petite anglaise

January 19, 2005

the first strikes of 2005

Filed under: french touch — bipolarinparis @ 1:18 pm

Marching season has begun again, despite the rather cold weather we are having.

Public sector employees (fonctionnaires) from the SNCF (French railways), EDF (Electricity board) and La Poste are striking this week in protest against the right-wing government’s ‘policies of economic liberalisation’. Or rather, they are protesting about how the policies may affect them. More specifically, they would like higher wages and reassurance that the government’s loosening up of the 35 hour working week legislation will not apply to them. Well, wouldn’t we all?

Call me selfish, but I find it hard to have much sympathy for French civil servants. Not because when they strike it is a battle to get to and from work and I don’t receive any post. Althought that clearly doesn’t put me in the most sympathetic frame of mind. Not because in general they work far fewer hours than people employed in the private sector, have a job for life and get to retire at least 5 years earlier, on a better pension. Even though they make smaller social security contributions.

The thing that really gets on my nerves is the fonctionnaire attitude I have had to deal with time and time again. Public service would appear to be a misnomer. Take the lovely staff of the main Préfecture in Paris whom I first encountered when applying for my carte de séjour (residence permit, no longer required for EC residents, and not before time). I presented my paperwork, with the requisite sheaf of photocopies, at the front desk. This hurdle down, I was allowed to take my numbered ticket and move into the waiting area, where I soon realised that there were approximately fifty people in the queue before me. I wished I had the foresight to have prepared a packed lunch, a thermos of tea and a good book.

Of the ten booths, two were actually manned (or womanned) by sour faced civil servants, and the simple form filling procedure appeared to be taking at least ten minutes to complete. And the other members of staff? Well, they were out of sight, but within earshot. I could hear one lady talking about her holiday plans, another moaning about being overworked, and the tantalising sound of a packet of biscuits being passed around. It was 10.30am. The department had been open for half an hour. And they were already having their first coffee break of the day.

When my turn finally came, two and a half hours later, I was bemused by the suspicious attitude of the person who received me. As a citizen of the EU, it wasn’t strictly legal for the French government to demand that I carry an ID card of any kind, and my right to live and work in France was indisputable, card or no card. However that didn’t stop the lady across the counter from being snappy, impatient and downright unpleasant. I think she enjoyed wielding some sort of (imaginary) power over applicants, making them sweat a little at the prospect of being escorted onto the next flight back to their native country because they only had two passport photos instead of three, or their utility bill was not recent enough. I hardly dare imagine how the people in the adjacent room (for applicants from African countries) were being treated.

The Irish girl in the next booth to mine was told by a weasel-faced man that she didn’t have enough photocopies of her utility bill. The solution to this insurmountable problem? As the coin-operated photocopier in the waiting room was out of order, she was dispatched off find a functioning copier elsewhere in the building (without directions), and then she would just have to take a ticket and wait her turn all over again. She left, close to tears.

As for me, my application was processed. The next step was that I would have to come back again, in two month’s time, to take another numbered ticket and wait my turn to actually receive the attractive, plastic covered card.

After this and countless other soul-destroying exchanges with French civil servants, I find myself struggling to have any sympathy for the ‘plight’ of the nation’s fonctionnaires.

How heartless of me.

28 Comments

  1. I too struggle with sympathy and feel no guilt for this. But if you want bureaucracy nightmares try italy for worse.

    Last year the several days of metro strikes meant that day one I was rollerblading to work and it seemed like fun (my office then was the more glamorous George V location than the St Ouen/93 of today).

