least the 18th century”), the Catholic values that were instilled in him, his thwarted wish to attend Saint-Cyr for academic reasons, his friends at Saint-Cyr, his years as a Boy Scout ( “I’m talking about the real Scouts, with the uniforms, songs, mass, you get the idea”), and his friendship with the traditionalist bishop of his church. His opinions very often gave rise to jibes: “Brother D., what do you think about…? Was it hard to keep your hands off your wife until marriage? Wow, you’re on duty on a Sunday, the day of the Lord, do you want us to give you the day off so you can go to Mass?” He patiently endured the comments and the smirks, and by all accounts, loosened up with the firefighters. In any case, after a trial period, he demonstrated that his opinions had no impact on how he worked and that he wasn’t a fanatic or proselytizer at all. Although he moderately criticized the practices of certain colleagues (namely adultery), and showed no inclination to make excuses for their behavior, he never explicitly made uncalled-for or aggressive value judgments. His opinions, well known and visible, [57] did not prevent him from sharing both shifts and festive moments with the other firefighters. He chose this profession as a calling: “Helping others, see, I think it’s fine work, and in the end, it’s what I was always taught”. He rarely took part in our conversations but listened attentively, especially when we tackled the question of the different ways to be on the political right. He nevertheless expressed contentment at being part of a right that has values and principles.

67Let us return to the discussion with these new protagonists, keeping in mind that my questions were not part of a classical sociological questionnaire, but part of an animated conversation in which I fully participated, even if I took the time to write it down afterwards. [58]

Me: “What I don’t understand is what made you all go along with Sarkozy’s rhetoric?”
ADC: “Well, I don’t know, I agreed with the values he was emphasizing: work, family… and for once there was finally somebody ready to handle all the different kinds of scum that make our lives hell… the socialists spend their time making up excuses for them, it’s unbelievable! And it’s true that our society depends on free handouts, that’s the left too, always finding ways for lazy bums to get by. When nobody’s helping you, at least you end up getting up off your ass, that’s how it is! But if they give you some welfare here, some benefits there, you stay at home on your ass, you live easy… and in the meantime we’re paying for all of this with our taxes even though we work…”

68Sarkozy’s rhetoric and style initially “worked” perfectly. He had nailed the typical profile of many firefighters, and by associating traditional values, merit and work, as a candidate he had managed to reach this fringe of the working class. [59] Only a few left-wing firefighters were openly skeptical or staunchly hostile to “the one from Neuilly”, who “had no self-control” and “insulted the people from the projects”, the exact opposite of the approach advocated by firefighter ethics. For many colleagues, everything seemed to be going well – so much in fact, that for some, this was finally a way to vote for an “honorable” candidate, whereas before they had abstained or voted for Le Pen with a more or less guilty conscience. It took certain signs which were out of kilter with this carefully constructed self-image and rhetoric, to start instilling doubt, as the remainder of the discussion shows below.

