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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les chibanis plongés dans un univers kafkaïen

by Lina Sankari

Immigrant Workers from the Colonies are Plunged into a Kafkaesque Universe

Translated Thursday 3 December 2009, by Alison Billington and reviewed by Bill Scoble

By 2005, the High Council for Integration had already investigated the discriminations that the chibanis (immigrant workers who came to reconstruct France after the war) are subject to. In spite of promises, their living conditions never cease to deteriorate.

"The immigrant is out of place, without place, displaced, unclassifiable. (…) Neither citizen nor foreigner, not really from France nor completely from abroad, he is located in a ’bastard’ place, (…) on the border of social being and non-being." Pierre Bourdieu says it is necessary to think of the citizenship of those who go from being emigrants to immigrants in these terms. Between the country they left and the country they arrived at. The chibanis, these elderly immigrant workers are truly social integration’s greatest oversight as the High Council for Integration (HCI) revealed in 2005. Those who not only contributed in grand silence to the Liberation of France from German occupation but who also reconstructed France in the golden years of 1945 - 1975.

Today, as well as suffering physically and morally, they are plunged into an administrative system in which all funds towards pensions are won after an obstacle course. They are plunged in a universe of rooms for domestic servants, furnished hotels or residence halls, any of which are liable to be destroyed when urban planning dreams up ambitious plans for the town. This aging population, for the most part single, faces a huge dilemma: either return to their country or remain in France in conditions of poverty which nevertheless allows the sending of a few pennies to the family.

45% of them "never have contact with friends or relatives who are not from their own origins. And 17% cannot count on anybody in an emergency". Subjected to premature aging, the chibanis remain isolated and, because of illiteracy and literacy problems, access "only too infrequently the measures in place for common rights to social help for old people — community care, for example", according to the HCI. So, only 29% of them receive a supplementary award from the communal pension fund. Likewise, "21% (exclusively women) draw a pension from their deceased husband’s work, 9% a disability pension. 63% of the people in the survey enjoy housing benefits". And one person in two has an income of less than £600.

The High Council for Integration notes moreover that there are particular ailments that are specific to elderly working immigrants. Skilled or semi-skilled jobs expose 13.1% of them to accidents at work, sometimes resulting in permanent incapacity, whereas their proportion in the paid, working population is only 6.8%. To this must be added an overexposure to diabetes, to " bad housing conditions, nutritional deficiencies, respiratory diseases and problems with oral hygiene." The HCI reveals, moreover that "contrary to accepted ideas, according to which elderly immigrants would put a strain on the Social Security budget, they actually have only very limited access to help in France".
So, the immigrant worker’s access to geriatric and gerontological services is made difficult not only because of cost but also because of culture, and "the difficulties professionals have in intervening in semi-collective lodgings." Nevertheless, certain cities, such as Marseille, have put information services in place to allow immigrants to benefit from the whole gamut of rights and services for "seniors". At the same time, in 2006, these elders saw themselves allocated a compulsory eviction order without re-housing from furnished hotels in the city of Marseille as part of the rezoning programme in the town centre. Attempts to pull the wool over our eyes.

Access to help, to lodging and to the rights to a pension is even tougher for women. One out of two has had no job security, or only a part-time job, and it is the women who most frequently need work pensions. As things stand, "the total financial award proportional to the pension rights of the deceased spouse corresponds to little more than half of the forecast retirement pension — or the retirement pension that would have been forecast for the deceased", notes the HCI. So, certain among them continue to work at a very advanced age in order to provide for their needs when their husbands are gone.

The HCI’s study underlines the strong feeling that the chibanis belong to France – yet only one third enjoys French nationality – the reason for exclusion is hard to understand. In spite of the "commemorative pull" which includes here and there points on immigration, nevertheless, care is taken all the while to hush up all political and civic dimensions. The chibanis suffer, according to the terms of expressions of the Ici&Là-Bas association (Lyon), the Rouet A Coeur Ouvert association (Marseille) and the DiverCité association (Rhône-Alpes) from a ’permanent heatwave’ — from a solitude in life that pursues them till the moment of their death.


[1The chibanis are Maghrebien elders in Paris. The word is arabic for elder. They arrived from North Africa, invited by a prosperous France of the 1960s. Low-skilled labour, they have never earned much. They speak little French and have never understood France’s bureaucracy. Belonging nowhere, they have been away from their own country too long not to be strangers there but have never really been accepted in France. They are central to the debate on integration in France.

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