    Today I bribed my unemployed other half to drive me to 93. The periph this morning was amazingly clear. The frog’s suggestion was that people took the excuse to stay home rather than go to work…

    Comment by l'oiseau — January 19, 2005 @ 1:52 pm

  2. My God, Petite, you expressed my own feelings to the nearest sigh of resignation. As I sit translating in my garrett (sob, sob!), I’m on the path for every ‘manif’, and it makes me smile wryly about those with the luxury of time, job security and and sheer gobsmacking cheek to demonstrate demanding more job security, better pensions and continual wage increases. And thanks for the tip about cartes de sejour, mine ran out last October and I’ve been DREADING the queues at the Prefecture! Yours in disillusioned grumpiness, bordering on the shame of right-wingness…

    Comment by Jim in Rennes — January 19, 2005 @ 2:31 pm

  3. Teachers, doctors, nurses, researchers, … they’re all civil servants AS WELL. You shouldn’t forget those (hard working !) people maybe…
    And no they don’t have a better pension, and they earn far less money than someone working in the private sector. Although I’m not saying their life is bad.
    And if I got it right, the current strike from postmen is to protest agains the privatisation of la poste, isn’t it ?

    Comment by kiara — January 19, 2005 @ 2:53 pm

  4. Kiara – I do have some sympathy for the people you mention, which is why I didn’t single them out. But my respect for striking teachers will probably evaporate when I am faced with taking unpaid leave from work to look after the Tadpole while they go on strike.

    I am undoubtedly guilty of oversimplifying the situation. My reaction is not necessarily rational or justified, it’s just the unfortunate result of being a non-French person and having had to take on the bureaucrats once too often.

    I note that 65% of French people are supportive of the industrial action. All I can say is, if they don’t like what the right are doing, why the f*@$ didn’t they vote for Jospin as President?

    Jim – A new French law, 2003-1119 of 26 November 2004, lifted the requirement for EU nationals (including British passport holders) wishing to reside in France, to hold a Carte de Séjour. The only annoying thing is that since it is law in France to carry ID (and you need ID to write a cheque), legally I should be carrying my passport instead. Allegedly you can still get a carte de séjour if you want one, but in practice I know people who tried and were told they no longer issue them for EU citizens.

    Comment by petite — January 19, 2005 @ 3:11 pm

  5. Hey Petite,

    Gosh, in November, when I was applying for my new carte de sejour, one under the “married” status, I recounted in the my blog the horrors of dealing with immigration bureaucracy in France. I won’t go into the details, but I believe the word “f@ck” is plastered over thirty times in that one post alone. And, I still have to deal with the misery… so, I’m definitely not on the side of immigration fonctionnaires.

    However, I will say that the sweeping changes to how companies treat their employees regarding pension funds, is something that should scare people, that should make people stand up and protest. Imagine, you work the majority of your life, maybe you’re not the greatest, but it’s still the majority of your life, and finally, when you’re old and incapable of working, you’re forced to live off a small pension, borderline poverty in what is already a depressing time in anyone’s life. I can’t say I’m against their protesting against that. And, it only foreshadows the way non-civic companies will pull their pension plans.

    Comment by nardac — January 19, 2005 @ 3:40 pm

  6. For the 2002 elections nightmare, on the first round, only 19% voted for Chirac. Globally the left wing candidates received more votes but then the maths didn’t work.
    Just like in the USA, elections can become a messy business in France too.

    Comment by Chninkel — January 19, 2005 @ 3:49 pm

  7. Everytime I see posts like this, I thank my lucky stars that I had such an easy time to get my titre de sejour. We did so much research before I even moved here, that the hardest part was waiting the 20 minutes in line. They were so surprised to find an American here that they were very nice and we sailed right through.

    As for the strikes… my husband is a teacher and will be on strike tomorrow. The school will be open, and not all the teachers will take the day off, so the children will still be cared for. From my limited understanding of why they are in strike, it’s something I can get behind and I support him.

    Comment by ViVi — January 19, 2005 @ 4:32 pm

  8. And I did cry that night, when I saw the results of the 1st round… (although I didn’t vote for Jospin, you don’t have to be pro-Chirac or pro-Jospin, there are alternative choices !!)