Me: “Ok let’s just say that… but do you think the right is that deserving? You think they all just moved up by sheer willpower, like they say?”
ADC: “Well I believed it until I saw all of the schemes, tricks, piles of cash and everything… the EPAD thing is a scandal! [60] We all need help to get by sometimes, but there’s a difference between that and being parachuted in, pulling strings like that! He doesn’t even have any real qualifications, it’s total crap!”
D.: “But didn’t I tell you that? What do you think, that Sarko and his buddies are like us? That they’ve always slaved away like us to get by, yeah right, it’s all buddy-buddy! You guys crack me up ! Like Sarko is a guy with values…”
T.: “Values, yeah, he has them, in his bank accounts… and I don’t know, the Fouquet’s thing [61], the yacht and everything… makes you want to throw up…”
ADC: “He’s allowed to have the friends he wants, if they’re high up, good for him! You’re not gonna convince methat the left is full of virtuous guys! You think there aren’t any tricks and string-pulling there?”
D.: “We didn’t say that, but honestly they pulled one over on you! And it depends which left you’re talking about, we’re not talking about the socialists… I mean not all of them.”
ADC: “Yeah, I mean Arlette [Laguiller] or Olivier [Besancenot], sorry but they’re not credible even for a second! Can you see them as heads of state? Come on, be serious.”
T.: “Ok it’s debatable but at least they don’t say one thing then do the complete opposite afterwards… look at the mess we’re in now! With the pensions and everything… a union activist of all people isn’t gonna tell me the opposite…”
ADC: “Ok on that I agree, especially since we’re getting screwed over so bad. See that’s what disgusts me, they lecture you, tell you the handouts are over, that the people who work deserve to live better than those who don’t, and then, bam, two years later, you find yourself being the well-off one, the slacker, the lucky one, and everything that allowed you to live more or less decently, they tell you they’re taking it away… so that, obviously, pisses me off.”
P.: “Even the tax shields, man, you must keep like 50% of what you make, sounds good when you say it like that, but in the end, what is that? Checks for millionaires! Is that complete bullshit or what?”ADC: “Yeah that too, unbelievable !”
Me: “I can understand people voting for the right, that people want to defend traditional values, that they believe in work, in the family, why not, and that they say that the most important thing is to have morals, ethics if you will, to try and be clean and have what we have because we worked for it, but here… there are too many things, too many affairs, preferential treatment, no? (sustained attention from D., who nods approvingly)”
ADC: “Yeah, it’s really ‘do what I say, not what I do !’” Me: “So?…”
ADC: “So I don’t know how to vote for the right anymore! You already know I voted Jean-Marie [62] ( ‘Ha well congrats! Good one!’ in chorus from T and P) and I’m not ashamed! And shit, I’m a former parachutist… fuck I can’t vote for the left! And for Ségolène, or Martine? That’s not even possible…”
P: “And so it’s better to get insulted all day long by a guy who only cares about his money! After all, aren’t you in public service? Don’t you think it’s at least a good thing that we can get a minimum of help when we don’t have anything, do you want people to pay for us to come or for them to die?”
ADC: “You know very well that I don’t… but voting for the left, really, me… well, I mean it’s bad but sometimes I wonder if I won’t end up doing it… and you see, well I just never would have thought it could happen to me…”

69In the end, even the most Sarkozy-friendly seem to have been put off by the different issues covered in our conversation. Not that other political solutions necessarily seemed conceivable, but the gap between rhetoric and practice, the violence of the attacks against public services and finally the overt contempt for the people who provide them, have led to an increasingly marked disaffection for the politician whom many have nicknamed “the excited dwarf”.

70In a sense, this discussion summarizes several specific conclusions reached during my investigation. Uncovering people’s political opinions required several years, during which each person was attentive to the reactions, remarks, and comments of his or her colleagues. It is precisely during operations such as the ones that I reported here that tongues were loosened; it is because there were conflicts with the Department that I saw how people took certain political stances and defended them. By participating in the rituals of the morning paper, the noon and the evening news, I was able to build trusting relationships. In addition, the riots of 2005 and 2007 provoked impassioned, sometimes violent, discussions: some firefighters refused to work shifts with “racists”, others were asked to stay at home because they were “too fascist” and thus “unmanageable on the ground”. All of these shared experiences allowed us to talk frankly, deliberately and seriously about politics. I don’t claim that all firefighters are politicized in the restrictive sense of the term – doubtless the strong union presence [63] in our firehouse was an important factor, and political discussions probably occurred more often with me due to my “prof” status – but many are. They tend to become more political as they get older and gain in professional status: they are then more attentive to the profession’s evolution (in terms of status, pension, etc.), and many political questions are more relevant to them than to their younger counterparts (buying a home, their children’s education, etc.). Almost all vote, or at least claim to, and abstainers are not looked upon favorably. The debates very clearly attest to this. Unions have a presence; on strike days, the professional firefighters were practically all requisitioned in our firehouse, and most attended the demonstrations, which often took a violent turn. [64] Finally, all of the discussions I witnessed clearly show that politics is neither far, nor absent from firefighters’ minds: it just assumes a different guise and is there in the twists and turns of numerous subjects of conversation.


72* *

73We can draw a few necessarily partial and provisional conclusions from this long-term ethnographic study. First of all, it is important to underline the importance of a methodological approach that adds to our knowledge of ordinary relations to politics. I was only able to access “this most malleable part of the relation to politics” [65] – which is not accessible, or rarely so, to studies via questionnaire or interview – under the following conditions: I did not introduce myself as a researcher, as for many this would seem both unusual and worrying, and the impact of this effect would be difficult to measure; I did not necessarily guide the discussions towards political topics (which, as has been demonstrated on numerous occasions, may put people ill at ease, be too personal in nature, cause discomfort, or trigger conflicts); I did not expect the interviewees’ logic and arguments to be anchored in any theoretical knowledge of politics (balloting methods, parties, partisan divisions, platforms, etc.); and finally, I did not assume that the structure of these relationships to politics would necessarily be more visible during explicitly political occasions. On the contrary, I saw how relationships to politics were constructed day after day on the job, at home and in the neighborhood.

