Accueil du site > Ni patrie ni frontières > Texts in English > France : how does racism functions on a daily basis at work

France : how does racism functions on a daily basis at work

lundi 7 septembre 2009

Working at Orly and Roissy airports :

how does racism work on a daily basis


This text was written after having read a book review by Philippe Coutant (an anarchosyndicalist) of « Welcome to France », a six-month clandestine investigation about the « waiting area » (zone d’attente) at Roissy airport. This « waiting area » is in fact a jail for all those who arrive by plane and can’t put a foot on French soil because they have no visa, a fake passport or fake visa, or just because the cops decide these foreigners are not « allowed » to get in.

In his article, Coutant stressed the role of « police fascism », the National Front’s propaganda and « State xenophobia » in the diffusion of racism among airport employees. Using my personal working experience, I tried to suggest that the problem of racism could not be reduced to these « external » factors.

Do « police fascism » , National Front propaganda and State xenophobia really play a crucial role in the diffusion of racism ?

Dear Philippe,

I send you this letter to share my personal experience as an employee of Air France at Orly and Roissy airports (the first lies 20 km south of Paris, the second 40 km north of Paris) from 1979 to 1983. This experience, albeit limited, however, prompts me to bring some nuances to your article.

Orly Sud and Orly Ouest : discriminatory treaments and the mechanisms of prejudices

At Orly I used to work at the luggage check-in. Our job was to give boarding passes to passengers and check-in their suitcases, so I almost never dealt with the cops, with asylum seekers or "foreigners" in transit, and passengers passing by a French airport to just reach another destination. However I have observed how xenophobic and racist prejudices were appearing or were nurtured among my colleagues (in general they were rather "leftwing", even if they did not go on strike often at that period). These racist prejudices did not depend directly on any political propaganda on our workplace.

The Check-in service is, among "white collar" jobs at the airport, the heaviest service since you have a limited time to "treat" the maximum number of passengers with all their problems and questions. Passengers arrive full of stress at the airport for many reasons (fear of a plane crash, late arrival at the airport, excess luggage, etc.) but also because the conditions of their reception are always precarious. The pinnacle was reached (at least during my four years at Air France) by the check-in of the flights to North Africa in July-August 1980, outside the aiport building, in front and on sides of the Orly Ouest terminal. The passengers were standing for hours in the sun and enjoyed not only the noise generated by the landings and taking-offs of the planes, but also the continual ballet of cars and coaches around them. They had to pass between two metal barriers and riot policemen who controlled their plane tickets ! I was at the time a CGT shop steward and denounced this treatment meanwhile the airport general manager made « jokes » about the venereal diseases which Air France staff could catch when in contact with North African customers ...!

But there was no need for his "moral" support or influence to push Air France employees to behave quite frequently in a rude or even disgusting way with the African, Caribbean or North African passengers who were the main clients of Orly airport at that time.

Why ? Because the fact of working for years in contact with different nationalities had brought them to produce a « personal » and collective vision based on fairly conventional stereotypes about Arabs, Africans, West Indians from Martinique or Guadeloupe, etc. Few were those who questioned their specific role as check-in employees : to oblige working class people to pay extramoney to the company. These passengers had already made an important financial sacrifice when they bought their tickets, even they « benefitted » from a special (low) migrant price. They were obliged to "export" in their suitcases all kinds of goods which costed a fortune in their native country – car motors, refrigerators, mixers, when it was not oil, coffee, sugar, rice or diapers.

Air France gave us obviously some room for negotiation with the "clients" but our role was to loot as many North African, Caribbean or African workers as possible. To get a greater reduction in their excess luggage fees, they were often brought to humble themselves before us, or even offer us bribes. And these behaviors could only strengthen our condescension or our contempt for them.

It is these distorted relations, this dynamic at work in a relationship of power between customers and passengers which dominate, with a far greater intensity, the relationship between policemen and "foreigners" who are in a difficult or « irregular » situation .

Roissy : red carpet for the wealthy clients and abuse for the proletarians

During my next two years at Roissy I saw again that Air France had a double standards according to the social origins of its customers. At Orly we had never been informed that, according to the rules of international transport, we should have distributed vouchers for free meals or free hotel rooms when the planes were very late or overbooked. The rights of North-African passengers were respected at Orly only when those angry passengers were led by three or four Franco-French who knew the rules and became their spokesmen. If not, North African or African mothers had only one choice : to sleep with their babies on the benches or on the floor of the airport, unless some Air France employees offered to accommodate them in their personal flat and bring them to the airport the next day.

But in Roissy everything was different : the clientele was generally wealthier and Air France prevented any protest by distributing drinks, vouchers for drinks, meals or hotel rooms even before the passengers started to protest.

