We are the champions, my friend… (Not!)

Well I have a spare moment to go here now, when I say “here”, I mean something that really upset/annoyed me.

Here in France there is a severe unemployment problem – it’s very hard to get a job, even what we would call “casual employment” in the UK. From a personal point of view employment over my time in France has been quite sporadic which is frustrating more than anything!

In my time here, I have worked doing some freelance graphic design for publicity work all simple stuff and at first unpaid. This is basically my branch having qualified with a BTEC National Diploma in Graphic Design at Leicester School of Printing 16 years ago.

However, finding graphics work has been difficult and between French lessons (couldn’t speak French when I arrived!) and a job as a storesperson in a small Anglo-Japanese electronics company I went back into the classroom again in early 2004 to sort out my awful written French.

In October 2004 I also started my search for employment again, starting off with an assessment provided by the employment office here. That wasn’t very easy as the consultant there told me a few things I didn’t want to hear about myself but it gave me a much needed kick up the arse. As a result I sent out several applications and between November and March I had 5 interviews.

Following this I just happened to pop into an employment advice place in the next village along from where we live – who were recruiting for a new Champion supermarket being built in the same village. Champion is part of Groupe Carrefour – a large chain of Hypermarkets in France, although the Champion supermarkets are somewhat smaller.

I was sent to a presentation along with an estimated 200 other hopefulls, where we had a written entrance test. All this for around 50 posts – some of which filled from a smaller supermarket which was to be replaced by the Champion one.

To my surprise I passed this and was sent for yet another test at the employment offices (ANPE) in the nearest town to us, Corbeil-Essonnes. This time it was practical “in situation” assessment. Again I passed this and was given a date for an interview with the Director of the store.

The interview appeared to go fairly well – although the Director of the store appeared like someone who had gone on one of those assertiveness courses – rather like Maggie Thatcher I suppose.

I was told that he’d get in touch with me with the result at the end of the week. Which he didn’t do – so I ended up going back the following Tuesday to see what was going on and appeared to walk right into the middle of a meeting between him a woman working for the village hall organising the recruitment and a secretary. He wasn’t too pleased about that, not seeming happy to say that he’d take me on although he added after I said “thanks”, that I would not be thanking him if I didn’t work well.

I was given a date a few weeks later to sign my full-time contract, which is what is known as a CDI (Contrat durée indeterminée) – an unlimited contract. The only snag being that for the first 4 weeks I would be on probation – as is the norm, and that they could fire me within that period for whatever reason they liked.

I started work on the 22 May – when I arrived at the portakabin being used as an “office” at 8.30am. My hours were 8.30am – 1pm then 2.30pm – 5.30pm. The generous lunch break was really appreciated, it gave me over an hour at home to eat my lunch and rest. Much of the work was stocking the shelves, building shelves or moving them because it was found there wasn’t the required space, cleaning constantly because of the dust and rubbish created by the builders and creating the “skeleton” on the isles to show where the stock would go.

At first I was totally knackered – the last time I’d worked in a supermarket was as an 18 year old student back home, that was something like 18 years ago! For the first few days my colleagues were quite friendly – but I now know they were sussing me out. Aside from the management there was only 7 of us there at first. Two, who were the favourites of the management had started 2 weeks before me. 4 others having started on the same date as me.

The two, who I’ll christen the “terrible twins” tended to be in the know more than us 5. Out of us 5 one of my colleagues, Christophe became a great friend and support – especially as sometimes I was struggling with the new French supermarket vocabulary. He even made efforts to dredge up his schoolboy English with amusing results.

My first two weeks were very tiring – I’m not very sporty and so the job being very physical about killed me by the evening. But at the same time it did a lot of good and I can say that I lost about 4kg after 3 weeks working. I also slept like a log!

After two weeks I started to see that everyone else was getting more interesting work than I was – and that there was more communication between my colleagues and the Director of the store (who we later christened Freddie Mercury). We were basically given orders by Freddie and also the supervisor Imad, an Algerian. Imad was a really nice guy until he wasn’t happy about something – he tended to swear to himself a lot and get a bit excited if we got it wrong. However, outside of work he was really nice. At this point, one afternoon after taking our 10 minute break, Freddie and Imad called me and a young female colleague, Julie, over for a chat. Basically they told me that I was not very “rapid” and that Julie was too immature in her outlook (for me and Christophe she was quite a grown up 17 year old). We were told that we had one week to change or we would be dismissed. Just like that. When I asked in what area’s I wasn’t quick enough – they were very vague and just said I need to be quicker. It was like they didn’t know why they had told me to speed up.

When I had started, we were 5. Out of those 5 were two part-timers, Corentin an 18 year old lad and Emmanuelle a girl the same age as Julie. Corentin was to work with me on the drinks isle, but proved to be very lazy and someone who really couldn’t be bothered. Not very good if we were to work as a team! As I am twice his age I guess I had a more mature outlook and although he was a nice lad I did give him an earbending on one occasion for not pulling his weight and going off as a sulk when we were working with Julie and Emmanuelle.

Well – when Julie and I had our tête à tête with Freddie and Imad, we were told that while we’d been on our lunch break, they had fired both Corentin and Emmanuelle. It was like it was a threat – a case of “we’ve fired them – you won’t see them again”. Freddie should have been an actor in a gangster movie.