74The consequences of this methodological approach were twofold: on the one hand, it persuaded me to remain very cautious in my use and handling of my usual professional terms (depoliticization, incompetence, disinterest, indifference) that constitute what Norton calls our “culture as social scientists”. I needed time to begin to detect what was being said behind the jokes and the incessant teasing, to let “the political discontent and curiosity about the upper echelons be expressed freely”. [66] On the other hand, this approach allowed me to retrace the progression of forms of politicization in both the broad and the restrictive sense, seeing little by little how interest for more institutional politics emerges from one’s socio-professional conditions. The firefighters’ socio-political conditions reveal two specific elements: the paradoxes of the environment are a key factor in the many tensions that may drive the expression of conflicting political opinions. For all that, group cohesion is never affected in the long term, as professional solidarity always prevails: time and again, the firefighters argued that the need to stay united and work as a team in the face of danger was greater than any divergences of opinion. Most firefighters choose to be firefighters because they feel a calling, [67] but this calling can take on very diverse dimensions: the love of one’s fellow men, the rejection of a selfish society, a willingness to serve the most disadvantaged, or finding (or recovering) self-esteem through a form of dedication. This calling is reinforced by an extremely rigorous professional ethic that explicitly rejects political criteria as a mode of discriminating between individuals. This code of ethics serves as a guide, and even as a safeguard, and defines the high standards of behavioral skills demanded of firefighters, as well as an almost intimate adherence to its tenets, even if harshly tested over years of service. Experience contributes to forging a social worldview that claims to be more lucid than others, even if it often risks sinking into skepticism. Be that as it may, even the most disillusioned have to accept the idea that a simple, or even simplistic, view of the social world is necessarily erroneous. Any otherwise unshakeable conviction has a strong chance of being seriously undermined by an emergency operation one day or another. It is possible to believe that we are deeply hostile to the police’s repressive methods, and yet feel relieved when a BAC (Brigade anticriminalité: crime fighting brigade, part of the French police) team bluntly intervenes during a situation that was headed downhill. It is possible to be convinced that homeless people are largely responsible for their circumstances, and yet, during a ride to the hospital, feel close to a homeless man describing his long descent into hell after a lay-off and then a divorce. Such paradoxes and ambivalences are what make up the job, and it is rare to encounter a firefighter who claims to have never changed his mind on a topic on which he thought he held unwavering beliefs. What one might term the awkward social position of firefighters reinforces this feeling of constantly being on contrasting registers. All of this is reinvested in their relationship to politics and produces extremely attentive and subtle analyses of political behavior. The many tensions that plague this socio-professional milieu are undoubtedly also the basis for the gradual shaping – which is both reversible and malleable – of hotly debated political opinions. [68]

Annex 1

Subject: Merry Christmas to All!


Dear Santa,
This year you took my favorite singer, Michael Jackson,
my favorite actor, Patrick Swayze,
my favorite actress, Farah Fawcett.
I just want to remind you that my favorite politician is Sarkozy.
Don’t forget…

Subject: Get out of here!


77Multimillionaire soccer player Anelka, a convert to Islam, does not want to pay his taxes in France!

78Monday 21 December 2009 by Francis Régnier.

79Nicolas Anelka’s recent statements have outraged France, and you don’t have to look very far to understand why: < WWW00418-la-france-pays-hypocrite-anelka.php>.

