A qualified success

The last time that I visited my coiffeur— let’s call him M. Ciseaux—I was not in search of un nouveau re-looking so much as a further iteration of my Frunch ‘airdoo, which helps me to blend in around these parts. M. Ciseaux begged to differ. Almost as soon as I crossed the threshold, his lip had begun to curl in distaste. Self-consciously, I slunk across the floor and settled myself in front of the mirror. He lifted up tufts of my hair, looking at them with such undisguised horror that I began to question whether perhaps I had acquired some poux, or had only dreamed that I had taken a shower the night before. After a dramatic pause, during which I wished to evaporate, he asked, mais qui, QUI, a fait cette espèce de coupe ?

Busted! Or, as they say here, prise la main dans le sac. It is perfectly true that, just two months previously, in seeking out household economies I had decided to try out one of my two local coiffeurs, both of whom are cheaper M. Ciseaux. The result was not delightful, but neither was it upsetting, and though I had decided that perhaps I might not go back, I had got through eight weeks without giving the matter much more thought. Now that M. Ciseaux had a sharp implement next to my head, however, the matter assumed a greater importance.

It took but a minute for me to confess to my crime. Doubtless my disloyalty stung a bit, but M. Ciseaux seemed far more concerned by two other issues. Firstly, there was the question of how I had managed to survive eight weeks in un tel état catastrophique (answer: just fine, although now I was beginning to worry that I had been walking around looking like Worzel Gummidge). Secondly, it was utterly incompréhensible to him how anyone could possibly have got their diplôme if they went round cutting hair in such an incompétent manner.

At this point I compounded my original error by remarking blithely that there were diplômes and diplômes, and that not everyone could be as doué as M. Ciseaux. I have heard tell that flattery gets you everywhere. Well, not chez le coiffeur, as it turns out. A diplôme, you see, is a diplôme is a diplôme is a diplôme. It is the État Français, no less, which awards professional qualifications, and one would very much doubt that the Président of the République, follicly-challenged though he may be, would dish out hairdressing qualifications to any old sheep-shearer who showed up.

When I made my flippant remark, I had temporarily forgotten that all who wish to succeed at French life must defer to, and live within, a cadre. It all begins when French children rentrent dans le cadre at school, and progresses through coche-ing administrative cases, to its apotheosis which comes with the attainment of a profession: the ultimate cadre, which, whether you are a surgeon, a charpentier, or a leader of men, requires you to be diplômé d’État in a highly specific and prescribed manner.

It is easy enough to forget this overriding need for a specific diplôme for whatever job you do when you are a blundering étrangère. In the UK it remains true that a music degree from a good university can see you through a successful career managing domestic water supply, being a diplomat, or marketing bleach. Here in France your music degree will earn you the right to be… drum roll please… a music teacher. Oh, only if first you sit a number of ferocious academic exams, for without a CRPE, trusting you near even a single pupil would be pure madness. With a CRPE, whether or not you have any aptitude for teaching (about this the CPRE s’en fiche), you are qualified to teach them in their droves. It’s all in the piece of papier, you see.

Me, having blown up lots of balloons, for which I am not qualified, sporting a haircut from someone who was qualified to provide it.

… which all explains why, each time I tell my French friends that I have taken on a new work project, their eyebrows shoot skywards. I freelance for two different media organisations here, having worked only in the public sector in the UK. For me it is a chance to use existing skills in a new context, and to acquire different ones, and I relish my good fortune in having been afforded the opportunity to do so. For some of my French friends my switching trades like this is nothing less than systemic vandalism.

That said, however gung ho about my lack of relevant diplôme I may be, after my latest appointment with M. Ciseaux, I can tell you that I will never, ever, try my hand at being a coiffeuse.



To help me in my forays into professional domains where I have no right to be, please feel free to share this post with anyone who you think might like it… Thank you!


23 thoughts on “A qualified success

  1. Love this Emily. I do get a lot of satisfaction telling French people that while my degree is in Spanish, I work in Sales & Marketing via TEFL teaching, the travel trade, events management and hospitality & catering. And le voilà, here I am!

  2. Almost inevitably, there are arguments on both sides. Though I presume to teach and write about the law – admittedly in a very small area – I always have the nagging feeling that, because I never did a proper undergraduate law degree, I’m a bit of an impostor. I do know quite a bit about the area I work in (or I hope I do) but what I know about (eg) equity or evidence & procedure would fit on to half a sheet of A4.

