'Being a French Laborer Was Worse Than Iraqi Captivity'

Journalist Florence Aubenas was the world's most famous hostage for several months in 2005. Upon her return, she investigated the lives of France's most vulnerable workers. What she discovered was a world without hope.

A woman walks in Caen, France, where Florence Aubenas worked under a false identity.
CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP PHOTO

All eyes in France were on the military airport at Villacoublay near Paris on that day in June 2005. All of France was glued to the television, in anticipation of the flight coming in from Baghdad carrying the world’s most famous captive, Florence Aubenas. Six months earlier, Aubenas, a correspondent for the newspaper Libération, and her translator, Hussein Hanoun, had been captured near Baghdad by rebel militias as Aubenas was interviewing refugees from Fallujah in a tent encampment.

In the five months they were held captive, pictures of Aubenas and Hanoun were broadcast on television every evening and huge photos of them appeared on the Paris municipality building, but their fate was not clear.

At 7:30 the plane landed, President Jacques Chirac and his retinue walked stone-faced across the tarmac to the aircraft and then a curly-haired, energetic young woman appeared smiling on the stairs: Florence Aubenas!

Florence Aubenas, as she appeared in an Iraqi insurgent group's video on March 1, 2005.
AP

The next day, at a nearly two-hour press conference, Aubenas told the world about the five months of hell during which she was beaten, threatened, shackled and blindfolded day and night while confined inside a tiny space of 90 square centimeters (less than a yard). She was forbidden from speaking. She never imagined though how she and Hanoun were actually within touching distance through their entire captivity.

During that press conference she displayed an extraordinary sense of humor. The audience that had been so fearful about her fate and suffering couldn’t stop laughing because of the free and easy way she told the story of her captivity, which was of course not amusing in the least. Aubenas quickly became a star but after a short rest she went back to working at the newspaper, mainly covering social issues. A few years later she left Libération for Le Nouvel Observateur and now she writes for the daily Le Monde.

In 2009 she took a break from the newspaper for what was said to be a sabbatical. But in reality she adopted a false identity in the city of Caen in Normandy for an investigative report for a book about the lives of temporary workers. She wanted to write about the people earning less than the minimum wage, yet prepared to withstand humiliation and accept any temporary job even under poor conditions in order to earn a bit of change. She pretended to be a woman of 44 with no family, no education or trade and no economic support.

Aubenas arrives in France after being released from captivity in Iraq YouTube

For half a year she worked in Caen, mainly cleaning the decks of fishing boats in the nearby town of Ouistreham. Her book “Le quai de Ouistreham” was published in 2010 and has sold 120,000 copies.

On Thursday Aubenas will participate in the Night of Ideas program, “Uncommon Women for a Common World” organized by the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in conjunction with L’institut Français. The program will be moderated by French feminist author and journalist Laure Adler. Aubenas will join MK Stav Shaffir (Zionist Union) in a panel discussion of “Cracks in Society – Opening the Eyes of the Wold.”

In a telephone conversation from Paris, Aubenas spoke of her experience as a worker in Ouistreham as an experience she will not quickly forget. Surprisingly, the story of her captivity in Iraq has been dwarfed and all but forgotten as a result of this story.

French President Jacques Chirac welcomes Florence Aubenas as she arrives at France’s Villacoublay military airport, June 12, 2005.
AP

“In Iraq it was hard, of course, but I did not lose hope for even a moment because I knew that my country, my newspaper and my family would not let me fall,” she said. “There were frightening moments because in a situation of constant tension one’s thinking goes awry, loses its sharpness, but hope was there in the background. The experience in Ouistreham was different: There, I understood how a lack of hope is something that depends on social class.”

Why did you decide to assume an identity and embark on this adventure?

She replied: “I try to take on the big ideas that aren’t always understood by the general public, and translate them into everyday language. In 2009 everyone was talking about an ‘economic crisis’ as something undefined that destroys the familiar social structures and creates problems because it is undefined. In the media they were talking in abstract terms but it wasn’t clear to me how to explain ‘the crisis’ to those whose voices cannot be heard.