80Nicolas Anelka is the son of civil servants (so, paid by our taxes). He was trained at Clairefontaine with public funds, and given free medical care thanks to the French health system after a knee injury. It’s thanks to Paris Saint-Germain that his career is about to take off. Basically, this player owes France everything. From his parents’ salary, to his education, health, and success. So? Well, like the Johnnys and other tax evaders who owe everything they have to the motherland, Monsieur Anelka, who makes millions, does not want to pay his taxes in France. Too expensive! That’s the cherry on the cake: as if biting the hand that feeds him weren’t enough, he goes a step further and insults the French. According to him, France is a country of hypocrites! Given what he’s said, we can be sure that, yes, when the rest of the world sees the example he sets, they’re going to have a hard time believing that he is wrong! When the entire world observes that Anelka never sings La Marseillaise, and that most of his teammates don’t either… except when a humorist pretends to be the President of the Republic and “advises” les bleus to put their hands over their hearts while the national anthem is resonating throughout the stadium. So, this begs the question: who are the hypocrites? Those who sing La Marseillaise to support their team, or the players on this same team who only wear the blue jersey to serve their career (the “international” distinction looks better on a résumé, and this is true for all sports)? No Mr. Anelka, France is not a country of hypocrites and showed you that when you qualified for the world cup in South Africa in such an undignified way. The hypocrites, today, wear the blue jersey of the French football team. And furthermore, isn’t it flagrant hypocrisy to insult France and the French, and then wear the blue jersey of our national team? The blue jersey that was already dishonored by its cheating captain? In your opinion, Mr. Anelka, what do the French think when they see their rugby players singing the national anthem at the tops of their voices, when the humble and courageous Sylvain Marconnet is moved to tears at being appointed captain, and the whole team declare that it is an honor to wear the colors of France? What do the French think when they see a heroic female handball team sing La Marseillaise with conviction and pride in their jersey? What do the French think of handball star Nicolas Karabatic (whose wins must make you jealous…), who, to promote his sport in his adopted country agrees to return to France with a lower salary than he would have abroad? So Mr. Anelka. Answer me frankly.Which examples to follow? Yours (it’s true… money, fancy cars, showing off, arrogantly spitting on France and the French, what an example!) or those of the stars, our rugby and handball players? Obviously, you don’t have the same values… so in conclusion, don’t be surprised if the French public doesn’t recognize itself in your team or cracks down on hypocritical freeloaders like you.

Annex 2


82This information just in from the Ministry of Finance and the Economy, and verified information at that… pass it on! Have a good one…

83Juicy tidbit of information: we were suspicious but the Department of Fiscal Services has just confirmed it! SARKOZY has paid zero taxes for over 12 years. Despite the fact that since his election, his income breakdown is the following:

  • Monthly presidential allowances: 24,874.55e
  • Representative’s pension (lifetime): 9,298.21e
  • Minister’s pension (lifetime, and convertible after his death into life annuity for his lucky heirs): 8,776.34e
  • pension as Mayor of Neuilly: 6,241.92e
Coming to a monthly grand total of: 49,191.02e. “Great misery… misery”, sang Coluche. Even if, entirely legally, 30% of this income is not taxable, our troublemaker at the Elysée still has monthly taxable income of 34,435.71e. But on this small allowance, Sarko no longer pays any taxes, despite all the claims made since 1995!!! And that’s not all! Sarko declared to the ISF wealth of 1,576,394e, just before the presidential election. And yet, in addition to three life insurance policies totaling 897,654e, he owns:
  • one 340 m2 apartment in Neuilly;
  • three apartments rented out in the 6th arrondissement;
  • one eleven-room summer home and 13,000 m2 of land near Ajaccio (his interest in Corsica is not impartial…);
  • one apartment for winter sports above Chamonix (120 m2).
Not including a few collections of paintings not subject to the ISF. There’s no point in assigning value to those trinkets! The total can’t be over 1,576,394e. Those of you working hard and struggling under the weight of heavy taxes, spread these TRUTHS widely! The French who work and the French who line their pockets… All of this information can be verified on the Neuilly Revenues website. PASS THIS ON TO AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE IF YOU’RE A LITTLE ANNOYED.


