You’ve been framed

My first French payslip took a long time to come through. After a few weeks I made anxious representations to the responsable. It transpired that my bulletin de salaire had twice been despatched but on both occasions had been returned to sender. In an attempt to resolve this mystery, my home address was read out to me. It was correct. Having expressed some bewilderment about this sudden reluctance of the postman to deliver my mail to my regular address, I was shown the returned envelope as proof of good faith on my employer’s part. There was the explanation in black and white. It appeared that my payslip had been sent to one Emily Mason, a person with whom I was once very intimate, but who had carelessly exchanged her surname for that of her husband a good eleven years previously, and who had been neither seen nor heard of since. Given the French penchant for inexact addresses, rendered more specific only by the name of the person in question emblazoned on the mailbox, it was hardly surprising that Emily Mason’s payslip had not been delivered to Emily Commander’s address.

The problem was seemingly a straightforward one: someone, somehow, had got hold of my maiden name and had wrongly used it on my payslip. Logic dictated that the solution should be correspondingly simple. My name should be corrected on the system and henceforth all my payslips issued to Emily Commander.

Unfortunately, however, Emily Mason had become firmly lodged within the logicel used by payroll. How had this happened, I asked innocently? Why, because the logicel was a logicel français and thus bound by the unbending rule that working women are administered to under their maiden names. It was therefore quite simply impossible for my married name to be used for the purposes of my pay. There was no such box (for mad Englishwomen) available in the logicel. This was all well and good for the French if they wanted to proceed in that way, I protested, but I was British; my name had been Emily Commander for eleven years; and no logicel in the world was going to convince me to revert back to Emily Mason. And so the discussion went on.

The result? Well, the result was that, ten minutes later, the logicel still adhered stubbornly to its principle of paying a person who no longer existed, and Emily Commander still adhered stubbornly to her name. And so we seized upon the only working solution available under such circumstances: Emily Commander’s payslips were from that point onwards delivered to her pigeon hole at work, still addressed to Emily Mason, though no longer causing confusion to the poor postman.

In English we might give this as an example of “computer says no” syndrome. In France, the situation with which I was confronted might be called a cadre. This is a word which has manifold nuances depending on the context, but which, insofar as any such Gallic notion is translatable into Anglo Saxon, I will translate here as “framework”. In English, we might talk about taking a picture to be framed, in which case what we would expect would be that a frame would be custom-made to fit the dimensions of the picture in question. We might also talk about a framework for a project, meaning a skeleton plan around which we intended to work, but which could be modified as the project took shape. In France, a cadre works in precisely the opposite way. You take a frame and you slash the picture down until it fits. You establish a cadre for doing something and you stick to it with grim determination, even if events, logic or pure pragmatism suggest that you should be doing otherwise.

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Any account of French bureaucracy is necessarily littered with instances of the cadre into which any given situation does not fit, but is nonetheless required to fit. Simply taking maiden names as a starting point, there is the example of my carte vitale, a small piece of plastic that enables me to gain access to free healthcare. The arrival of this essential item was delayed by nine tedious months because I was unable to furnish any proof of my most recent UK address which bore my maiden name. Tirelessly I explained that this was because I had not used my nom de jeune fille in the recent past (a condition that seemed logical enough as I had not in fact been a jeune fille for quite some time). Tirelessly officials required this non-existent document of me nonetheless. Just when I thought that we had reached an impasse and I would be doomed to pay in full for all my healthcare, some kind or negligent official took pity on me and stepped outside of their cadre for long enough for my card to be issued.

A friend of mine who recently arrived in Lyon from Australia has a similar tale of being required to produce non-existent documentation. After several attempts to take delivery of a container holding all her family’s belongings, she found her efforts being blocked because, to fit within the cadre set down for the delivery of personal possessions, she was required to produce some sort of certificate from her Australian Town Hall declaring that she had definitively packed up and left. Patiently she explained that she could not produce the certificate because no such certificate existed in Australia. Without it, officials less patiently explained to her, it would be impossible to deliver her container. Once again, this sorry state of affairs persisted until finally, ouf, one day the container abruptly turned up, presumably at the behest of some seriously rebellious pen-pusher.