“The idea wasn’t new: In 1980 the German writer Günter Wallraff did an investigation of Turkish workers in Germany and borrowed the identity of a foreign worker. French journalist Elsa Fayner did this at the start of the 2000s and in the United States Barbara Ehrenreich also did this. My worry was that they might recognize me because of the media fuss after my captivity in Iraq. However, it turned out that the transition from middle class to the temporary working class totally eradicates both the previous identity and previous appearance. None of the people I met and worked alongside in Ouistreham recognized me. During the period I was working in the town the local press published an article about me – and no one noticed. I built my self quite a good cover story, about a boyfriend who was a mechanic and had abandoned me for a younger woman. All the women are familiar with this situation and they identified with me.”

And why did you choose Caen?

“It’s a middling city economically and ostensibly without any special problems. I didn’t know anyone there and in order to find work I had to deal with a system that is cynical and humiliating, mainly toward women. I learned how to look for a place to live when you work at temporary jobs, when the good places are taken, and how you are forced to squeeze into public transportation for many hours when you can barely stand on your feet,” Aubenas said.

“During the job searches and afterwards while working – I met courageous women who are prepared to handle rejection, humiliation and psychological harassment in order to hold onto a job. I too experienced such harassment, for example when I worked as a cleaner in the dining hall of a local factory. There were men there in higher positions than mine who enjoyed stepping on the wet floor I’d only just finished washing, with their dirty shoes, and laughing in my face. I went from job to job, work that was difficult physically and uninteresting. I learned not to respond to provocations of any kind. I was afraid of nasty remarks because I really did wear the skin of a woman who depends on such jobs and fears it can only get worse. I learned to spend my Sundays on ‘tours’ of local supermarkets with my girlfriends because that was their means of entertainment. I learned that women who are looking for work have less value than men: They will always prefer a man, for every job there is. A woman has to make do with less.”

How did your friends react when you revealed your real identity?

“Surprisingly, their reaction was the same as my editor’s: ‘Who is going to be interested in this?’ My new friends were convinced that their situation was of no interest to anyone. For me as a journalist and writer, the book’s success was a pleasant surprise but my friends in Caen and Ouistreham were rather indifferent. When I brought them the book they were pleased at the gesture. They leafed through it but they didn’t read it. There was an amusing instance when I came to the home of a workmate and brought him a copy of the book. We sat in his living room and I saw there wasn’t even the ghost of a book in the room. He took the book and examined it and then he said to me: ‘It’s too bad that only just a few days ago I replaced the television with a flat screen. I could have put it on top of the old set,” she said.

What did you learn about your limitations, your psychological and physical abilities from your captivity in Iraq and the work in Ouistreham?

“I don’t identify with Nietzsche’s saying that whatever doesn’t break you makes you stronger. I think everything I went through made me more vulnerable. I learned a lot about the transparent woman who works at temporary jobs,” she said.

What happened to the book you began writing in 2012 about the war in Syria?

“In April of 2012 I went there to report on the rebel forces against Assad’s regime. I stayed with the rebels for about a month and afterward I went back in June and July of that year. The rebels saw our presence as a sign of their approaching freedom, a promise of a better future. In 2013 I went back to Syria again and then we already encountered a chilly attitude and disappointment at the West’s stance. However, despite the criticism of me for not having mentioned the presence of Islamic State I want to emphasize that during the period I was in Syria we did not feel its presence. Later, I didn’t go back there. Iraq was enough for me”

What is it that has driven you for more than 30 years as a journalist covering such places as Rwanda, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and the temporary cleaning workers of northern France?

“What’s more important to me than anything else is writing about what interests people, from their standpoint. In its day the economic crisis was the main topic, today people are interested in the elections in the United States, Brexit, the problem of the immigrants. Currently I am concentrating on the coming elections that will take place in France in May, but not on the aspect of ‘the political theater.’ Everyone writes about politicians. I focus on the voters.”

Do you mean the voters for Marine Le Pen’s National Front?

“Not at all. I covered the National Front in the previous election. I am covering the voters on the left, the ones who have been disappointed by Hollande’s government and the Socialists in general,” Aubenas said.