In England we have faceless bureaucrats and are regularly menaced by the overbearing bureaucracy of Europe. Whilst I have frequently had cause to resent these absurd and unfair tabloid labels, at least they demonstrate that, in England, it is understood what administration should be: a means to an end. It is only the excess of paperwork, or the excessive zeal of people employed to administer it, that we dislike.
In France, however, the thicket of papers that you have to negotiate to do anything at all is so dense that it is very easy to lose sight of your goal in the process. Indeed, it is my impression that many French bureaucrats have indeed forgotten the point of the administration they are involved in, and for them it has become an end in itself. I could give you many examples of this here but in most cases, my account of the tortuous processes I have followed just to register my existence here would, like the processes themselves, send you to sleep. I give you, therefore, a relatively tiny example from daily life.
Near me, as in most communes in France, there is a wonderful thing called a “centre de loisirs”. This is an association that provides children with short, flexible, interesting courses, or “stages” to occupy them during the school holidays. In the winter break one of my daughters will do five afternoons of rock-climbing whilst the other does an art course. Such stages are remarkably inexpensive, and many people pay for them with vouchers provided to them by their employer. The association is unquestionably a good thing.
The whole purpose of the association is to make busy parents’ lives easier during the lengthy school breaks. By logical extension, therefore, registering for a stage should be a straightforward thing for busy parents to do. Such was my naïve thought as I embarked upon the process (yes, yes, after an entire year here, you would have thought that I knew better…).
At first I was impressed: registration took place online. Being organised with a slightly competitive streak, it came naturally to me to find myself at the computer at the specified hour (9am) on the specified day (a Tuesday) to register the girls for the courses that they had chosen. It was a good thing that I did so because, even as I rushed to click the buttons for the appropriate choices, I watched the number of places available melting away before my eyes. By the time that I’d completed the right number of clicks there were just two places remaining for rock-climbing and one for art. I heaved a sigh of relief: at least I had got the places that I wanted, even if there had been one or two heart-stopping seconds along the way.
But if I thought that I had completed the process, I was sorely mistaken. Just as I was congratulating myself on my efficiency, I was sent an email confirming the choices that I made. At the bottom of this email was a list of 18 points to which I needed to place close attention because, unless I did so, the places that I had cyber-bashed everyone else out of the way for would no longer be mine. I had to print out the email that I had been sent. I had to await a further email containing a bill for the total amount payable, and that, too, needed to be printed out. I then needed to assemble a proof of address dated within the last two months, two cheques (one for each child, of course), and a passport photo of each of the girls. Once I had assembled all this material I had to render myself to one of three named locations (I had to check the lists to find out which location was suitable for a person living in our village, because I would not be received at either of the others) on one of three specific named days between 4.30pm and 7pm. I had to take the entire “dossier” of papers that I had accumulated with me. If I did not show, or did not show with the correct paperwork, the places would be given away to someone else.
Needless to say, when I rendered myself and my bulging dossier to the appropriate location at the correct time on the first of the correct days (I had learnt something from my time in France after all), a woman, who was far from friendly, looked me up and down, perused my papers at some length and then practically barked the word “certificat” at me. It transpires that what she wanted was a doctor’s certificate (costing 40 Euros, a cost the French state would have to bear, presumably for thousands of children across the country wanting to do stages in their holidays) stating that my oldest daughter was fit to do rock climbing. No, this could not be provided at a later stage. So I had to take my deficient dossier away; obtain a doctor’s appointment; take my daughter to it; obtain the (meaningless) certificate; insert the certificate into the dossier; return to the specified location within the specified hours on one of the two days immediately following with the dossier; and start the ratification process all over again.
Oh, I’m sure those stages will be worth every single calorie of energy that I burned in securing them.