    On the other hand, however wonderful the French school system may be, the French universities – barring the Grandes Écoles, which are hors classe – don’t have much of an academic reputation outside France. If you look at the QS World University Rankings for 2016-2017 there are 18 UK universities in the top 100 but only two French ones: the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris and the École Polytechnique. Both, as it happens, are Grandes Écoles.

    Admittedly, university rankings are not definitive; but the disparity is quite surprising. Could it be that obsessive specialisation means that there isn’t much cross-fertilisation between disciplines?

    1. You’re absolutely right about the poor world ranking. Perhaps it is the lack of cross-fertilisation but I think it is also the “Cartesian” (French characterisation, which is endlessly debatable) insistence on knowledge rather than understanding. To become qualified is a very Gradgrind procedure in France, whereas in the U.K. We spend a lot of time admiring the scenery so probably inadvertently spot things others might miss. But, fundamentally, I don’t think it’s only a question of academics. An “Anglo Saxon” boss is willing to give me a whirl and see what I am capable of. A French one cares not a jot about my competences but everything about my certificates. It’s an issue of perspective in other words. As for your lack of qualification, well, pah.

  3. The requirement for diplômes is frustrating indeed, because it make it difficult for workers to shift to new opportunities in the economy. And the tests and certificates are even more specific than what you mention here–for example, it isn’t enough to be a native English speaker with a degree in education and experience teaching in order to teach English. No, there are different certificates for different teaching situations.
    To Frank Cranmer, part of the reason for bad French university ratings is the criteria used. For example, citations by faculty–but papers in English dominate. The biggest criteria is academic reputation, which seems to be self-reinforcing.
    As for hair dressers (or even opticians, as I’ve learned), they diss the local competition. Better to say you got your hair cut while on vacation.

    1. I’d go even further than you. It’s not just not enough to be a native speaker to teach, it’s irrelevant. To teach English nobody cares if you speak it well, or teach well, but if you have the certificates, well, fine. Thanks for dropping by!

  4. Yes, structure and rules abound even before you get to the professional qualification. This was one of the factors influencing our decision to relocate back to Australia so that my oldest daughter could finish her schooling there. The choices of Bac S, L or ES were limiting for a child who was not convincingly science-oriented and who, although by then fluent, had not grown up in the world of French literature. Her subject choices in Australia were happily inclusive of subjects in each of these possible Bac programs.

    1. Yes. Before arriving here we blithely thought sticking the kids in French school would be like sticking them in any old school. Not so. Thanks for dropping by.

  5. Being a Continental – or a bloody foreigner, if you will – in the UK this is one of the things in which the UK scores an easy wind over France or Italy. With obvious exceptions (pilots, nurses, brain surgeons come to mind) you don’t need *that* degree to be doing *that* particular job; the UK knows that and thrives; Europe doesn’t, and in the job market I think it’s struggling.

    I’ve been coached in airline operations by a lady sporting – pun intended – a degree in psychology of sport; I’ve dined with history majors turned traders (who unfortunately were a bit of a bunch of arses) and so on. All this would be unthinkable in Italy, and it’s Italy’s loss.

    Bonne chance in Lyon!


    1. Yes, I tend to agree that it’s Europe’s loss. In the end it has to be about whether someone does the job well or not. I don’t understand why France (or Italy) has not yet worked this out. Thanks for dropping by!

  6. A good haircut is a good haircut I agree, and everything else is just a cut. I’m in-between hairdressers and it’s the most awful thing, it looks ok in the salon and somehow a few weeks later it’s uncontrollable and I end up hacking it myself. Which of course makes it worse, especially when i manage to find someone that’s actually spotted that I have, although of course I blame the cut! Thanks for sharing with #PoCoLo

  7. Ugh it’s so true – your life path is practically determined for you when you choose your Bac! Okay, I exaggerate, but that’s why we came back to California this year – we both knew we would never be able to do anything different as long as we stayed in France. Don’t even get me started on the ridiculous exams for teachers that don’t involve teaching!!

    Your anecdotes always crack me up! I love “follicly-challenged.”

  8. I first came across the rigidity of French career paths and qualifications when I first moved to Paris. I worked for a British recruitment agency and naively set out saying to bright young (British) grads that they could start off as an admin assistant and work their way into management as their French got better…haha, could they just! I soon learnt that once an admin assistant, always an admin assistant, never manager. And it frustrates me even now 20 years later! Finger on the ball as usual Emily, thanks for linking up to #AllAboutFrance

    1. Ouch! Yes, that must have been a tough lesson. And a frustrating one for the people you were helping. I wonder if it will ever change? #AllAboutFrance

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