Friday, 7 June 2013

Fit for function

I was at one of the ‘Sauviettes’ gigs* the other day and during the break went out to take some air. I got chatting to a guy who I’d never seen before, (or since). After the usual, ‘how long have you lived here, where are you from questions, he said: ‘and what about the paperwork here? Most French people don’t understand it, so it must be a nightmare for you’.

France has an enormous public sector. Teachers, opera directors and about 30% of the working population are civil servants. I don’t want to put them all in the same category, but the un-promotable ones who do the worker-ant administration and finally hand you the obligatory piece of useless paper are almost invariably unpleasant.

Australia has its problems. You don’t say? Here, the problem is the bureaucracy, or rather the people who actually administer it; the ‘petits fonctionnaires’*. The people who work in these offices seem to have been chosen for their visceral loathing of humanity, rather than any competence.The main qualification required seems to be the possession of a deep seated and probably quite justified feeling of inferiority, thus allowing the person behind the counter to take out their impotent rage on any punter who happens to be trying to get a piece of paper which they don’t need.

I lost my car papers a while back and had to go into Nimes to the Prefecture to sort it out. The offices have the look of a refugee camp, with families with thermos flasks and kids running  about in the waiting throng. I always take a book on these occasions and try to find a quietish spot. My advice on choice of books would be nothing too short: Proust, for example.

Having taken my ticket and after a wait of a couple of hours, I finally saw my number flash up above one of the windows. The occupants of these booths are in glass cages. The woman on the other side, a vision in pastel nylon, regarded me with the disdain which one normally reserves for bankers or rapists. I dutifully handed her the required papers, one of which was a bank statement, with proof of address, which I’d taken from our post box on the way out. Unfortunately, we were going on a long holiday the week after, so there was a much healthier than usual amount on the account. She looked at it; ‘I’m not interested in your money’. Well, ‘bonjour to you too. Madame.

She sulkily shuffled the proffered paperwork and asked a few questions. I noticed that I couldn’t hear her very clearly. Four inches of glass protection made her sound like someone in a fish-tank. Of course being a foreigner gave her the opportunity to get even more sulky and the tone turned to patronising. No-one likes being patronised, but when the person doing the patronising, (the patroniser?), happens to be an oaf in a cage, it seemed to somehow compound an already strained situation. 

I had to ask her to repeat just about every question; always a problem in another language, as people immediately assume that you can’t understand. Try talking to someone who has their head in a bucket of water, and you’ll get the idea. Finally, she grudgingly stamped some documents and sent me to the booth next door, where a male counterpart; a downtrodden looking little man in a cardigan, sneered a bit more before handing me the required carte grise. 

This group of people in French society have a massively disproportionate amount of power.They often get their jobs through nepotism, (ask my niece), and are often required to do next to nothing. Of course the same people are normally rabidly nationalistic, but fail to realise that they are costing their beloved country a fortune.Unfortunately, they’re the ones who wield the rubber stamps. In a country which has talked about insecurité ever since I’ve been here, it is hardly surprising that the most insecure would want to spend 40 odd years of their lives in cages - the sort of people who find anything remotely outside the mundane to be a perilous adventure. You wonder what they do in their spare time.

The only real advice which I can give, should you ever find yourself in this situation, is to take some bananas and peanuts with you. Have fun, like the people with the kids and thermoses. It’s a day at the zoo. 

 *Bottom of the pile civil servants. Not a compliment.

  For more absurd facts about this unhappy breed:

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