A few weeks ago, I went to our local pharmacie to pick up a prescription to treat a persistent cough suffered by the Curly One. My heart sank as soon as I caught sight of the person who would be “serving” me I this endeavour. Most of the women who staff this particular establishment are delightful and can offer advice on anything from nits to la peste, but this one employee has a face like a hatchet, and I always leave her company feeling both culpable and weak for having succumbed to a maladie.
(My relationship with this particular pharmacienne was doomed from the moment when, having braved my British reserve and looked up the French for “thrush” in the dictionary, I asked Madame Féroce whether she could sell me any sort of cream to deal with that type of situation. I was informed that non, such items were not available sans ordonnance. Not wanting to have to re-use my newfound vocabulary in front of a doctor, I unwisely revealed that in the UK such things were available over the counter. She took a sharp breath, looked at me as if I had leprosy, and said oui, c’est pour ça qu’il y a un problème avec la résistance aux antibiotiques. She strode off before I could point out that, though I was no scientist, I did know that the condition was fungal rather than bacterial, and that she was in no position to preach about antibiotic resistance, given France’s dominance of the league table for nugatory pill-popping. Since then the entente cordiale has dissipated rather.)
In France, as soon as you commit any medical act, either on your own behalf or that of your children, you are required to hand over your carte vitale. This is proof of your social security status and, amongst other things, will cover 70% of your prescription costs. The remaining 30% is covered by your insurance policy, if you have one, for which another document is required. When we first washed up in Lyon, the need to furnish these papers at regular intervals sent me into a flurry of nervous activity. Now thoroughly acclimatised, I enjoy waiting until I’ve seen the glint of triumph flare in the pharmacist’s eyes before I produce either document, and relish their visible deflation when they discover that this particular foreigner has all her papers in order.
On this occasion, my carte vitale was inserted into the machine, and the Curly One’s details flashed up on the screen. However, also on the screen was a little message requiring me to update my card, an occurrence that crops up about once a year. Je peux le faire pour vous si vous voulez, Miss Trunchbull said, with uncharacteristic generosity. Oui, merci, I stammered, taken back.
Big mistake. No sooner had my card been inserted into Attila’s little machine than plouf ! our daughters’ details disappeared. Without their names on my card, I no longer had no right to ask the State to stump up 70% of the cost of the several hundred medications that our doctor had suggested would be necessary to treat the Curly One’s mild cough. I was baffled: where had the names gone, and why? Behind the counter, Little Miss Sunshine was baffled, too. But the computer had said non, and there was nothing for it but to leave with my tail between my legs.
I went back home and phoned CPAM, the organ that had originally provided me with the card. After 20 minutes on hold, a chilly personage on the other end of the line finally told me that my social security was no longer chez CPAM but had been transferred to the RSI. How could this have happened, I asked? It had taken me nine months to convince CPAM that I was an actual person when we first moved to France because I was not in possession of a livret de famille, a document that all French people have, and without which it becomes much more complicated to do things like rent a house, claim insurance, or open a bank account. I had filled out countless dossiers to prove that I existed despite not having this invaluable little booklet. In that context, how could it be that, without so much as a little note saying coucou, we ‘ave dispensed wiz you, they had ejected me from their database. Ah, but you are now self-employed, madame, came the enigmatic response, and I was invited to contact the RSI for more details.
I duly telephoned the RSI. After a 15-minute wait listening to plinky French hold music, they told me to call another agency that I had barely even heard of, called the RAM. When I did so, and despite the fact that we had never corresponded or so much as exchanged the slightest of bonjours, the RAM confirmed that they were indeed in possession of my dossier and that, for some months, unbeknownst to me, they had been in charge of my social security. Mais pourquoi ? I asked. Because I was self-employed, came the response. Nobody ever told me that earning money all by myself would have this impact, I wailed. Well,madame could opt to switch back to CPAM if she wanted. How could this be achieved? Why, by filling out another dossier, enclosing a copy of my passport, birth certificate, and non-existent livret de famille, and sending it all to CPAM, of course.
In the meantime, how to address the absence of children on my carte vitale ? Presumably, I was told, madame had demandé-d that her children be removed at the moment that she asked to be transferred from CPAM. Well, no, madame had neither asked to be transferred, nor denied the existence of her own offspring, and it was bloody inconvenient actually. Tant pis, how could this mess be sorted out? Madame would have to call CPAM…
And so it came to pass that, having spent years striving to be accepted by the French bureaucratic machine, it appears that I have been swallowed up by it and am now chugging helplessly along a conveyor belt towards some acronym-riddled backwater where the very existence of my children may be called into question. In future I shall be more careful about what I wish for.
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