The youth of working-class neighborhoods in France covers a diverse reality, particularly in terms of age, gender, origin, and religion (Kakpo 2006; Marlière 2011; Truong 2015). Nevertheless, they share a common experience of inequality, which the health crisis has once again brought sharply to light. In this paper, we shall focus on the way France’s first lockdown (March to May 2020) was experienced by young people living in such neighborhoods, who have been the subject of much media commentary but whose voices have been little heard. The aim of this article, which is based on 28 interviews conducted, in various towns and cities within the Paris region (Île-de-France),  with young people aged 18 to 25 from working-class backgrounds,  is to show to what extent these young people found themselves, in various configurations, among the first victims of the pandemic, and how, in order to cope with it, they mobilized a range of resources. Referring to this notion of “resources” will enable us to “think about moments, relationships, actions, and interactions that produce or generate help and support (thus analyzable in terms of resources) that would not exist outside of the circumstances that give rise to them” (Faure and Thin 2019, p. 21) and to understand what has enabled these young people to “stand their ground” and “get by despite everything” (ibid.).
Young people on the front line
The working classes, because of the nature and status of their jobs, were mobilized more than others during the lockdown to perform basic functions (Counil and Khlat 2020; Gilbert 2020; Mariette and Pitti 2020a, 2020b). Young people were all the more so because their age did not place them a priori among the “at-risk” populations, but also because they constitute a flexible workforce, subject to temporary work, short contracts and uberization (drivers, delivery personnel) (Abdelnour and Bernard 2020). The diversity of employment situations and statuses within the working classes, highlighted by the sociology of social classes (Beaud and Pialoux 2012; Béroud et al. 2016), is accompanied by the deterioration of working conditions and the multiplication of forms of casualization that affect young people entering the labor market. For the respondents, lockdown may have been an opportunity to find a “little job” or to increase their working hours to improve their income, without gaining access to more protective employment statuses. This gave rise to ambivalent reactions among the respondents: this period represented both an opportunity—some young people were able to get a job, sometimes receiving a higher salary than usual—and a moment of intense exploitation, which they found difficult. For example, a young woman from Clichy-sous-Bois, hired as a cashier in a supermarket with a student contract, was happy to have been able to go from working a few hours a week to full time. Others testify to the deterioration of already difficult working conditions. A young woman from Villeneuve-la-Garenne, also a cashier, described an intense work rhythm, seven hours of work without breaks, and the harassment she suffered from her boss who ordered her to come to work while she was on sick leave. In Pantin, another young woman (20 years old, looking for a job while waiting to go back to school) experienced a particularly difficult temporary work assignment:
I’m doing temp jobs that have nothing to do with what I want to do professionally, based simply on what’s available, until I find something stable and that allows me to work in my field, health care. During lockdown, I worked for a month at a company that delivers groceries within an hour. It was really assembly-line work. People were ordering a lot. The order would come in on the phone, with the list of products and the aisles and shelf numbers where they could be found. You had to be very fast and very efficient. I was too meticulous, I wasted too much time. I did one month but I wouldn’t do it again because it was too much for me. The first day, I couldn’t even climb the stairs, my whole body was in pain. We were carrying very heavy bags, the elevators didn’t work, we had to take the stairs to get our bags up. There were practically only young people, who came from everywhere, from Melun [in the east of Île-de-France], Clamart [in the south], Sarcelles [in the north-west], Saint-Denis [in the north]. Some were used to it. A friend of mine was responsible for maintaing stock levels on the shelves. She used to bring super-large and super-heavy pallets, which were super-scary. Pallets that, if they fall on you, it’s over… Sometimes, I wondered how she would manage; she told me: “don’t worry, I’m used to it.” Every day, public transit was being gradually reduced. At one point, from 8 p.m. on, there was no more transportation. So either we had to leave earlier or take an Uber to get home. Once, on our way home, we were blocked at Gare de Lyon [a large station in central Paris], and we couldn’t find the exit from the subway. In the end, we struggled for almost three hours, from 9 p.m. to midnight, before finally managing to get home by bus and on foot. It was ridiculous. All this for work. It was paid at minimum wage, but it’s okay, I was able to save up for my driver’s license…
By contrast, school and recreation-center monitors or catering staff were put on short-time work, at least at the beginning of the lockdown. In Corbeil-Essonnes, a temporary monitor noted that it was the regulars who kept their jobs first. Several of them have thus faced the loss of their main or additional income (babysitting in particular). These situations all highlight the fragility of the employment status and sources of income of these young people.
