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.
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.