  • [1]
    For an analysis of this notion, see Olivier Schwartz, “La notion de classes populaires”, HDR, Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, 1998.
  • [2]
    Daniel Gaxie, “Les critiques profanes de la politique. Enchantement, désenchantements, réenchantements”, in Jean-Louis Briquet, Philippe Garaud (eds), Juger la politique (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2001), 217-40.
  • [3]
    The concept of politicization is obviously polysemous. See Jacques Lagroye, La politisation (Paris: Belin, 2008); Dominique Memmi, “L’engagement politique”, in Madeleine Grawitz, Jean Leca (eds), Traité de science politique (Paris: PUF, vol. III, 1985), 310-66. I am borrowing the division between politicization “in the restrictive sense”, meaning interest in politics in its specialized institutional form and politicization “in the larger sense”, signifying “interests, attitudes, and practices unrelated to this institutional space”: see Myriam Aït-Aoudia, Mounia Bennani-Chraïbi, Jean-Gabriel Contamin, “Indicateurs et vecteurs de la politisation des individus: les vertus heuristiques du croisement des regards”, Critique internationale, 50, 2011, 9-20 (11).
  • [4]
    Camille Hamidi, “Catégorisations ethniques ordinaires et rapport au politique. Éléments sur le rapport au politique des jeunes des quartiers populaires”, Revue française de science politique, 60(4), 2010, 719-43.
  • [5]
    “Le populaire et le politique”, Politix, 13 and 14, 1991.
  • [6]
    On the notion of political competence, see the special issue published by the Revue française de sciences politique, 57(6), 2007.
  • [7]
    Céline Braconnier, Jean-Yves Dormagen, La démocratie de l’abstention (Paris: Gallimard, 2007).
  • [8]
    See, among others: Richard Hoggart, La culture du pauvre (Paris: Minuit, 1970); Olivier Schwartz, “Sur le rapport des ouvriers du Nord à la politique. Matériaux lacunaires”, Politix, 13, 1991, 79-86; Nina Eliasoph, L’évitement du politique (Paris: Economica, 2009).
  • [9]
    William Gamson, Talking Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  • [10]
    Sophie Duchesne, Florence Haegel, “Avoiding or accepting conflict in public talk”, British Journal of Political Science, 37(1), 2007, 1-22.Online
  • [11]
    Camille Hamidi, “Éléments pour une approche interactionniste de la politisation. Engagement associatif et rapport au politique dans des associations locales issues de l’immigration”, Revue française de science politique, 56(1), 2006, 5-25.
  • [12]
    In a recent article, Nicolas Mariot laments that this kind of study does not yet exist: “Pourquoi il n’existe pas d’ethnographie de la citoyenneté”, Politix, 92, 2010, 165-94.
  • [13]
    Annie Collovald, Le “populisme du FN”: un dangereux contresen (Bellecombe-en-Bauges: Éditions du Croquant, 2004), 124.
  • [14]
    On this theoretical option, see Michèle Lamont, La dignité des travailleurs (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2002); Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).
  • [15]
    Katherine Cramer Walsh, “Applying Norton’s challenge to the study of political behavior: focus on process, the particular, and the ordinary”, Perspectives on Politics, 4, 2006, 353-9.
  • [16]
    For example, Alexis Spire highlights the importance of ideological cohesion between immigration personnel, even if he qualifies this assertion with the reminder that an “administration is not a solid block of concrete”: Accueillir ou reconduire, Enquête sur les guichets de l’immigration (Paris: Raisons d’agir, 2008), 65.
  • [17]
    The French word “requérant” is a generic name given to anyone soliciting firefighter intervention.
  • [18]
    Michael Lipsky, Street-Level Bureaucracy. Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services (New York: Russel Sage Foundation, 1980).
  • [19]
    Daniel Gaxie, “Appréhensions du politique et mobilisations des expériences sociales”, Revue française de science politique, 52(2-3), 2002, 145-78. See also Céline Braconnier, Une autre sociologie du vote. Les électeurs dans leurs contextes: bilan critique et perspectives (Cergy-Pontoise: LEJEP-Lextenso Éditions, 2010).Online
  • [20]
    Embodied in the text by General Casso, captain of the Firefighting Brigade of Paris from 1 April 1967 to 26 August 1970: “I do not wish to know your philosophy, your religion, your political affiliation, it does not matter to me whether you are young or old, rich or poor, French or foreign. If I take the liberty of asking what ails you, it is not out of indiscretion but in order to better help you. When you call me, I come running, but be sure to call me by the quickest and surest means. The minutes of waiting will seem long, very long, in your distress so please forgive my apparent tardiness”. See my analyses: Romain Pudal, “Du ‘Pioupiou’ au ‘Vieux Sarce’ ou comment en être: ethnographie d’une socialisation chez les pompiers”, Politix, 93, 2011, 167-94.
  • [21]
    I use quotation marks for firefighter slang, without otherwise flagging it.
  • [22]
    The riots of 2005 and 2007 further accentuated this unease, as I observed while working almost around the clock during both of these incidents.
  • [23]
    Research on firefighters is still largely undocumented: see especially Jean-Noël Retière, “Être sapeur-pompier volontaire: du dévouement à la compétence”, Genèses, 16, 1994, 94-113; Dominique Boullier, Stéphane Chevrier, Les sapeurs-pompiers, des soldats du feu aux techniciens du risque (Paris: PUF, 2000); Jean-Gustave Padioleau, La fin des sapeurs pompiers républicains? Politiques et expériences collectifs post-modernes de proximité (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2002). For comparative insights, see Carol Chetkovich, Real Heat. Gender and Race in the Urban Fire Service (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997); Matthew Desmond, On the Fireline (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010).
  • [24]
    They share certain traits with employees in the preféctures. See Alexis Spire, Étrangers à la carte (Paris: Grasset, 2005); “Histoire et ethnographie d’un sens pratique. Le travail bureaucratique des agents de contrôle de l’immigration”, in Anne-Marie Arborio et al. (eds), Observer le travail. Histoire, ethnographie, approches combinées (Paris: La Découverte, 2008), 61-76.
  • [25]
