A diagonal view of social misery in France

In a project led by the French Catholic charitable association Le Secours Catholique, dedicated to providing assistance to people suffering poverty and social exclusion, five photographers from the Paris-based photographic agency MYOP travelled France to record scenes and personal accounts of economic and social deprivation in a series of separate reportages. They traced a geographical line south-west from the Ardennes region of north-east France, ending at the foot of the Pyrenees near the Atlantic coast.

Their work, a collection of photographic portraits and sound interviews, will be the subject of an exhibition in Paris from November 20th to December 1st (see more details at the bottom of this page).  Here, Mediapart has chosen a selection of their portraits, in picture and sound, which illustrate an everyday misery of poverty and despair endured by increasing numbers of France’s rural and semi-urban populations.

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  1. Givet, in the French Ardennes. Outside the abandoned Cellatex factory. This was the starting point for the reportage, in the Ardennes region of north-east France, close to the border with Belgium. The region is one of the worst hit in France by industrial decline.

    The Cellatex factory in the town of Givet produced viscose fibre. In 2000, after it was placed into receivership, the factory’s laid-off employees occupied the site, threatening to use the plant’s chemical stock to blow up the buildings and pollute the nearby river Meuse. The high-profile protest drew widespread media coverage and ended after an agreement for greater redundancy payments was reached.

  2. Revin, Ardennes. Demolition of the ‘Porcher tower’. The Porcher company, established in the Ardennes from the end of the 19th century, produced high-quality ceramic bathroom and kitchen products and taps which met international success. During the 1970s, about 16,000 baths left the factory in Rivet every month. The collapse of the ceramic market in Europe saw the workforce in Revin reduced from 1,200 in 1960 to just 180 in 2007. The plant was finally closed in 2011. In May 2013, demolition work began on the company’s office tower block as part of a renovation of the industrial site, symbolic of the economic collapse of the French Ardennes region.

  3. Fumay, in the French Ardennes. Stéphanie, 35. She lives with her four children and partner in subsidized social housing in this municipality close to the Belgian border, once a flourishing site of the metal industry.  Her partner does temporary jobs. Stéphanie explains: “It gets worse and worse. We have to calculate everything. We can’t go to just one shop, we have to go to several. I go to three or four shops, I can’t go to only one. To find a little bit cheaper, to be careful…”

    Listen to Stéphanie

  4. Antheny, in the Thiérache region of north-eastern France. Manfred, 27. Unemployed, Manfred lives in a village of just more than 100 inhabitants in the agricultural region known as the Thiérache, which spreads from eastern Picardy into the Ardennes. He set up home in the village after finding a low-rent apartment there for 216 euros per month. His professional future appears to him as if in an impasse, and he complains that the little local public transport available makes finding a job almost impossible.  

    Manfred: “I’ve an appointment on June 17th in Charleville [-Mezières] at 2.50 p.m., if I remember rightly, and the bus is at five past eight in the morning. I’ll get there at around half past nine. The Monday morning there’s nothing open there. All I can do is go somewhere and wait. I’m going there for an appointment that’ll last 15 minutes […] I come back each time with the rubber stamps [markings to show the unemployment office that he’s been looking for a job] that come from the same companies. They say ‘you never look elsewhere’. Give me the means to look elsewhere […] It’s the most vicious circle that I know of […] to have a job you need a car, to have a car you need money, to have money you need a job.”

                               Listen to Manfred

  5. Signy-L’Abbaye, in the Thiérache region. Murielle, 54. Murielle’s husband was a farmer. He committed suicide in June. According to the French health ministry, almost 500 French farmers committed suicide in the three years between 2007 and 2009.

  6. La Férée, Thiérache. Claire, 56.  Claire explains how she and her family have become socially isolated by their poverty, and admits to having attempted suicide.

    “In the countryside, poverty is hidden,” says Claire. “Not in the towns, there’s so much. But in the countryside we hide. As I said, it’s the way others look at you, and it’s not pretty the way others look at you in the country […] My little [girl] Solène says that at school there’re those who ask ‘You’re not going to England? You’re not coming to England with us in September for eight days?’ She says ‘Oh, I don’t fancy that’. ‘Why?’ ‘Because I don’t fancy it’. She won’t say it’s because my parents can’t pay for it. Because she knows we can’t pay for the trip. She didn’t sign up for it. Money is the nerve of life. [If] You don’t have any, it’s tough […] When you have some, when you can say ‘let’s get together for a meal’, ‘we’re having a party’, and you’ll see everyone. But the day when you don’t do anything, when you can’t do anything, you don’t see anyone anymore. I’m telling you that from experience. I used to see all my sisters-in-law, as long as I was doing the meals, but as of the day I said I can’t do it anymore, I don’t see anyone anymore. You no longer serve any purpose. There are people who leave, who commit suicide, and I say I understand them. There are people who commit suicide alone. Why? Because there wasn’t anyone who knew how to see they were distressed, or they ignored them because they were no longer of interest for them. Well, I’m not there yet, at that stage. But you know, there are moments…you were…” 

    Claire then sighs and quickly adds: “I did try to commit suicide. But I won’t try again. Because I’m afraid of what is waiting for me on the other side. I hope you will find better people, people better off than me. There will be better days, and days not so good, so… It’s done me good today to talk about it.”  

    Listen to Claire

  7. La Férée, Thiérache. Claire, 56. Claire keeps a detailed accounts book, where everything is calculated to the nearest cent. She receives financial help to pay her electricity bill from the French Catholic social action charity, Secours Catholique.

