Emmanuelle & Yvonne

Cauvigny, August 2023

To Engage

Emmanuelle and Yvonne are sitting close together when her Zoom window opens. I had contacted Emmanuelle via Instagram to get her for an interview. On her profile, you can see some information: her city, her faculty, her party and her last award as second Miss d'Thelloise. When I sent her the request, she was immediately enthusiastic. We had spoken on the phone a few days before to have a first exchange. I see Emmanuelle and her grandmother on Zoom for the first time. On the right, Emmanuelle has a big smile. On the left, her grandmother Yvonne almost falls out of the picture. She looks more puzzled. "There are no wrong answers " Emmanuelle reassures her 81-year-old grandmother when it comes to recounting her life at 20. 

-"So what do I say now?" asks Yvonne
-“-"Well, what were you doing in 1962 when you were 20? " answers Emmanuelle
-"I was working in a bank on the Champs-Elysées, in the most beautiful building on the Avenue. I was working, that's all. I lived in the 17ᵉ arrondissement, next to the Parc Monceau, with my mother,"
-"What was your job at the bank?", I ask 

"Oh, it was archaic work. It was called clearing. We got cheques, lots of cheques, and we had to sort them by bank. And then, oh la la, there were lots of cheques! Then we had a machine and a big tray to sort them," Yvonne replies, pointing to the size of the tray with her hands disappearing on either side of the screen. " Above all, we had to have the right scales in the evening, otherwise we had to recount everything. When you see how we do it today, a lot has changed!" exclaims Yvonne. Yvonne laughs as she remembers her job, which seems so unlikely to her today. When she worked in the bank sorting cheques, she could not deposit cheques herself. It was not until three years later, in 1965, that women in France were allowed to open a bank account and work without their husband's consent.

The bank was not her first job. "Before that, I was a debtor at the Printemps department stores', which was the position below saleswoman on the hierarchical ladder! Oh la! I don't know what it's called today, it must have changed!" In fact, that job hasn't existed for some time. "I was very cinephile then. In Paris I could walk to the cinema, Yvonne continues. Today, in the countryside, it's a 20-minute drive, it's different! At weekends, I danced at Le Moulin brûlée (The Burnt Mill). The restaurant there is burnt, by the way. When we went dancing on Sundays, we stayed until dawn to catch the first metro. I'd go home, change and then go to work."

Emmanuelle, 20, lives part of the time with her parents and the other part with her grandmother. Her grandmother lives closer to the university. Even with this proximity, she has to commute 1:30 hours in the morning and evening to St-Denis, where her faculty is located. "My life at 20 consists of the history faculty, teaching as a homework help tutor and taking care of my grandmother, keeping her company, but also enjoying the cat and the garden. " Carlos crawls around the living room. Emmanuelle and Yvonne admonish him. Carlos is the cat! "I couldn't have a cat at home because my mother is allergic. My mother grew up between France and the Congo. She believes pets are bad people who are reborn. Besides, Carlos is a black cat, so!"

After asking the question again in more detail, Emmanuelle tells us more about her political involvement, which, however, is a big part of her life. "I didn't grow up with many friends, and I didn't have much to do on weekends at school. I needed a place to escape to. I always knew, and those around me always knew, that I would go into politics one day. And I thought, why not just go for it,"Emmanuelle explains.

"And how did you get involved with Les Jeunes Generations,", I ask. Les jeunes Generation is a youth movement that has affiliations with several left-wing parties in France. "In 2020, I went to a demonstration in Beauvais. It was a demonstration against racism and against the ideas of the extreme right. I was with the little sister of a friend. To protect ourselves, we had dressed in black and put on a hood. During the demonstration, I spoke up. At that moment, I told myself that I would join the first party that came to me that shared my ideas, to get involved. For me, that was either France Insoumise or Génération. In the end, Génération came to me to recruit me. My father had forbidden me to go to that demonstration!"
-"And now your father is coming with you to the demo!" shouts Yvonne.
-"He's even a member of a Party!" adds Emmanuelle. 