    There are three primary types of firefighters: professionals within the French public sector; military employees, in certain zones such as Paris and its suburbs; and volunteers, who constitute the vast majority of firefighters. For more information on these distinctions, see Romain Pudal, “Ni professionnel, ni bénévole: être pompier volontaire aujourd’hui”, Socio-logos, 5, 2010, <>.
  • [26]
    Over the course of ten years, I had only five female colleagues. See Roland Pfefferkorn, “Des femmes chez les sapeurs-pompiers”, Cahiers du genre, 40, 2006, 203-30.
  • [27]
    Marie Cartier, Isabelle Coutant, Olivier Masclet, Yasmine Siblot, La France des “petits-moyens”, Enquête sur la banlieue pavillonnaire (Paris: La Découverte, 2008).
  • [28]
    I introduced myself as a “teacher”, because “sociologist” didn’t mean much to anyone. I ended up being nicknamed “Doc” in reference to my PhD, which still has no particular significance in the eyes of my colleagues. Out of the twenty or so professionals and about forty volunteers, most had passed the baccalauréat; at best, they had the bac plus two years of higher education, in the case of three firefighters. They had generally pursued their education in vocational training.
  • [29]
    The median monthly salary in France in 2010 was 1,580 euros. The incomes of the professional and volunteer firefighters I worked with fluctuated between 1,300 and 2,000 euros/month for the highest grades. Bonuses, both for professionals and volunteers, comprise a significant part of this income.
  • [30]
    Jean Rivière, “Le vote pavillonnaire existe-t-il?”, Politix, 83, 2008, 23-48 (44-5). Online
  • [31]
    Alf Lüdtke, “Le domaine réservé: affirmation de l’autonomie ouvrière et politique chez les ouvriers d’usine en Allemagne à la fin du 19e siècle”, Le Mouvement social, 126, 1984, 29-52; and “La domination au quotidien. Sens de soi et individualité des travailleurs en Allemagne avant et après 1933”, Politix, 13, 1991, 68-78.Online
  • [32]
    These quotations are excerpts from a large number of informal discussions that I had with my colleagues, but also at times from more traditional semi-directive interviews (40 or so) which provided the foundations of a 2008 report on loyalty-building with volunteer firefighters (including statistics and documentary analyses). See also R. Pudal, “Ni professionnel, ni bénévole…”, cited above.
  • [33]
    See O. Schwartz, “La notion de classes populaires”, 9ff.
  • [34]
    This was a recurrent expression for my colleagues. Stéphane Beaud has published a number of analyses of the growing momentum of conflicts between social groups linked to the exacerbation of academic competition; see Stéphane Beaud, 80% au bac et après? (Paris: La Découverte, 2003). See also Marco Oberti, L’école dans la ville. Ségrégation-Mixité-Carte scolaire (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2007).
  • [35]
    R. Hoggart, La culture du pauvre; Jan C. C. Rupp, “Les classes populaires dans un espace social à deux dimensions”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 109, 1995, 93-8.Online
  • [36]
    See the analyses in terms of “triangular” social conscience: Annie Collovald, Olivier Schwartz, “Haut, bas, fragile: sociologies du populaire”, Vacarme, 37, 2006, 50-5. It is hard to say, in Le Pen’s discourse for instance, what hits the bull’s eye: the denunciation of immigrants or the appeal “to the little people, the nobodies”: in short to all those to whom social and professional dignity is constantly refused or contested. Cf. M. Lamont, La dignité des travailleurs.
  • [37]
    For an overview of all these questions, see A. Collovald, O. Schwartz, “Haut, bas, fragile…”.
  • [38]
    The work of André Loez on those who mutinied in the First World War are rich in insights for crafting a non-mentalist approach to social agents within a sociological analysis of competence and politicization: André Loez, 14-18, les refus de la guerre. Une histoire des mutins (Paris: Gallimard, 2010).
  • [39]
    “Classes populaires et services publics”, Sociétés contemporaines, 58, 2005.
  • [40]
    These are thus situations in which what Erving Goffman calls the “surface” is less controlled: Erving Goffman, La mise en scène de la vie quotidienne (Paris: Minuit, 1973).
  • [41]
    The death of Princess Diana prompted similar discussions. The criticism (by the lawyers) of the firefighters for not having taken care of the princess as a first, even exclusive, priority deeply shocked them. The firefighters who had intervened had applied the rules of priority taught in first-aid manuals and were ultimately not sanctioned, but the incident elicited extensive reaction that can be summarized in this sentence: “They know their job! But ‘Save princesses first’ isn’t in the first-aid manual! Is it? So it must be new!”
  • [42]
    Anecdotes about officers are a frequent conversation topic among field firefighters. Generally they are considered to be simultaneously protected, privileged, and basking in the prestige of the profession, even though they do not actually fulfil the functions of a firefighter on the ground. Field firefighters operate at the bottom of the ladder. But it is they who earn the profession’s reputation, as they never ceased to remind me. I often observed that debates on the privileges of officers frequently led to the denunciation of the other “social slackers”: politicians, celebrities, bosses.
  • [43]
    See James Scott, La domination et les arts de la résistance (Paris: Éditions Amsterdam, 2008), 154 and passim.
  • [44]
    The SMUR is dispatched according to the gravity of the victim’s condition, either upon receiving the call or upon request from the firefighters.
  • [45]
    As the sociologists of the Chicago School particularly encouraged.
  • [46]
    BSPP: military body ensuring security in Paris and the surrounding suburbs.
  • [47]
    Undoubtedly because of the conversations on our shared experiences in the BSPP.
  • [48]
