I think, therefore I am

Back in May I launched a belated campaign to replace my UK driving licence with a French one. I blame my uncharacteristic procrastination on bureaucratic fatigue, aggravated by having witnessed Eadred’s tribulations upon attempting this particular démarche.

It just so happens that, between Eadred’s attempt and my own, France had shifted from one administrative ice age to the next, meaning that the transfer of my European licence could now be effectué-d sur ligne. Youpi I hear you say. Well, not quite. The first démarche (there are always several) may have been sur ligne, but the subsequent ones required me to print out a chunky dossier and send it off in a specific pre-paid envelope to a conventional boîte aux lettres somewhere.

It took me about a week to summon the energy to complete this tortuous process, but the envelope was duly posted. Since then there has been a resounding silence. As I have now grown weary of carrying my passport around as a form of identity whenever I have a package to collect from the floriste, I decided to investigate the fate of my hapless dossier.

Since we are in the âge de glace de l’internet de la cinquième République, I decided to try to obtain the necessary information by glaring at my computer screen. The service-publique.fr (a misnomer if ever there was one) website helpfully took me through a 625-stage identification process for accessing an account which would track my application for me.

When I finally clicked through to the relevant section of the website, I was informed that I had aucune application on record. Not to worry, I told myself – Britishly – I would simply locate the contact page and find the details for a person who could resolve the issue for me.

Pah. I spent the next hour merrily clicking through FAQs which told me variously that the state of my application would be indicated on my tableau de bord; that it could take between 12 weeks and six months for an application to be processed; and that I could e-mail them with any queries. I duly sent off an e-mail (or mél, as they called it). Within five seconds (quelle vitesse !) I had received a response telling me that I could now effectue my demande sur ligne and that therefore no further action on their part would be necessary. Gritting my teeth, I sent off a new mél under a different heading. Again, the rapid response, this time telling me that all the information would available on my tableau du bord and that, therefore, they considered that there was nothing further for them to do.

If you are feeling concerned for my blood pressure, please rassure-toi. Having lived here for nearly five years, I have mastered a certain French insouciance, and, in the manner of an over-fond parent, have even come up with a perfectly reasonable explanation for all such setbacks.

This is how the rationale goes (bear with me). France has lived through the Enlightenment (if any non-French readers are labouring under the impression that their ancestors, also, had lived through this experience, they should think again. Being enlightened involves the guillotine. Point. Any country that did not bloodily behead half its citizens is lost in the gloom of pre-logic). This momentous historical transition means that, whereas beforehand everything was barbarism, everything that France has done since is irreducibly rational (lesson one: reason is born of murderous brutaility). And, since reason is the beating heart of the patrie, then every act must be preceded, or indeed replaced, by thought (lesson two: the unenlightened act: the enlightened think). Lesson two can be extrapolated any number of times. Before a French child learns a musical instrument, for example they will do two years of tedious solfège (lesson three: the unenlightened play, the enlightened think about playing, etc).

From this fundamentalist philosophy springs an entirely theoretical realm, linked to, but independent from and dominant over, the realm of everyday life in which we actually live. A French citizen is two people: on the one hand a paper version defined by their bulletin scolaire, their carte d’identité and their tax status; on the other, the living, breathing human you might meet on the street, who may bear no resemblance whatsoever to their administrative alter-ego. This does not matter one jot.

Thus, if you apply for a job, the law says you will not be discriminated against: for this reason you do not declare your ethnicity, and nowhere are ethnicity statistics collected. No matter if your employer quietly discriminates against you on the basis of the photograph which you are obliged to stick to your application or indeed because of your ethnic-sounding name. In theory there is no discrimination on grounds of race, so there is no discrimination. When taking the test to obtain a motorbike licence, what matters is memorizing how many times you have to circle each bollard and in what order, not your level of proficiency in actually maneuvering the bike, évidemment. The rules say that every meal contains meat, and that one does not drink wine without eating a meal, so a vegetarian consuming wine, well, it’s, it’s… impossible.

Presumably this is why I was cheerfully informed by one woman, recently, that we’d be better off conversing in English as she was per-h-fectly floo-ent. She ‘ad a certifi-Kate. I, on the other hand, have no such document attesting to my French abilities. Zis iz why, I presume, heeven when I speak ze Frunch wiz no herrors, nobodeee will hever hunderstand me…