  8. La Férée, Thiérache. Scene at an abandoned farm.

  9. Orbais-L’Abbaye, Marne. Marie-Line, 47.  For some 20 years, Marie-Line has worked for the French Post Office.  She earns 1,200 euros per month. A single mother with a 10 year-old daughter, the Bank of France declared her ineligible to hold a bank account after she became over indebted with credit loans. She begins work very early in the morning, and her father looks after taking her daughter to and from school. She has a daily spending budget, after all set charges are removed, of 14 euros. To help make ends meet, she raises chickens and travels around car boot sales to buy items of furniture which she repairs and spruces up to sell on again. 

  10. The southern Champagne region.  This sign in a meadow reads: “You are entering a disappearing zone”. It was put there by local inhabitants protesting over the closing of schools in small villages in the region.

  11. Prémery, a rural municipality in the Nièvre département (county) of north-central France. This picture shows boarded-up commercial premises in the centre of Prémery, where the former hairdresser’s salon (right) is for sale, and the pet grooming boutique is for rent.

  12. Prémery, Nièvre. Marie-France, 40. After separating from her partner, Marie-France left her home in the Paris suburbs with her two children to live what she hoped would be a better life in a modest rural environment.  But she got into financial hardship, and she lost the care of her children who were ordered by a court to be returned to her partner. She sold her car after she could no longer pay the insurance costs.

  13. Colmery, Nièvre. Christine, 54, and Patrick, 57. They recently found the house they rent through a website of free advertisements. Their income is Christine’s state-paid pension for the handicapped. They say they live by the principle ‘pay the bills first and see for the rest after’. The house is a godsend for them, with a pleasant landlord and a small garden where they plan growing vegetables. Half-jokingly, they say that if, on top, they qualify for state-provided coupons to pay for food they would consider themselves fortunate.

  14. Chambon-sur-Voueize, in the Creuse département (county) of central France. Freddy, 55.  moved to this small village with a population of around 1,000 a year and a half before this interview.  “I didn’t expect to find Chambon so cold, between neighbours and all that,” he says. “[…] You just have to get on with it, that’s all. The problem, it’s true,  is that before we knew lots of people because of the café […] I haven’t been to cafés for years and years, so…here, I went just one time over the past year and a half. Just once. The blokes know me because I pass in front of their café every day, but I never stop off there. I don’t go to the café anymore but I recognise that’s where you get to know everyone. Where you get to begin to know someone, through whom you meet another person, and there you are. By not going to the café anymore…but at 1.20 euros, I can’t do so anymore. I’ve spent a fortune in cafés. But to give them 1.20 euros I can’t, I can’t anymore. That’s the situation. Even 1 euro per day, that’s 30 euros in a month. As I now count things down to the nearest euro […] life is strange, all the same.”

    Listen to Freddy

  15. Parsac, Creuse. Élie,  44. Once homeless, he now lives with a partner and their respective children. He used to hide from his own children to save them from the distress that he was a down-and-out. “It’s hard for me to show my son that I’m homeless, that I sleep in the street, that I don’t eat,” he recalled. One day his son told him he knew of his condition. Now, Élie says he is determined to make his new life succeed. His body is covered in tattoos of his children and his parents. His dream is to find 3,000 euros to buy a truck and set up a business.

  16. Lavaufranche, Creuse. Brigitte and Bernard. The couple used to live in the northern French city Lille. Bernard was a scrap merchant, and lived for years in a public waste site. They have broken off from their family to set up home in this farming village of the Limousin region with a population of around 250. They say they get by from picking up unsellable leftovers on local markets.

  17. Riom-ès-Montagnes, in the Cantal département (county) of south-central France. Jean-Pierre, 43. This bachelor farmer lives with his mother on the family property. Struggling financially, he has applied to the Secours Catholique for a microcredit.

    Jean-Pierre: “Farmers are looked on as rich, we have land […] we have equipment, people judge us on the equipment […] People don’t see that behind that are the banks, the loans […] I have a cousin who said, like that, ‘you farmers don’t have a problem, if you need cash you sell an animal’. Once the animal’s been sold, it’s sold. It’s true that we receive aids, sums of money, but, after, you have to pay them back. Afterwards there are difficulties, you can’t manage the things that might happen on a daily basis, you don’t see the unexpected things coming. You have to like the job, if not you shouldn’t do it. It’s for that that I set up, but sometimes you ask ‘Why, in the end?’ [[…] You have to keep a positive outlook but it’s not always obvious how to do so.”

    Listen to Jean-Pierre

  18. Riom-ès-Montagnes, Cantal. Jean-Pierre working on his dairy farm.

  19. Saint-Paul-lès-Dax, in the south-west Aquitaine region. Jean-Marie, 54. He has lived for 25 years in a caravan at this spot in a publicly-owned forestry domain close to the town of Dax. He says he lives here for the freedom it gives him. There are moves underway to expel him from the land, and he has no idea of where to go if that happens.

    “I’m from a poor family, a poor family,” says Jean-Marie, repeating the phrase as if to give it more significance. “They lived in a house there full of cockroaches. A catastrophe. I’ve lived all that and to live here, even to live here…To pay a rent for a thing that’s insalubrious doesn’t interest me. I prefer to live in a thing that’s insalubrious but which is mine.  How can one put it? It’s better to live small, but in something that’s yours, than [in something] large that belongs to others [...] Let me introduce myself. Jean-Marie Gourdon, I live at number 325 avenue de l’Océan at Saint-Paul-lès-Dax, PB 40990…25 years, 25 years here!"

    Listen to Jean-Marie

  20. Saint-Paul-lès-Dax, Aquitaine. Jean-Marie’s caravan.

    The exhibition ‘Oubliés de nos campagnes’, a series of portraits of social misery in French rural and semi-urban regions, the work of five photographers from the MYOP photographic agency and commissioned by the Secours Catholique association, is on show from November 20th to December 1st at the Point Éphémère, 200 quai de Valmy, in the 10th arrondissement of Paris.


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