    But you’re right about the frustration while waiting in many administations. I’ve had to immatriculate a car many times, and I know how long it takes when they’re having a coffee break… I just wanted to stress out that it’s unfair to put all the civil servants in the same basket. :)

    Comment by kiara — January 19, 2005 @ 4:34 pm

  9. Doh! Now I feel like a running dog of heartless capitalism. I do have sympathy for some of the causes being fought. But why is it strike now, negotiate later? And where can you take a Bac+4 in Surly Studies like they have in Post Offices? I’ll shut up now!

    Comment by Jim in Rennes — January 19, 2005 @ 6:13 pm

  10. Fonctionnaires, apparatchiks and civil servants from everywhere, seem to be a breed apart.

    There is a silver lining, however.

    WE, are not one of them, and thus they provide us with a reason to feel superior (of course, we are!), no matter how upside down our lives get.

    So, with those mindless minds that mind the store, in mind, I say, Vive la difference!

    Comment by Sigmund Carl and Alfred — January 19, 2005 @ 6:25 pm

  11. Well, it is always nice to find commonality with our French cousins. The immigration bureaucracy here in the US must train their employees in the same procedures as in France.

    Comment by Chuck Welch — January 19, 2005 @ 6:35 pm

  12. I can relate, Petite! Because my father and my grandparents were born in France, I *can’t* be rejected for a French citizenship, and yet the process has DRAGGED ON interminably.

    It’s such a cliché–the lazy government employee. I didn’t want to see it proved true, and yet, and yet. I saw so much fecklessness, and unecessary “power” lording , and can you tell I’m pretty passionate about this?!? Grrr.

    Tune in to my blog Thursday to see if I leave the Embassy with French citizenship, folks.

    Comment by Coquette — January 19, 2005 @ 7:17 pm

  13. Yes it’s awful in Italy. Have they done away the requirement for EU citizens yet over there?

    Comment by Piccola Inglese — January 19, 2005 @ 7:47 pm

  14. Comment on Vivi’s post,

    It’s not out of lack of research that those bloody bastards lost my application in the Prefecture of the North, where everytime I had to do something I waited outside in the cold, for over 5 hours. Nor is the situation much better in paris, though the waiting time might be under 5 hours. However, if I had researched better, I would have moved somewhere else besides Paris or the North, where immigration seems to be on some sort of mad out of canter balance with the number of fonctionnaires budgeted to work there.

    STILL GRUMPY! Harruumpph! where’s my scotch?

    Comment by nardac — January 19, 2005 @ 9:34 pm

  15. I now see where Quebec gets its bureaucracy from: France!

    Quebec has the most bureaucratic provincial government in Canada, as experienced by a business person who tried to open up a small factory in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia. He gave up in Quebec.

    Comment by Bob Yu — January 19, 2005 @ 10:39 pm

  16. piccola inglese – doesn’t that mean petite anglaise in Italian?

    And L’Oiseau has her very own Mr Frog.

    Parallel lives.

    Comment by petite — January 19, 2005 @ 11:37 pm

  17. Coquette – wow, you are going to be French. Maybe you could apply for a job as a fonctionnaire?!

    Comment by petite — January 20, 2005 @ 12:04 am

  18. Piccadilly line, Dec 24th… wasn’t the strike wonderful dear?… the day where thousands of people were going to Heathrow for Xmas, twas such a brilliant idea… Oh and those poor tube drivers are paid 35K and a have more holidays than any of us, bless! Even the French fonctionnaires are not that stupid and not that well paid!

    if the French ‘rebel’ by striking maybe it is simply because they’re not herd of sheep… and what about the privatisation of transports in the UK? Seen the mess recently? Seen the cost of travelcards too?

