Column: Paperwork and prolixity, or why France just loves its bureaucracy

Image credit: Aaron Logan

In France, it is fair to say that civil servants enjoy a greater level of prestige than is generally afforded to their British counterparts. Over here, grey suits and faceless cinder-block buildings tend to dominate public imagination, with pen-pushing in general seldom deemed a glamorous occupation. Yet as I open my tenth letter from the bank in what seems like as many days, it becomes clear that across the channel, excessive administration is very much de rigueur.

Indeed, no sooner had I arrived that I was blown over by a whirlwind of paper so fierce I never wanted to set foot in WHSmiths ever again. I know UCAS makes life pretty easy for us, but even so, I did not quite expect to be sharked quite so relentlessly by the bastions of bureaucracy that are French banks, bailiffs and insurance companies. Frankly, with that volume of parchment I had to sign in my first week, I could easily have passed for a venerable author parading their latest release — only JK Rowling does not have have to write "Read and approved" every time she signs her name. Nice try France, but forcing us already irascible students to spell out the terms and conditions won't make us actually read them. 

Changing country will inevitably lead to such paperwork, I hear you cry. Perhaps this is the case. However, it need not be so damned inefficient. To set up the equivalent of internet banking, you need about eighty-four different passwords, and as to pay rent via a monthly standing order would stray too close to common sense, you have to go to the central HQ instead and fill out the same form every two months. I could continue.

I will. As said HQ is by no means exempt from the French penchant for taking several hours off for lunch, there is always a long queue at the desk. And, when you finally get there, they will not have received your documents because, well, there are glaciers that operate more quickly than the Parisian mail system. Honestly, you'd be better off sending a pigeon.

However, all these perennial problems pale into insignificance when compared to the Herculean ordeal that is securing a phone contract. All I can say is that whoever coined the phrase patience is a virtue never chanced their arm against Orange France. First, you have to amass all sorts of hopelessly irrelevant information in order to prove your identity, such as bank statements, proof of English residence or even old gas bills. Just when it seemed I might have to fish out my Nectar card or perhaps my former Twitter password, I was mercifully allowed to proceed, but sadly, it was only temporary respite, for I was about to become embroiled in one of the greatest vicious circles since the days of chicken and eggs. For it turns out that in order to get a French SIM card, you first have to provide a French number. How anyone can do this, I can only imagine.

I have come to my own conclusion about all of this officious tomfoolery. The French simply adore their language, and want to parade it about whenever the opportunity arises. Recently, one of my lecturers made much the same point, declaring with great vigour that "In the France, it is the language that which rules!" Perhaps my translation leaves a little to be desired. Anyhow, the idea still stands: bureaucracy serves as a wonderful opportunity for linguistic pomposity, and consequently this aforementioned eloquence must be respected all across the administrative domain.

After all, we are talking about the home of l'Académie française, that wonderfully elitist organisation that makes Jacob Rees-Mogg appear somewhat progressive in comparison. For this ancient institution, in essence a glorified language police, systematically monitors word usage so as to prevent any changes to the way French is written or spoken. They constantly rally against spelling reform, and, fun fact alert, government officials caught using non-French words in their public missives are apparently liable to be prosecuted. All this is great news if you take particular pride in sounding like Molière, but if all you want to do is have your Erasmus paperwork signed, or indeed write a grovelling email to your tutor, it can be a veritable pain in the backside.

In terms of email etiquette, you just can't win. My first Cambridge supervisor reprimanded me for calling him Dr X — not least because that isn't his name — yet in Paris, I was informed that to use first names is such a flagrant contravention of that cherished principle of linguistic inefficiency that I may as well jump on the next Eurostar back. It gets worse. Asking a favour of whomever your missive addresses has to involve some kind of prolix preamble, usually along the lines of "I pray that you have the goodwill to consider…", and as for saying goodbye, well, you may as well say goodbye to the rest of the afternoon.

Having had the goodwill to consider the above, I have come to a sudden realisation. In France, even the flag is engulfed by red tape. Coincidence?! I think not.

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