Fieldwork in France

WP3- French Team

1)    A broad fieldwork: giving the bigger picture

Since the three of us are doing fieldwork, we chose to explore various types of spaces.  We had chosen 4 partners: one is a social community centre in a popular neighbourhood that offers various propositions to involve people to be actors regarding food matters. The other one, Secours Populaire, is an associative food donation outlet. In Ste Foy, one is an associative community resource centre for the local associative network; and the last one deals with popular and participant dissemination of knowledge regarding food production and cooking. They are actually working currently on the project of creating a Maison de l’alimentation (to be developed), which is also formed by another group of people in Bordeaux. Since the beginning, because of the course of events taking place in Bordeaux, we have followed various actors who occupy the scene, dealing with food and migrants. We also talk with representatives from various institutions and authorities.

2)    Diversity of the sociological and administrative profiles and of the places where migrant people live

We therefore meet very diverse situations of immigrant people, with various status and profile: asylum seekers, refugees, undocumented migrants, unaccompanied minors, long-standing immigrants, and also groups of Travellers or “Gens du voyage” (an administrative category in F. – gypsies, Roma, some of them sedentary, others nomads; some are nationals, others internationals -we don’t know exactly who they are for the moment but they are particularly present in St Foy). In various living conditions: squats, camps, reception centres for adults and families / for minors, apartments, houses [some in good state, others really dilapidated], hotels, hosted by volunteer households, caravans, street, or sometimes in the hospital, airport, public gardens, mosque, igloo tent around disused train station (that is also the realities of the “tinkering”)…  Some of them work (legal or illegal work, sometimes with papers form another person, that is part of the daily “tinkering” – bricolage”) and get salaries, other get allowances, others nothing at all.

Such a wide scope of investigation provides us with a wide angle picture. We can examine the repartition of immigrants over the Gironde territory, understand why, and compare the diverse possibilities of treatment or support.

Obviously there are far less offers and possibilities in the countryside.

3)    Role of the state in the reception conditions of asylum seekers: delegation to associations

We also observe that the French State devolves completely the reception and care of immigrants to the associative sector. And this is done through calls for tenders/projects that are brought back into play every 4 years or so. This question of providing accommodation is at the heart of commercial issues, where the money is given to the association that is the “best” – or cheapest? – bidder. The goal is clear: spend as little money as possible. Moreover, social workers who work in these centres for asylum seekers (adults or minors) face significant contradictions between their convictions, their professional values, and the way they are forced to work, because of the institutional functioning and prerogatives. So, they have to juggle between their values and ideals (they are trained to care), and the institutional obligations and rigidity. So we can see there is a structural problem.

Regarding food, in this context, there are multiple situations depending on the reception structure. Some people can cook more easily than others who don’t even have a kitchen for example. So migrant people are placed in precarious situations and often depend on external aid. Food doesn’t seem to be a main topic for the institution. What matters is filling stomachs for survival.

Examples of this tricky situation:

–          A social worker, who also has an anthropological background, working for the children’s social welfare, wanted to construct a social network with different associations, in order to find solutions for food accessibility for deprived people in Bordeaux. However the institution considered that this was not her mission. This social worker doesn’t even have a long term contract, which reveals precariousness on the global situation. Her project around food and poverty didn’t correspond to institutional logics. This also highlights that beyond food, and although it should be the core of its mission, the Dpt of Gironde doesn’t treat minors very well.

–          In a reception centre: some social workers are faced with the lack of support from the public authorities and from lack of resources. When some of them try to work with asylum seekers on what they can actually do despite their tricky situation (can’t generally work), or try to make the “house” better in order to make them feel more “at home”, or even to create a vegetable garden, they face big structural difficulties, because the system is meant to discourage immigrants to stay in France.

We are going to continue our work in this direction and look deeper into institutional logics.