    “We believe that these responses constitute, beyond their literal meaning, symptoms of (highly emotional) attitudes underlying representation and behavior. The technique of hierarchical analysis allows us to verify that the questions we are studying can be related back to one single latent variable, that they constitute a system, and that there is indeed an attitude whose verbal behaviors constitute the clues. The first is a scale of authoritarianism, so to speak.” “The more an individual belongs to working class categories, the more he adheres to this authoritarian and xenophobic ‘syndrome’.” (Guy Michelat, Michel Simon, “Les ouvriers et la politique: au-delà des idées reçues”, Les mondes du travail, 6, 2008, 33-46 (39)). More generally, see Guy Michelat, Michel Simon, Les ouvriers et la politique. Permanence, ruptures, réalignements (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2004). As I’ve already given a few examples of this “racism of ordinary people”, I’d also like to draw attention to for example, in the SAMU doctor jargon, the expression “North African syndrome” which conveys the idea that “they always make a big deal out of everything, complain more than necessary, dramatize situations”. What should our reaction be to this? Is this a medical diagnosis or some sort of euphemized racism?
  • [49]
    “Firefighter humor” often consists of verbal jousts, analyzed by William Labov, Le parler ordinaire (Paris: Minuit, 1978); David Lepoutre, Coeur de banlieue. Codes, rites et langages (Paris: Odile Jacob, 1997); Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).
  • [50]
    Nicolas Renahy, Les gars du coin. Enquête sur une jeunesse rurale (Paris: La Découverte, 2006).
  • [51]
    Hardly anyone can avoid being the object of this dark humor, very frequent among firefighters who play on the “escalation of horror”.
  • [52]
    Thus, there is no doubt among firefighters that those among them who make racist statements would risk their lives without hesitation to save North Africans during a violent apartment fire or dive into the Oise in the middle of winter to save the frequently disparaged “cas soc” as readily as any other firefighter – and they can personally attest to it.
  • [53]
    See Michel Verret, La culture ouvrière (Saint-Sébastien-sur-Loire: ACL Éditions, 1988), esp. 238.
  • [54]
    During a discussion on company housing and private jets, one of my colleagues called out: “Do what I say, not what I do! I’m telling you, that’s the truth about politicians… don’t you think? What do you think, prof, isn’t it true that it’s like that? I don’t need a Ph.D. to get to the bottom of that one, see?!” (collective laughter).
  • [55]
    Cf. annexes at the end of the article.
  • [56]
    Translator’s note: the LRU came into effect in August 2007. Mastérisation was part of the same series of educational reforms, requiring would-be teachers, who had previously only required an undergraduate degree (bac + 3 years of higher education) in order to prepare for the competitive examination to become a teacher, would now additionally need to undertake a masters degree (bac + 5 years of higher education).
  • [57]
    He had “Honor and Homeland” posters and stickers on his car and wore a small Vendée heart-shaped chain invisible under his uniform, thus respecting the neutrality inherent in firefighting ethics under which all conspicuous political or religious signs are banned.
  • [58]
    I transcribed in two separate stages: during the evening itself by going to the restroom, then afterwards. But once these debates were on the table, they came up again during shifts with the same protagonists. Cf. William Foote Whyte, Street Corner Society. The Social Structure of an Italian Slum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1943).
  • [59]
    Here I come back to what the authors of La France des “petits-moyens” had to say on this matter: “Cependant, chez les petits pavillonnaires des Peupliers, le vote Sarkozy ne se réduit pas à l’expression d’un ‘désir d’ordre’ et d’un rejet des étrangers. Il exprime aussi, au moins chez une fraction d’entre eux, une forme d’adhésion à une autre thématique de la campagne du candidat de l’UMP, celle opposant le camp des ‘travailleurs’ à celui des ‘assistés’” (M. Cartier et al., La France…, 262).
  • [60]
    Translator’s note: In 2009 Jean Sarkozy, Nicolas Sarkozy’s son, was named as the new head of EPAD (Établissement public d’aménagement de La Défense), the development agency for La Défense in Paris, an announcement which was widely perceived as nepotism.
  • [61]
    Translator’s note: On the night of his election as president in May 2007, Sarkozy spent part of the evening in a star-studded event at a chic Parisian restaurant, le Fouquet’s, before going to celebrate his victory with his supporters. The incident was perceived to have damaged his public image.
  • [62]
    See, among others, Nonna Mayer, “Les hauts et les bas du vote Le Pen 2002”, Revue française de science politique, 52(5-6), 2002, 505-20; Annie Collovald, Brigitte Gaïti (eds), La démocratie aux extrêmes. Sur la radicalisation politique (Paris: La Dispute, 2006). Online
  • [63]
    In this way, first-aid training was one day transformed into almost a conference on pension reforms, leading to a debate about whether we should take part in the protest movement. We should not, however, overestimate this incident: I had similar discussions, even if they were less rich, during training with colleagues from other fire stations, and during shifts in other emergency centers.Online
  • [64]
    Even though, in my accounts of the salient political mobilizations (such as the firefighters’ violent demonstrations in which I participated, the strikes or even the increasing unionization of the volunteer firefighters), I obviously cannot fail to describe what was at stake in the unfolding conflict, I believe that the meticulous reconstruction of the “background” turned out to be undeniably useful for understanding these issues. See Michel Dobry, Sociologie des crises politiques (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 3rd edn, 2009).
  • [65]
    Philippe Aldrin, “S’accommoder du politique. Économie et pratiques de l’information politique”, Politix, 64, 2003, 177-203 (179).
  • [66]
    N. Eliasoph, L’évitement…, 274. See also Sophie Duchesne, Florence Haegel (eds), “Repérages du politique. Regards disciplinaires et approches de terrain”, special issue of EspacesTemps. Les Cahiers, 76-77, 2001.
  • [67]
    Unlike the prefectural administration employees studied by Spire, Accueillir.
  • [68]
    I would like to thank the reviewers from the journal’s editorial committee for their critiques and suggestions for improvement. A big thank you as well to Elsa Rambaud, Camille Hamidi, Sylvain Laurens, and Julian Mishi.


