Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The "Illiterate" Working Class

In his first interview, Emmanuel Macron tripped over his silver tongue d'énarque. Evoking the difficulties of workers at the troubled Gad meatpacking plant in Brittany, he noted that the advice that employees likely to lose their jobs seek work elsewhere was impractical because in order to travel to nearby factory towns, they would need driver's licenses, which are costly to obtain in France (as much as €1500), and in any case, many of these workers are women and "illiterate" (or more precisely "unlettered"--illettrées as opposed to analphabètes). Macron no doubt thought he was commiserating with the plight of these malheureuses rather than insulting them, but even if their knowledge of Racine and Grevisse is deficient, they're sufficiently literate to decipher the colloquy between the indéboulonnable J.-P. Elkabbach and the Boy Wonder of Bercy and to recognize that the word illettrées expressed, if not contempt for their status, at best a condescension unbecoming in a minister of the Republic. Macron quickly made amende honorable before the chamber of the Assembly, but the damage was done.

Yet the new minister, however insensitive, was not entirely wrong, it seems, about the literary capacities of the Gad work force:
Selon le député du Finistère Gwenegan Bui, la proportion de salariés dans cette situation dans l’usine Gad de Lampaul-Guimiliau serait d’environ 20 % (contre 7 % en moyenne en France), rapporte leMonde. Cela crée des problèmes de reclassement. Emmanuel Marcon décrit une réalité qui existe.
Je défie quiconque aujourd’hui de dire précisément ce qu’est un illettré. Un analphabète n’a pas appris à écrire et à lire : là au moins la situation est nette. Certains dits-illettrés savent rédiger des lettres mais font des fautes. C’est ce qui fera qu’on les qualifiera d’illettrés. Cette catégorie n’est pas très sérieusement définie. On présuppose par ailleurs qu’il y a un lien direct, de cause à effet, entre le fait de ne pas avoir les bonnes qualifications et la perte d’emploi ou la difficulté à en trouver. On occupe la jeunesse au chômage depuis très longtemps par la formation, c’est une solution d’attente, qui peut parfois être utile. Quand dans les années 70, le chômage s’est installé de manière structurelle, les pouvoirs publics ont répondu au problème par le retour à la formation. C’est à cette époque qu’a émergé la notion d’illettrisme. On a inversé la causalité. Le moment où l’on a commencé à observer des gens qui avaient des problèmes à l’écrit – une cause d’échec scolaire – correspond au moment d’apparition du chômage. Les mines et les usines sidérurgiques ferment. Les formateurs disent des chômeurs qu’on leur envoie : ‘ils ont du mal à lire et à écrire’. Le chômage a été une condition de mise en évidence de l’illettrisme, mais on a fini par en faire une des causes du chômage. Il y a de nombreux emplois pour lesquels être fort en orthographe n’est pas très important. Les “illettrés” avec un emploi sont des citoyens comme les autres, qui payent leurs impôts. Mais au moment où ils perdent leur emploi, on commence à rendre leur illettrisme responsable de leur situation. Et certains discours ont laissé entendre que les dits “illettrés” ne seraient pas des citoyens comme les autres.

This incident is thus revealing. The new technocrat on the block is clearly well informed, but his knowledge of the Gad dossier, which he was so eager to show off to the veteran interviewer, who had not asked him about it, betrayed the sensibility that has done so much harm to the Socialist Party. The minister knows his numbers but not his people. He has been too long in Paris and sees the remote provinces only through the wrong end of the statistical telescope. He knows the problem, he may even have ideas about how to solve it, but he can't explain it to the "illiterates" he wants to help. The Good Samaritan is hoist by his own petard.


Rick Elliott said...

Herein lies an illustration why the traditional Socialist is drifting off to the Front National who, curiously, are extremely judicious and accurate in their own public pronouncements.

Anonymous said...

illetré does not mean "unlettered" though it really means that they learned how to read and went to school (unlike analphabète) but retain so little of it that they can't use that knowledge to decipher words easily. In the GAD plants, the instructions were in pictures and icons only since so few people could read them, as well as the signs. Many write words but you need to ridd a ld to no wat they meen. The problem is real and Macron's apologies were new in France (where politicians never apologize for anything). Please note such things had been said before and no one had said anything, but Macron (whom I don't especially like BTW) is paying for his background whereas the others (with a similar background save for the IBanking bit) got off scotch free. It's a "faux procès".
Although the damage was done, his defense was correct: "are you more upset that I used this word, or that people were offered so few opportunities at continuing education including through their company, that they've become illiterate?" To me, illiteracy is a bigger problem than Macron's words.
For the rest, he's still being watched. :)

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Rick Elliott said...

'illetre' means: "(partially) unable to read and write", according to Le Petit Robert. This is equivalent to the rare 'letterless'. 'Lettered', on the other hand suggests knowledge which, of course, without prior ability to read and write, would have remained rather a dead letter.

Alex said...

I think the correct translation would be "functionally illiterate". Certainly I wouldn't be very surprised to find people in a similar situation in the UK whose literacy was poor; however the last government put quite a lot of effort into improving basic literacy and numeracy, both in schools and in outreach.

Mme Bui's remarks are analytically elegant, and there's something to them. But I'm not sure what help the idea that not being literate is an equally valid "civilisation ouvriére" actually is here.