Testimonials of precarity in French universities

When the report on precarity in higher education was first publicly released, the presentation was followed by a number of panel discussions. Here I’m going to try to translate a few people’s personal tales of precarity. Today we’ll start with that of Aurélie Legrand.

Moderator: We have all been precarious at one time or another… perhaps not all but many of us. We have picked a few people who represent the different categories [of precarious work] we presented a moment ago, with all their complications. Our precarious colleagues aren’t here to cry over their lot… Do you want to introduce yourself?

“Aurélie Legrand, I’m 33 years old, I’m at the master’s level in my studies [bac+5], with a decade of professional experience in the private sector. It’s been a little more than a year that I’ve been a contract worker at the university, and so I’m part of what they call the precarious workers of higher education. So I work on a short-term contract (CDD) as a research engineer (ingénieur d’études) in a social science lab at the university. The post became available on May 1st, 2008. I came to apply for it in December 2008, and… I can tell you that it was a little bit hard for me to accept this post, even though it did represent a good opportunity for me at the time. It was hard to accept because they offered me a very short-term contract. So, I had an interview in December, and they offered me a short-term contract (CDD) from the beginning of January 2009 to May 1st 2009, so a 4-month contract, because the permanent occupant of the job who went to the private sector on May 1st of the year before could return to their job on May 1st the year after. So… I had to leave the region where I was coming from because [unclear], anyway for this 4-month contract.

“Finally I accepted this offer, and the permanent person [titulaire] didn’t take the job back on May 1st in 2009, so they had me sign a second short-term contract from May 1st to June 30th. A two-month contract. It had a gap of two months built in for the summer. So honestly the situation wasn’t really good at all. But finally, when they brought me in to sign this second short-term contract, they realized it was a category A job, so there wouldn’t be a break in the contract. So they extended the contract to August 31st 2009. And… what else was I going to tell you… so during that summer, sometime around mid-July, I got a letter from human resources indicating that I was summoned on September 1st, in the early morning, to sign a new contract, this time from September 1st until August 31st — so a year-long contract. So I was brought in to sign this new contract and things more or less worked out because that was the end of this deal with the two-month summer interruptions.

“That said, I was pretty much astonished by the way the human resources people had us sign the contracts. We were brought in collectively, all the contract workers summoned on September 1st. They had us in a room that might be about the same as this auditorium. There was no real group welcome, everyone waited in their own corner, and finally two people came in with the contracts. The group was divided in two, maybe from the letter A to the letter L on one side and the rest on the other, and everyone lined up to sign their contract. So you didn’t have the time to really read all the conditions in the contract; you signed, and if you had questions it was pretty hard to ask them, to have any personal discussion of your work contract. Voilà.

[Inaudible question.]
“Yes, I found out that I was pretty privileged after all, I realized that among the contract workers of my university, well, this contract starting September 1st was what I was expecting, a contract for the same job for the whole year. On the other hand, I heard other people around me who were summoned by mail, who were brought in on September 1st to sign a contract that was only ten months long. Eventually, when they got to the table, and they got to read their contracts, they found out that they were only getting hired for three months at one site and then for four months at some other university site, which they weren’t expecting at all. Others found out that they had an initial contract one month long and after that they weren’t getting any guarantees of further work. So I saw some people refuse to sign these contracts and leave. Voilà.”

I’ve tried not to clean up the very “oral” quality of this discussion. It’s full of redundancies and not always perfectly clear. That’s as it should be, it seems to me. I should admit that the translation is a bit loose; I don’t have much practice translating oral discourses.

What we have here is a personal story that reveals a structural situation whose dry bureaucratic parameters themselves become grounds for all kinds of emotional reactions. A robot programmed like a sociologist might make the mistake of believing that the length of someone’s work contract is a purely quantitative variable, a simple matter of longer or shorter; but we can see here that, in reality, quantitative differences get magnified into local dramas. Ask yourself: what’s the difference between a 10-month and a 12-month contract? Two months, the math types will say. But they’ll be wrong, wrong; the difference between 10 and 12 months of employment, for Aurélie Legrand, is the difference between having relatively steady year-round employment and facing a huge seasonal layoff.

And we can see too that, in the algebra of precarity, the variable of “contract length” is multiplied (metaphorically speaking) by another anxiety factor: the uncertainty of contract renewal. The problem with having a succession of four or two or one-month contracts isn’t just short duration as such; it’s also the accompanying anxiety of constant contractual renegotiation and uncertainty. After a few months of such circumstances, we can see here, even a meagre year contract — itself hardly a recipe for long-term stability — comes to seem a blessing.

And farther along towards the end of this discourse, we see a new theme emerge: the theme of precarity’s place in a differentiated field of suffering, of precarity’s place in a world where some people have it worse than others. Needless to say, a peculiar feature of the panel presentation “where the precarious themselves will speak” was that the participants were publicly interpellated as precarious workers, with all the implicit stigma that that entails. Early on we can see Legrand accepting her classification among the “precarious workers of higher education”; but what’s interesting is that, by the end of this discourse, she is claiming in effect that she doesn’t have it so bad, that she ended up pretty much with what she wanted, and that it’s the others who really have it bad, the others who are really getting shafted with their 1-month contract offers, the others who need to negotiate but can’t. The most critical, outraged part of this discourse is also the part that does the most to minimize the subjectivity of the speaker, as we see her turn from describing her own circumstances to critiquing the collective misery of human resources’ assembly-line method of contract signing. As if there were after all a certain desire to ascend to a somewhat detached critical standpoint, one that would critique precarity while attempting to avoid entirely identifying oneself as its victim. The discourse on precarity is not without its internal contradictions.