4)    Focus on food

a.       Food aid

We have been (and still are) involved in various situations of food in the public space, meaning various types of public spaces. Of course the Food aid space is quite important, and all the more during the lockout period, where new actors who are usually against food donation had to do it, in a situation of emergency. This is a notion we intend to investigate: why do we have emergency answers to deal with structural problems? So we have followed the various individual and collective mobilisations for the organising of food distributions to squatters, illegals, and all kinds of people in situation of precariousness. The food donation system is founded on the left-overs from the agro-industry. And in this system, immigrants are even more dispossessed of all means of choice and action. Nevertheless some spaces of empowerment exist in some situations, even in squats, where people manage to pick the food they want and prepare their meal with the utensils they have. Even though they seldom chose their company they end up creating an “in-common” with whoever shares the same living conditions.

b.      The creative dimension of food

We have also followed different cooking workshops. Some of them for a moment of “conviviality”; transfers of know-how between people from different countries; free work (volunteers) for events or for solidarity; they are a tool for “teaching” a “best way” to feed themselves in a sociological majority perspective (Promofemmes: “using less salt!”, or “less oil”); a means for providing food and meet people (Gars Rage), social interaction and diversity; however it also means composing with leftovers from the food industry, transforming them to make them correspond to food that does not only fills up bodies but is also fulfilling, good for feelings and memories.

These moments can be seen as a way of creating an “in-common”; to express creativity; empowerment; conviviality; and sometimes emphasize unequal relationships between majority and minority individuals.

The example of the Refugee Food Festival makes us question the notion of exoticism, considering what is (implicitly) expected from migrant people who cook for the sociological majority. This underlines how migrant people correspond to the expectations of the French society. This notion of exoticism reveals a form of admiration/ attraction but also a form of racism, because of the way migrant people represent a consumable exoticism, that also answers business logics.

This topic of exoticism is also relevant in other contexts, and connected to the notion of creativity: cooking workshop; meals with students in a professional training school where they learn pastry, cooking, hotel studies…; public afternoon snacks just outside a school in Ste Foy or on the Saturday open air market for the benefit of the parents association…

c.       Food for work and work for food

We have also observed situations where food is used for work, like professional training in kitchens for Unaccompanied Minors or salaried work for adults, and work used for food, like volunteer work in food aid association, that allows getting free meals. The involvement of migrants in volunteer tasks, besides filling up time, also reflects the need for better social and administrative recognition, with the hope that it will improve their administrative record. Working with food represent at the same time a way of expressing their creativity, a manner of resistance, to kill boredom, to feel useful, and, in a more pragmatic sense, a way of eating for free, and a hope of being viewed as “more integrated” by the administrative institution and by the society in general.

5)    The majority’s point of view

What is striking is the multiplicity of actors mobilized, besides public authorities. They are entangled in constantly evolving relations of interdependence, complementarity and conflicts.

We are also questioning citizen mobilizations and the notions of responsibility and debt. Solidarity relations are often manifested through food. Good will, the need to do something, to be humane lead to weaving links between migrants and “carers”. Such relations are of course based on unequal terms, in a majority vs. minority social context, making immigrants feel out of place.

We also noticed that the dimension of ecology occupies a place that should not be set aside. This question is linked to the situation of emergency. Among activists and volunteers, many feel concerned about this issue. They are aware of the fact that precarious people are being fed with the leftover of the agroindustry, and question our global food system. However, this situation of precariousness is difficult to overcome because of the emergency situation in which they are caught. Because the State delegates – again – to associations the responsibility of feeding precarious people, people involved in them feel overwhelmed and do not always have enough time, neither the necessary resources to concretely rethink the food system, even when they have the ideas and the skills. But again, this problematic of food is at the heart of the global market issues.

If there was a special public institution that worked on these issues, it would be different…

That shows how migrant people are not thought of as people who are going to be citizens, or intended as playing a role in collective decisions…

We have identified a few major concepts emerging from the fieldwork:

–          In-common

–          Food justice

–          Responsibility

–          Ecology

–          Biodiversity

–          Creativity

–          Food for work – work for food”

26 thoughts on “Fieldwork in France

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