Work outside the home was also, for some, combined with work in the home: all the young people we interviewed had to participate in a degree of care work. This may have been a continuation of their usual tasks (household chores, care for elderly and very young relatives, helping younger siblings with schoolwork), but for others it became more demanding during lockdown. For example, those whose parents were deemed to be “at risk” or who were chronically ill or disabled, or those whose parents who fell ill with Covid-19, found themselves engaged in full-time care. Many chose to run errands themselves to protect their parents from the risks involved in going out. Among those who had to go out for work or to participate in voluntary work, some made the drastic choice to move out and live elsewhere during the lockdown period.
It is also the pursuit of education that characterizes the daily life of high-school and university students and the precariousness of the educational context mirrors the precariousness of employment. If media attention was largely focused on high-school students, university students were also concerned by the closure of educational institutions and the implementation of what was termed “educational continuity.” These students place the lockdown in the context of a year already complicated by strikes against first pension reform and then higher-education reform, which lasted all winter. The lockdown caused a temporary halt in their studies, replaced by gainful employment; but the resumption of their education, postponed indefinitely, became uncertain. For those who continued, the time devoted to studies seemed very limited; the reasons given were difficulties in concentrating, the lack of information from teachers or, on the contrary, an overload of emails. The adaptation of means of assessment, which has led in some places to the cancellation of practical exams (e.g. for sports-science students or osteopathy students), on which many young people from working-class neighbourhoods rely to pass their year, generates anxiety. The recent move in France to a system of generalized selection (Parcoursup) to access higher education  has further weakened working-class youth’s confidence in the possibility of achieving or pursuing higher education during this troubled period, especially for those who were waiting for a response from Parcoursup (for bachelor’s-degree programs) or universities (for master’s-degree programs). In the final year of high school, those who were counting on the end-of-year written exams to obtain their baccalauréat and make up for the first semester’s shortcomings feared they would have to repeat the year, and thus had the impression of being forgotten and left behind. Although that year’s baccalauréat results were ultimately better than expected, the situation generated a great deal of discouragement and reinforced the feeling of uncertainty about the future.
Family, religion, solidarity: resources for coping
To cope with these difficulties, young people have mobilized a variety of resources. The tactics used in their usual daily lives—such as resourcefulness, do-it-yourself spirit, humor, and intensive use of social networks (both to keep in touch with family and friends and to keep informed)—continued to be mobilized. However, the three resources that emerged most strongly during this period were family, religion and participation in actions of solidarity, although they were not unanimously mobilized in the same way. The majority of the respondents said that they had found in the lockdown an opportunity to “refocus” on the essential things in life, but that this had been done in different ways, by closing themselves up in a protective cocoon or by continuing actions to open up to others.
We know the importance of family in the socialization of the working classes (Siblot et al. 2015) and in particular the attachment to family as a secure form of life (Schwartz 2011). During lockdown, this resource was highly activated: time spent with family received extraordinary attention and many young people “bonded” with family members, to use the term frequently used by respondents. They saw it as a way to get back “to basics,” to take stock of their lives, and to make decisions for the future, as explained by one young person from Nanterre (age 22, on a sabbatical year to set up her own business after three first years of bachelor’s programs in different disciplines):
All the plans I had in my professional, personal, and academic life, I had them because I thought it was what I should do, not because it was what I wanted to do. Refocusing on myself, getting to know myself better, taking time to take stock, made me aware of several things. The importance of taking time with my loved ones first, simply to get to know them better, to share moments together. My mother usually works from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; we leave very early in the morning to go to school or to work. On the weekends, my mom would run errands and sometimes she had work training sessions; we had stuff too. We would say hello to each other in the morning and eat together in the evening, and that was it. This is also the case with my family outside my home—my aunts, for example. We don’t usually call them every day. But now, it’s super weird, we end up doing super weird stuff, like baccalauréat work over Zoom with the whole family. I was closer to them from a distance. Before, we would never have thought of that, with our hyper-intensive lifestyles. This very violent break finally led us to spend our time somewhere else.