The attitude of the members of the border police (PAF) and Customs were marked by xenophobia and arbitrary measures :

- It was better for a Korean sailor not to be caught with his 12 or 16-month-pay in cash in his handbag or pockets : he had then to spend an hour (in Korean with no interpret…) explaining to the disappointed customs officers and cops that they had not catched a big thief or "trafficker" (Korean sailors usually had no more than 5,000 euros in cash !) and that it was a common practice among sailors to carry their money in small bills ;

- Woe to the Peruvian from Panama and in transit to Spain, who anxiously went looking for her baggage in an airport she had never visited before ; not only her luggage was searched but also her vagina without the slightest excuse from the custom officers and no one to help rebuild her ravaged bag, once she was "exonerated" ;

- Let’s end by the example of this young Japanese carrying a laptop in his backpack. He faced humiliation for half an hour because the customs officers wanted to know why this young Asian spoke perfect French ! He was therefore necessarily suspect, treated with familiarity, threatened, and he received no excuse when they released him.

Each day brought its share of anecdotes testifying to xenophobia, racism or just the stupidity of the police or customs officiers. And the quieter moments of the day in the airport were often not the most pleasant for the passengers as all these men (and women) in uniform had to make as if they were paid for something. So they bothered the few foreign passagers present in the airport by inventing all sorts of humiliating games.

Air France employees had less opportunity to "tax" the immigrant worker at Roissy than at Orly, but we were frequently called in the correspondence halls for other cities in France or in Europe to serve as interpreters for the PAF (Border Police).

If you wanted to help foreigners, it was hard to convince the police to let "atypical" passengers leave for their final destination ; no doubt it never happened to North Americans or Western Europeans but always to third world proletarians in transit for another airport, people from Latin America, Asia or the Middle East having tourist "doubtful" visas or « insufficient » resources to stay in France or to cross it, etc..

And the fate of these passengers was then only depending on the good or bad mood of Air France employees.

The xenophobic attitudes in Roissy were reinforced by a « commercial » training session during which the company explained to its employees what were the alleged cultural peculiarities of North Americans, Asians, or South Americans. Of course all this was carefully wrapped in a pseudo-psychological language and a drop of « transactional analysis » (a « theory » which rests on the idea that human relationships are like commercial relations ; each one wants to win the maximum out of it ; so the idea was that the Air France employee should always let the client have the impression he/she was the winner of the transaction !) but management did not encourage employees to question their own relationship and attitude towards other nationalities, other religions and other customs nor, of course, their French chauvinism.

Therefore prejudices could also grow easily as they were encouraged by this socalled training about cultural differences. Air France employees had the impression, at Orly or Roissy, they knew well the « mentality » of many countries, simply because, over the years, they had rubbed shoulders with thousands or even tens of thousands of nationals of this of that particular country. Provided they have themselves traveled to such and such exotic land, they had in mind some basic stereotypes (not always negative indeed, sometimes extremely positive thanks to love affairs or friendships) that arbitrarily conditioned their behavior with foreign passengers in case of conflict.

The fact of mingling with dozens of nationalities, with people from all sorts of social conditions did not automatically open their minds, did not predispose them to a greater curiosity vis-à-vis other cultures, other human behaviors, but led them instead, at least the majority, to adopt a simplistic interpretation. They did not realize that their job and function triggered almost automatically stereotyped behaviors among the "customers" they "treated". This mutual reinforcement of prejudices and stereotypes was the basis of many small conflicts. And the repetition of these small conflicts created or nourished forms of xenophobia or racism.

To return to the book « Welcome to France » I think your review neglects a problem which the author mentions several times when she says she (and other mediators or nurses) slept poorly or fell sick because of her inability to fight against the injustices she saw.

This aspect seems to me much more important than « police fascism », FN propaganda or « State xenophobia ».

I think that some jobs are inherently dehumanizing even if you have no xenophobic bias when first hired to do them. And it applies to cops, customs officials, airport and airline staff, Red Cross mediators, etc. There is no need to promote right-wing political propaganda or extreme right fairy tales : individuals who are in daily contact with suffering strangers feel obliged to harden themselves, to forge a shell and become indifferent to the injustices they are watching daily. It is a process that you can see every day with doctors or nurses in hospitals and which has been well described in investigations about the medical community. Living in permanent empathy vis-à-vis those who suffer is quite hard. If in addition you must fight your hierarchy, your colleagues and the cops everyday, you must have strong political beliefs to stand the shock.

Therefore it is easier to close your eyes to the racist remarks or bad treatments you see, to close your ears to the terrible stories (real or imaginary) told by the clients you are facing at work and to retain your compassion only for some specific cases. Because the picture is complex : the same « indifferent » people often feel a tremendous sense of guilt. And this guilt can become either coldness or even hostility, or selective gestures of humanity , interested or not : vis-à-vis a pretty girl, an old lady, a pregnant woman, a disabled person, or any person coming from a nationality considered as more "friendly" than another.


This article can be read with the following ones

Chinese workers in France (Echanges) : ?article1325

France/USA : Workers dignity and racism. About Michele Lamont’s book " The Dignity of Working Men" (2000) : ?article1324

France : how does racism functions on a daily basis at work (Orly and Roissy airports : 1979-1983) : ?article1323

France : 150 years of immigration : ?article1322

France : Important social and racist discriminations ?article1321

France : Social classes and « socio-professional categories » ?article1319

SPIP | squelette | | Plan du site | Suivre la vie du site RSS 2.0