So we were to face the same fate if we didn’t pull our weight, so from the third week I speeded up and worked like there was no tomorrow. Julie didn’t change much, and I seemed to be working faster than a lot of people occasionally working over hours.

On one day, I overheard a girl colleague (by now they’d recruited more people to work in the store – which meant having to remember a lot of new names!) saying to a supervisor that she was going to work on the drinks… like me. So the following day I went to speak to her and introduce myself. It seemed odd to me that I’d not been mentioned to her by Freddie so I was a little bit surprised. She seemed to quickly show the upperhand which I found a little irritating, but I worked with her occasionally without any problems. The next day I asked her how we were supposed to be working – in a “team” or with her as the boss. She replied that she didn’t know and that there would no doubt be a meeting or something. I asked Imad the same thing and he replied the same – a meeting.
A Thursday at the end of the third week (the week after my meeting with Freddie and Imad with Julie over the rapidity aspect), about 30 mins before I was due to finish Freddie came to see me to tell me to come and see him before I left at 5.30pm. In the end I went to see him at 5.45pm couldn’t find him, then just happened to bump into him while looking as he walked towards me with a couple of supervisors.

He walked past me then called over his shoulder that “he wasn’t in the mood now, he’ll see me tomorrow”. Of course I was really stressed that night wondering what he wanted to see me about. The following morning I went to see my girl colleague on the drinks isle to say “Hi”. Then went looking for Freddie. I eventually found him and he sent me to the supervisor in the stores area. He didn’t know what to do with me and didn’t know Freddie was to send me to him, but then Freddie appeared and told me to go to the drinks isle where I had started off when I said “Hi” to my colleague. So all theat stress for nothing – I was waiting for Freddie to give me my notice, but in the end nothing was mentioned.

By the fourth week, I quickly saw that Freddie was talking to my colleagues and giving them orders, while he seldom exchanged eye contact with me or give me orders directly. Ever felt like the invisible man/woman? Well I certainly did! Hand in hand with that – I seemed to be more and more at a loose end and having to either hunt down Imad for something to do or use my intiative by asking colleagues for something to do, or just clean up stuff that needed doing. A lot of the time my colleagues didn’t have anything that I could help with.

By what was to turn out to be the last day, the fourth week and the Friday before the store opening, which was to be the following Tuesday, someone else had been recruited to the drinks isle. It was there that I was pretty well convinced that my probabtion period was to be over. The new chap was already working on the isle so I went to help him – and we worked together for most of the day. The girl who was also on the drinks isle was a part-timer so she was only there that morning and working elsewhere.

I ended up passing on my 4 weeks of experience to the new guy, and he seemed a lot more lost than I was on my first day.

Later in the afternoon, one of the terrible twins came to tell me that Freddie Mercury wanted to see me in his office. Obviously I knew what it was going to be. By now the portakabins had been taken away and the offices had been built during the last week, in the store. So I went to see Freddie whose door was open, he was in a meeting with a couple of supervisors. When he asked what I wanted I explained that I’d been sent for. To which Freddie replied, I wanted to see everyone on the grocery section, not just you. Go back to work and I’ll see you later.

Half an hour later, I was called, along with 5 others from the grocery section – including the terrible twin who had told me to go and see Freddie earlier. Basically we were called into the conference room to be told that on the Tuesday, the opening day, we were to come in wearing uniform with trousers and not the usual jeans. He asked to confirm that everyone had their hours for the following day – the Saturday (none of us had worked a Saturday during the 4 weeks I was there). To which I replied, I don’t have any hours for Saturday. Freddie said we’ll see about that after.

So he sent everyone else out apart from me, and then gave it to me straight. “We’ll be terminating your contract because you are not quick enough on the drinks isle”. Considering that in my 4 weeks I’d not worked very much on the drinks isle – it was almost laughable. I just replied “I knew”. He then went on to say that I had worked a lot faster in the last 2 weeks and was getting on very well with my colleagues. That he’ll call me in a few weeks if there was a part-time position available on a different isle. I just replied “whichever” – told him to have a nice weekend and that was about it. I worked the half our than remained and sloped off. I just told my “new” colleague on the drinks isle and also Christophe what had happened – and went home.

I knew then that never in a million years did I want to take up the offer of a part-time job there. This was compounded by the fact that Freddie was going to call me on my mobile about it in a few weeks, yet Thumpah (my girlfriend… yes, another pseudo) had lost it when she borrowed it a week later. So I never knew if Freddie tried to call or not.

The other factor was that I had done my back in, after the 4 weeks of hard work. My back had already been fragile these last few years. Now sitting down was getting very painful.

Thumpah was due to take 2 weeks holiday a couple of weeks after I was dismissed, so decided we’d go on holiday together. Before that though I went to see an osteopath who did a few wrestling holds on me to click things back into alignment.

We went away for a week in the 2 weeks that Thumpah had – my last salary arrived at the end of June, but I have yet to return to the store where I worked since it opened on the 20th June. I’ve stayed in touch with Christophe – he keeps telling me to come as see him at the store. Maybe one day soon I will. As for the the terrible twins, I’m convinced one of them was spying on me for Freddie…

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