It is a term that was thought relegated to history books and centuries past. However, France still has servants, in full-time service to the ultra-rich few. A coexistence between diametrically opposed social classes with a very special professional and intimate relationship studied by the sociologist Alizée Delpierre. For years, she rubbed shoulders with this environment and conducted hundreds of interviews with the people involved. A play that she gave the first book of hers, serve the rich (La Decouverte Edition, 2022), published in September.
For 20 minutesthe sociologist looks back on this profession truly unlike any other.
What would be your definition of a servant?
Maid covers a large number of tasks and professions: cook, butler, maid, driver, babysitter, laundry, etc. If the majority of the servants are women of immigrant origin, working class and with little qualification, in this wide range of trades other profiles also intervene: men, white people from the middle class and with more qualifications.
What makes maids who work for the very wealthy unique is both the great diversity of tasks they take on, and their place of work: the private and intimate employer’s home which, a priori, is not a workspace like the the rest . The servants reside there full time, most sleeping and living in or near their employer’s house. This employment status distinguishes them from the domestic workers, childminders and housewives that we see more commonly in our societies.
His book evokes cases of employees who get up at night at the request of their employer, work tens of hours in a row, or seven days a week… Is all this really legal?
It is completely legal and framed to employ someone in your service in France. It is possible to declare domesticity, make employment contracts and there are specific collective agreements. This does not prevent a large number of overtime or under-the-table tasks from being performed. This is not just the will of the ultra-rich; servants also find interest in this undeclared work. Both sides play with the law.
Sometimes there are totally illegal situations, cases of violence, physical, moral or sexual aggression, but this is not representative of the majority of cases. However, these situations are not insignificant: they reveal that the home as a workplace is particularly conducive to slippage, since it is a closed place, often considered a place of anarchy, and in which the labor inspection does not penetrate. .
Additional tasks and undeclared work have consequences for the physical and mental health of the servants.
What vision do the servants have of their profession?
The servants are taken by what Pierre Bourdieu calls the illusion : they and they believe that the game is worth playing because in the end, there is a chance to benefit from it. There is a real fascination with the wealth of their patron, and the servants are well aware of the material and symbolic rewards that their profession confers on them.
Symbolically, they actively participate in the social and economic success of great fortunes, and materially, the salaries of servants can be very advantageous (2,500-3,000 euros), sometimes even considerable (8,000-10,000 euros), not to mention the numerous gifts, being fed, bleached, housed in sumptuous surroundings. They reach a level of life never before known.
Does the almost permanent coexistence between the employer and the employee in the same household not disturb the bond at work?
Proximity to the employer creates true bonds of friendship, attachment and even love. Many servants proudly told me that they were part of the family of their employers and that they were very attached to them, despite the sometimes difficult working conditions.
It is an unlikely coexistence between social classes to which everything opposes. This working relationship cannot be sustained without emotion, it is also intimate. The servants know a lot about their boss, for example they have already seen him naked, sometimes they handle his papers, they have direct access to his privacy. This helps to excuse certain behaviors of your employer: “he was angry that day”, “he is sensitive”, “I know him well”, etc.
The rich also have an intimate relationship with their servants, delegating what is most precious to them, in particular the education of their children. The servant is very often a confidant. I remember an aristocrat telling me about her childhood nanny, she had tears in her eyes and considered her a real mother.
Isn’t all this intimacy risky in a professional relationship?
This relationship can cause forms of disappointment for the servants. Especially since the ultra-rich often manage to put them in their place and remind them that it is not because they are part of the same family that they belong to the same social class. There is a fear among the rich to risk a mixture of class, race, gender, the fear of a change in the balance of power. This fear drives them to regularly and abruptly distance themselves from their servants.
I have the example of an employee fired overnight after five years of impeccable work, for accidentally breaking a crystal glass. Another had been banned from swimming in the owner’s pool after being allowed to for years, with no explanation. More frequently, the unwarranted step from familiarity to familiarity is taken, to restore distance.
We talk a lot about the intimate, but what your work shows is also a depersonalization of the server…
It is very common to see the boss call the maid by a name different from her own, in order to reduce her to her function and annul her identity. Some ultra-rich even assign a specific name per position: each person who works in this position receives the name in question.
How does the maid manage to find her way between her social life and her professional life?
Most of the time, they abandon their social life. Most of the employees are very devoted to the employer, the extra social life is reduced to a few hours a week, or even the extra life does not exist. Most of the time, housework takes priority over the rest.
What do servants bring to the ultra-rich?
The servers cover two needs. The first is a symbolic need, that of showing, by having servants, that one has economic capital and power. As one would expose his Ferrari, one ostensibly shows his servants.
But the servant has a real use: to get rid of all binding tasks. The servant thus allows the reproduction of the elites. No ultra-rich could grow his wealth if he remained CEO of his company while he raised his children, cleaned his house, and cooked. What the maid offers through her services is time that the rich can devote to whatever they want, particularly their work. The lifestyle of the ultra-rich is not sustainable without servants.