My new colleague in The Economist’s Paris office can’t understand all the fuss about French bureaucracy. He’s spent the past five years in India. If you don’t have to hire somebody to wait in a queue in order to find out what forms you need to fill in, before hiring that same person again to queue up with the forms once they have been filled in, then the system is efficient.
It’s true that in some respects the French administration is phenomenally well organised. In Britain, the summer for A-level students is routinely spoiled by the nail-biting wait for results. In France, the marking of the baccalauréat, the school-leaving exam established by Napoleon in 1808, is so swift that teenagers find out their grades within days of taking their final papers. I’m always in awe at the speed with which an army of 170,000 examiners churns through nearly 700,000 candidates’ exam papers by the first week of July. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing that French examiners value their holidays too.
But then, just as you are busy admiring the quiet competence of la bureaucratie, along comes a reminder that the French invented a term that means, literally, government by desks. A little while ago I went to the town hall to register my son, who has just turned 16, for his military service. Of course, it’s not real military service any more. That was abolished in 1997. But all teenagers, girls and boys, still have to spend a day with the French army, mostly learning about first aid, as far as I can tell. If you don’t, you can’t sit the baccalauréat.
Before turning up, I checked on service-public.fr, the French administration’s website, to make sure that he didn’t have to go in person. It was clear: any parent can carry out the registration, as long as the child is under 18. So I took along the required documents – his French carte d’identité, the family’s carnet de famille – and arrived during the hours indicated on the town-hall website. The office was shut.
I tried again the next day. The office was open this time. Three women were sitting behind desks, looking reasonably cheerful. There was hardly a queue. It all seemed promising. When my turn came, I confidently handed over my documents. “Ah non”, the lady behind the desk replied. All children have to register in person, because they need to sign the application. “But it says on the website that it can be done by a parent,” I ventured, rather pathetically. “Oh we know it does,” she shot back, “but it’s not true.”
So I packed up my documents and left (and my son did his own registration on Saturday morning). But it reminded me of the time I had to swap my old British driving licence for a French one – a little salmon-pink fold-out piece of card that doesn’t quite fit in a purse. This time the bureaucratic trail involved a visit to the préfecture. When I got to the front of the queue, armed with each document listed on the website, the same thing happened. “Ah non, but we don’t list everything we require online,” the woman stated. I thought I detected a note of triumph in her voice.
In that case, though, there was a sense of sweet justice about it. Once I had finally obtained written confirmation from the British driving-licence authority that I was still legally entitled to drive, and once I had got that letter stamped by a French lawyer, and once I had gathered together the various proofs of residence and identity, I took my dossier back to the préfecture. The application was accepted, and a few weeks later I was summoned to collect my new French licence.
When I arrived at the front of the queue, the woman behind the counter extracted the letter of authorisation from her pile, and stared at it. Something seemed to be wrong. She glanced up at me sceptically, and then at the document again. A colleague was summoned. The pair of them consulted the letter together, and scrutinised me again. I braced myself for the worst.
But then out of her drawer came a pink cardboard licence, with my photo and details. The woman unfolded the inside page, which lists the different categories of vehicle you are authorised to drive, picked up her rubber stamp, and vigorously started going down the list, stamping every category available. Heavy-good vehicles, articulated lorries, buses: you name it, I have official French authorisation to drive the lot. I was absurdly thrilled. As Adam Gopnik once wrote about living in France: “Parisians emerge from the government buildings on the Ile de la Cité feeling just the way New Yorkers do after a good workout: aching and exhausted but on top of the world.”