    Comment by anonymous — January 20, 2005 @ 2:17 am

  19. Well ,just to put things into perpsective, here in New Zealand I had to queue many many times for up to 7 and a half hours once from 5am in the morning to get to see an immigration officer. The whole process to get my residency has been such a hassle, so “ubuesque”, so complex and so expensive (around 2000 euros per person) that I could make a book about it.
    I did think the French administration (and I want to make a difference here between administration and other civil servants like Kiara) was the worst in the world until I lived in Greece and now in New Zealand. A chacun ses defauts :evil:

    Comment by Maurine — January 20, 2005 @ 3:22 am

  20. I didn’t know about not needing a carte de sejour anymore either. My second :!: one runs out soon and now I won’t need to do battle to renew it although I’ll probably need to keep on carrying it as ID. The address on it is out of date as was noticed by an extremely polite fonctionnaire de police who stopped me at 3 am one weekend last year. He said he’d overlook it as he found nothing else irregular about my papers, car or even my breath but I could be fined for this offence.
    Incidentally what papers does Ms Tadpole travel on? My French-born daughter’s nationality was decided in a panic just before we took her to England for the first time, simply because getting her her own French passport was a quicker option than having her put on my British passport.

    Comment by Parkin Pig — January 20, 2005 @ 10:54 am

  21. You don’t need to be of french nationality to apply for a job as a fonctionnaire. It’s opened to anybody !! :)

    Comment by kiara — January 20, 2005 @ 11:16 am

  22. Concerning residency in Italy, EU citizens still need a carta di soggiorno, one grade up from a basic permesso di soggiorno. This has to be applied for at the local Questura (police headquarters) within 8 days of your arrival in Italy.
    Note that there is a cunning little Catch 22 in the system these days, namely that to get a carta di soggiorno you need to show that you have health cover; and to join the Italian national health system, you need a… carta di soggiorno. So the only way round is to arrive in Italy with either an E111 or private health insurance.

    I have never bothered with any of this paperwork in 2.5 years of living in Rome.:mrgreen:

    Comment by Ria — January 20, 2005 @ 11:50 am

  23. Tadpole has a British passport (she has to have her own, a five year kiddy one that cost a fortune) with a pic of her when she was too young to even hold up her head on it. And a French carte nationale d’identité.

    When she travels abroad with me I always use the Brit passport as strictly speaking because our surnames don’t match I could encounter problems with French customs if I don’t have some paperwork proving I am her mother/a letter from Mr Frog authorising me to take her out of the country.

    But using the British passport they don’t give a toss.