For some young people, religion was also a resource, especially for Muslims, the most common faith among the respondents (three fourths of them). Like the family, it is a structuring socializing framework in the daily lives of young people. It helps build their world and contributes intensely, even if in different ways, to defining their relationship to the world and their way of seeing their lives (Kakpo 2006; Tietze 2002). During lockdown, it was more precisely seized upon by some as a lever of reassurance, a means of distancing themselves and making sense of what was happening. Several people explained that the lockdown allowed them to “refocus” on religion, to reflect, to return to the texts, to pray as a family, to (re)discover a spirituality that was sometimes undermined by the daily rhythm. The ordeal of the pandemic and the lockdown thus justified for some people an intensification of their religious practice, especially since Ramadan occurred during the lockdown.
Finally, involvement in actions of solidarity constituted a resource of another kind: a way of regaining, if not control, at least power over the situation by acting immediately and concretely, but also by thinking collectively about what is happening, and possibly the future. For those who were already engaged in such actions, the lockdown produced a multiplication of activity, characterized by a continuity but also by a form of urgency in the engagement. In Clichy-sous-Bois, a young man enrolled in medical school became involved with the nursing staff, leaving his studies “to take action,” to respond to the most urgent needs. In Pantin, Clichy-sous-Bois and Suresnes in particular, where local initiatives have been numerous, intense and well-publicized, young people were involved in organizing the collection and distribution of basic necessities, either for the first time or as a continuation of previous actions. A young man from Pantin (age 25, in the second year of his master’s degree, project manager for a municipality) explains:
In Pantin, we created a collective, Solid19Pantin, which brings together associations and activists from the town and elsewhere to support the people of Pantin in the face of the crisis. We know that it is the working classes that are affected, that it is my people who will be affected, in fact. There is an instinctive side that comes out very quickly. It was natural for some people to help, because it affected those with whom we grew up. There was a series of deaths in my neighborhood and in the collective: it touches you. Our key value, which is quite transversal, is to say that we are in the same boat and it is sinking; it has been capsizing for 30 years, and now it is sinking. We share this feeling, that we are going to do everything we can to prevent it from sinking, and it is now that we must act. The action we are taking may reinforce movement in a direction that we do not wish to take, namely to say that it is up to the private sector to take charge. We would like the town hall to do what we do, but that is not the case. We have seen that resilience has mainly been achieved outside of institutions: self-organized associations have been more reactive than the public authorities. The administrative inertia was very marked and, after a while, faced with the success and the scale of our actions, the elected representatives were more present, but more to control us, to take credit for what we were doing. I don’t feel like we’ll ever be able to turn things around, but there has been progress. We’ve held some of our masters in check, elected officials, institutions. Our mentality is to tell ourselves that we have to go for it on our own: even if it means improvising a solution, even if it means going through tough times, we keep going, we keep moving forward.
The testimonies of these young people show living conditions characterized by precariousness, particularly in their employment and education, which the health crisis may have accentuated. At the same time, they shed light on their capacity to adapt and the resources they have called upon in times of crisis, which lie outside the public sphere and its institutions: family and religion, presented as a refocusing on oneself and one’s family, as well as involvement in associations and collectives that organize solidarity where the public authorities have remained dazed. These resources do not constitute “capital” in the Bourdieusian sense of the term. They were “advantages” in this specific situation, but remain “uncertain and unstable” (Faure and Thin 2019). Nevertheless, in a context of crisis, they constitute a point of support that should be recognized.
Beyond the identification or awareness of these resources, what did lockdown produce? Uncertainty about the “aftermath” remains shared and reinforced. At the time of the survey, however, it was the subject of very little reflection: the urgency of the situation took precedence, and the need to deal with the day-to-day seemed to prevent them from projecting themselves into the future. The majority of the young people interviewed feared that the “post-Covid” world would be marked by physical distancing and distrust of others, seen as potential sick people and contaminators. With a few rare exceptions, the economic crisis as well as the ecological crisis did not constitute a subject of discussion and reflection at the time of the survey. On the other hand, the critical analysis that many made of the French government’s management of the crisis and the attitude of the police in the working-class neighborhoods during the lockdown, and the consequently accentuated feeling of inequality and injustice, can only augur a reinforcement of distrust, and sometimes suspicion, toward public institutions.
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