I shall stop there. I have reached my self-imposed word limit; it’s getting late; and, in any case, I think that this blog post is already pretty impressive work for a person who does not exist.

Back to the grindstone

French newsreaders have a perplexing habit of pausing in the middle of a news item before accelerating breathlessly at the end into the start of the next one. Thus a report on the siege of Paris by Breton tractors can morph mid-sentence into an interview with a Star Wars fanatic. I am regularly so baffled at such moments that I find myself musing on whether perhaps it is a deliberate tactic deployed by French radio to ensure the constant disorientation of non-native speakers.

Accustomed as I have become to such periodic non-sequiturs, this morning I assumed that I had again muddled two separate news items together when I heard the newsreader mention la rentrée and les Bleus in one short breath. As far as I was aware, the former referred to the beginning of the school year, whereas the latter referred to the French national football team. Rien à voir, as the French say. Presumably I had missed the moment of transition between current affairs and sports reporting. But no, just as I was once again seething about the journalistic conspiracy to outwit foreigners, the newsreader made a second reference to la rentrée des Bleus. This was, it turns out, a news item about the return to work of the French football team.

Hang on a minute: did this really mean that, whilst the English football team were limbering up at the start of their football season in August, les Bleus had been casually sunning themselves on the Riviera? Shouldn’t they at least have been juggling a football or playing piggy-in-the-middle, or something, to keep themselves on cup-winning form? Besides, every time the newsreader repeated his reference to la rentrée des Bleus, I could not shake the absurd image of a football team trouping into class en crocodile and reluctantly doing its dictées on newly-purchased miniature whiteboards. La rentrée was for children, not for millionaire ball-kickers… surely?

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I should not really have been at all surprised. In France, after all, the flip-side of the entire population vacating its collective post for the month of August, is that, in the first week of September, nobody is exempt from the rentrée. My GP may not have had to traipse around the supermarket equipping herself with a suitcase full of supplies (from pencil cases to kitchen roll) as my children did, but she, too, had her rentrée this week. (Presumably during the three preceding weeks her patients had taken a holiday from being ill.) I myself attended a day of work at the lycée where I teach that was entitled la rentrée des profs. I am only just recovering from my shock at discovering that it is on that day, one day before the arrival of all the pupils, that many institutions recruit new members of staff; allocate teachers to classes; and finalise timetables. So much for our Anglo-Saxon notions of careful lesson planning.

Of course, no self-respecting French noun would miss an opportunity to create some paperwork, and la rentrée is no exception to this rule. Thus I returned from a month in which I was expected to achieve nothing—indeed could achieve nothing because everywhere was closed—to a stack of documents which needed to be filled out tout de suite. On Tuesday I spent a happy evening completing the dossier de la rentrée for the girls’ school, in which I made a note of the persons authorised to collect them from school in five separate places and listed my telephone number six times. I tried to have a fond grumble about this at the school gate on Thursday but was met with blank looks. Presumably in a few years’ time I, too, will become inured to such bureaucratic burdens.

Next week, in order to secure our family’s participation in various extra-curricular activities, I will attend numerous appointments with chequebook at the ready for the payment of annual cotisations, registration fees and course fees (three separate cheques required, obviously). I am already preparing my spine for the strain of lugging round an endless supply of passport photographs, stamped-addressed envelopes, and medical certificates pronouncing us all fit to swim, dance and play jenga. After all, why carry records over year-on-year, if you can experience the euphoria associated with a blank page at the rentrée?

Now that I am getting the hang of this rentrée malarkey I think that, next year, I’m going to apply the principle of a month’s holiday followed by a glorious return to the job of parenting. If the French can manage without doctors, lawyers and teachers for a month, surely the children can manage without us over the same period…

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Clueless expats like me will be glad to learn that the French Government offers plenty of advice on preparing for la rentrée.

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