"So your participation in the demo was not yet part of your commitment?", I ask, trying to understand better. " Exactly. There was an open mic where everyone could share his/her experiences. In my speech I said that I am lucky because I have a French-sounding surname, which is not the case with my half-brothers. I am in a kind of passing. Even if I am half-black, I have less difficulty finding a flat or a job than my halfbrother," Nevertheless, she feels racism and microaggressions in her daily life. The popularity of the extreme right worries her. When she was growing up, there were almost no coloured people in her neighbourhood. At school, there were two. „In der Mittelstufe wurde mir bewusst, dass ich anders bin, und ich verstand, dass das meine Stärke ist. Ich wurde aber deswegen gemobbt. Erst auf dem Gymnasium wurde mir klar, dass ich nicht weißer aussehen und meine Haare glätten muss, um von allen gemocht zu werden, sondern einfach nur ich selbst sein muss.“

For almost three years, Emmanuelle has been politically engaged, campaigning, going to demonstrations, spilling on the streets and attending meetings. "Even in middle school I was a Socialist Party sympathiser and supported a local politician."  Emmanuelle and Yvonne have a brief exchange about politicians of the region. They are not quite on the same wavelength. Yvonne says about the local politician: "No, I don't like him that much, he's always gossiping". Nevertheless, it could be that Emmanuelle will share a list with this politician in the near future. "If I'm on a list with him in the next departmental elections, I know my grandmother won't vote for me, " Emmanuelle concluded, teasing her grandmother. "In the last elections, I had tried a trick,"she continued. "I prepared the ballot papers for both my grandparents. My grandfather said, „Okay, okay, no Problem.” But it didn't work so well for my grandmother, she opened the envelope to see what was inside," Emmanuelle says with a laugh, turning to her grandmother. "Yes, I decide who I choose myself,"she replies.

For Emmanuelle, the 2020s are very fearful. "I am often afraid that I will wake up one morning and realise that we are at war." When Emmanuelle was younger, she thought a lot about what it was like to live during the Cold War and how her grandparents felt about it. The 1960s were a high point of division in the Cold War. " People didn't worry about it then. I worry more today," Yvonne replies

A formative event for Emmanuelle was, of course, Corona and all it meant for her mental health. "I didn't attend classes and rarely went out of my room. Until the headmistress called my father and told him she was really worried." But not only that. In 2016, Emmanuelle was living in Congo with her parents. During that time, presidential elections were taking place. " There was no internet, no phone. There was only television with a bad signal. Communication in general was cut off." It was during this time that the attacks in Brussels and on the Brussels Airport occurred. As a result, the French school Emmanuelle had attended closed hastily. So did the consulate and a number of embassies in Congo. " Many of the parents at the French school were working at sea in offshore oil fields. These parents were warned by the army. My parents worked across town and it was extremely complicated to contact them. Pointe-noir is a segregated city. The closer you are to the sea, the whiter it is. The further you are from the sea, the darker it is. I couldn't call them or send them a message on WhatsApp ," Emmanuelle tells me. Yvonne adds, "Yes, and we couldn't communicate with you at all. "Emmanuelle's mother travelled back to Congo in February 2020 and could not re-enter until a year later. During Covid, the borders were closed. There were three planes for repatriation from Congo. The first one was full. There was gunfire on the second. "My mother didn't want to try again with the third plane and waited to return until the borders were open. That only happened a year later.

Even through the Zoom screen, the bond of trust between Yvonne and Emmanuelle is palpable. "For Grandma, I'm sure the 1964 Tour de France was an important event. That's when she met my grandfather!"Yvonne laughs with relish and wipes the sentence away with a wave of her hand. "No, we don't tell that story!". Later, they were chairmen of a large sports club in the region together. "hey sat at the table with the most important people. And they moved things and people," Emmanuelle adds.

"In the 60s, we lived quietly. For me, it was mainly 68. We were still living in Paris. We went to work, but everything was closed. I was also pregnant at the time," Yvonne begins to tell us. She remembers an anecdote from a rather funny situation: "Grandpa had left the car on the road because it was going nowhere, there was no petrol, there was nothing left. When it got quieter, we had to go and get the car. My mother was a nurse, so she had a priority card to get petrol. I can't tell you how hard that was!" 

There is a short silence when I ask what they associate with the term power. “ I can't answer that, no, I don't know," Yvonne says. "For me, power has something to do with influence”. Because when you have power, you can influence other people.“ „But who is powerful?"asks Yvonne. With this remark, Emmanuelle recalls her earlier journalism classes. "There are what are called group leaders. Each person chooses their group leader or option leader who influences them in a certain topic or in general in a good or bad way,""I don't have a group leader, neither then nor now," Yvonne replies. "I belong to the influenced generation", Emmanuelle answers without hesitation.

Mit einem Knopfdruck sind beide Geschichter weg und ich komme wieder in meine eigene Realität in dem Hostel in Chisinau zurück.