    Comment by petite — January 20, 2005 @ 2:58 pm

  24. I too have experience of the sullenness of fonctionnaires in the local commune offices with their inimitable stench of trepidation blended with stale cigarette smoke in neighbouring Waffleland. To be honest, however, I suspect that by way of compensating for their country’s insignificance, the Waffelian counterparts to the officials petite describes are even more sour and unpleasant.
    Nardac, in response to the latter half of your perceptive comment, allow me to quote from my second favourite French sociologist, the sadly missed Pierre Bourdieu, firstly from the essay The Myth of ‘Globalization and the European Welfare State:
    “I’ve used the word ‘globalization’. It is a myth in the strong sense of the word, a powerful discourse, an idée force, an idea which has social force, which obtains belief. It is the main weapon in the battles against the gains of the welfare state. European workers, we are told, must compete with the least favoured workers of the rest of the world. The workers of Europe are thus offered as a model countries which have no minimum wage, where factory workers work twelve hours a day for a wage which is between a quarter and a fifth of European wages, where there are no trade unions, where thereis child labour and so on. And it is in the name of this model that flexible working, another magic word of neo-liberalism, is imposed, meaning night work, weekend work, irregular working hours, things which have always been part of employers’ dreams. In a general way, neo-liberalism is a very smart and very modern repackaging of the oldest ideas of the oldest capitalists)”.
    He brilliantly conveys the corrosive social effects of the systematic undermining of job security in all sectors of the economy:
    “It has emerged that job insecurity is now everywhere: in the private sector, but also in the public sector, which has greatly increased the number of temporary, part-time or casual positions; in industry, but also in the institutions of cultural production and diffusion – education, journalism, the media, etc. In all these areas it produces more or less identical effects, which become particularly visible in the extreme case of the unemployed: the destructuring of existence, which is deprived among other things of its temporal structures, and the ensuing deterioration of the whole relationship to the world, time and space. Casualization profoundly affects the person who suffers it: by making the whole future uncertain, it prevents all rational anticipation and, in particular, the basic belief and hope in the future that one needs in order to rebel, especially collectively, against present conditions, even the most intolerable.
    Added to these effects of precariousness on those directly touched by it there are effects on all the others, who are apparently spared. The awareness of it never goes away: it is present at every moment in everyone’s mind (…). It pervades both the conscious and unconscious mind. The existence of a large reserve army, which, because of the overproduction of graduates, is no longer restricted to the lowest levels of competence and technical qualification, helps to give all those in work the sense that they are in no way irreplaceable and that their work, their jobs, are in some way a privilege, a fragile, threatened privilege (as they are reminded by their employers as soon as they step out of line and by journalists and commentators at the first sign of a strike). Objective insecurity gives rise to a generalized subjective insecurity which is now affecting all workers in our highly developed economy”.
    Furthermore, as he goes on to point out (like the previous quote in his essay Job Insecurity is Everywhere Now):
    “Casualization of employment is part of a mode of domination of a new kind, based on the creation of a generalized and permanent state of insecurity aimed at forcing workers into submission, into the acceptance of exploitation”.
    Although Bourdieu has a lot more to say on the topic, I do not wish to tax petite’s patience too much.
    In closing, a brief word to Sigmund, Carl and Alfred: it is intellectually dishonest to lump all civil servants together in one category, labelling them as a “breed apart”. At the risk of sounding as if I am on the defensive, I am proud to be a European civil servant (perhaps the most despised category of official this side of the Pond), having hauled myself up to the ranks of an elite from very humble origins. For many years I was a single parent and it was precisely the prospect of a stable income and an indefinite contract that attracted me in the first place. We do not sit behind guichets and treat members of the public with contempt and I am not aware of any of my colleagues who do. Beware of sweeping generalisations!
    P.S. For anyone interested, the Bourdieu essays are published in a collection entitled (in English translation) Acts of Resistance (Polity Press, Cambridge, 1998).

    Comment by Chameleon — January 20, 2005 @ 3:14 pm

  25. Hi Chameleon – I love the way you raise the tone of this website. Maybe some of your intelligence will rub off on me along the way.

    I feel less guilty about not having the time or inclination to post today now that there is a post-sized comment for you all to mull over…

    Comment by petite — January 20, 2005 @ 3:44 pm

  26. whoooaaa! nice mega comment there Chameleon. yeah, Bourdieu, I miss him too. I saw his grave in Pere Lachaise and it’s sad to see how there is nothing left on his grave. Maybe you already know him but if you want to hear even more depressing comments about the nasty effects of neo-liberalism, and general ideas on materialism and working culture, get some Raymond Williams.

    My god! I do need a drop of scotch now.

    Comment by nardac — January 20, 2005 @ 5:19 pm

  27. Re. your last comment, Petite: it’s funny how laid back UK citizenship can be (although it’s not so funny if you come from one of the countries on the “white” list [sic]). My kids have dual nationality, British & Dutch. But don’t tell the Dutch authorities ‘cos they don’t allow this, the UK consulate in Amsterdam warned me. Like you, I have a different family name from my partner, but get this: our kids have a Dutch passport in one name and a British passport in a completely different name. Noooo problem for us, said the UK consulate.

    Comment by Ria — January 20, 2005 @ 11:53 pm

  28. At least you get a number! My experiences here in Poland would have been 1000 times more pleasant had we received numbers. Instead, everyone hovers around the door of the appropriate civil workers’ office, having a vague idea who’s next and who exactly precedes you, with no way to protest officially when individuals skip line.

    I recall standing next to the door when a gentleman from Austria stepped in front of me, mumbled something to me in completely incomprehensible Polish, and then walked on in.

    The trick: get there at least half an hour before the office opens (i.e., at six in the morning) and be almost aggressively assertive.

    Comment by Gary — January 21, 2005 @ 2:54 pm


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