Drawing on in-depth ethnographic data I collected as a firefighter (‘streetlevel bureaucrats’) in the suburbs of Paris over nine years, this article addresses classical political science questions: are people interested in politics? How can we understand their political attitudes and behavior? Do we have relevant concepts in our culture as social scientists to understand it? I attempt to show that we need to take the social and professional context of everyday life into account to avoid global interpretations which view relationships to politics in terms of indifference, lack of knowledge and authoritarianism (specifically for working classes). I propose various ways of describing the fabric of our civic life.

Romain Pudal
Romain Pudal holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and is a researcher at the Centre Universitaire de Recherches sur l’Action Publique et le Politique (UMR 7319). His publications include: “Enjeux et usages du pragmatisme en France (1880-1920). Approche sociologique et historique d’une acculturation philosophique”, Revue française de sociologie, 524(4), 2011, 747-75; “Les (més)aventures continentales d’un pragmatisme critique: lire Richard Rorty et Richard Shusterman en France”, Revue française d’études américaines, 126(4), 2010, 53-65; “Du ‘Pioupiou’ au ‘Vieux Sarce’: ethnographie d’une socialisation chez les pompiers”, Politix, 93, 2011, 167-94; “Ni professionnel, ni bénévole: être pompier volontaire aujourd’hui”, Socio-logos, Revue de l’Association française de sociologie, 5, 2010, <>. Pudal’s work focuses on two primary domains: the sociology of social sciences and intellectuals on the one hand, and the sociology of working classes (work, politicization, mobilization) on the other.
Translated from French by 
Claire Morel
Uploaded on on 03/03/2014
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