Bureaucracy in France has a formidable reputation. From personal experience, I’d say it’s entirely justified. My thesis though, is that it’s actually an art form. Bear with me as I explain.
I’m still trying to apply for child benefit. It’s the only state help we’re seeking, and that’s largely because we have two children with big feet, even bigger appetites and a great long list of supplies required for school. I dutifully informed HMRC that we’ve moved, so have received nothing from the UK government since 2018.
We’ve lived here for nearly two years now and the visit to CAF (Caisse d’Allocations Familiales) was one of the first I made. Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve been continuing to supply the documents that I’m asked for, seemingly at random, online.
That’s the first element of artistic expression: creating a list of forms to request. This could be anything from a birth certificate (no not that one madame, it doesn’t list your parents’ names and every pet they’ve owned since childhood, please try again.) It could be your marriage certificate or your tax return. Nowhere, that I’ve found anyway, is there a complete list of everything you are required to submit.
I thought I was nearing the end of the process. Having submitted everything I could conceivably think of at least twice, surely there couldn’t be anything else? That’s the next part of the creative process. Ask for documents, receive documents and then cultivate an absolutely bland expression (easier before masks were obligatory I grant you) while you state that the documents are still missing.
So I’d reached the end of the line with things that could be achieved during pre-lockdown meetings and I’d reached the end of the line with uploading documents on the website.
Some of this I know is down to my lack of understanding of the wider social context in France. I don’t know exactly which part of the site to visit because I don’t know if I’m changing or updating my situation. I suspect this is another aspect of the art form, by keeping it all amorphous and ensuring the boundaries are fluid. I can’t be sure though, so I may be attributing a creative process to something that is governed entirely by logical reasoning.
I decided I would try to ring someone. And I must say there is a distinct lack of creativity in this part of the tale. I’m English. I know this because almost every time I speak to a stranger here, they either tell me I’m English or start speaking in English. I think this means I have an English accent and the automated telephone system lacks the imagination and flexibility to account for this. I dread the French equivalent of the phrase, “tell us in your own words why you are calling.” I can usually jump the first few hurdles but inevitably it either fails to understand me or asks a question that I can’t reply to.
And here’s where it gets creative again, involving me in an inner exploration of my sanity and an outer exploration of the locality. I decided I needed to speak to someone, so I tried to find out where my local ‘permanence’ or outpost was, as I’d previously been visiting one in the next town. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds and I came up with two potential locations. The website told me in no uncertain terms that I could not visit without an appointment but, in a stroke of sheer genius, did not include a link for booking appointments or a phone number to do so. And I wasn’t going to phone anyway. I’d tried that.
So I turned up at the first potential location. It was wrong, but I was given an address and directed to a location I did know. That too was wrong and, in fact did not match the address. I think you’ll agree that’s inspired.
With the help of Google maps, I found the correct location. The door was locked, because you can’t get in without an appointment and it didn’t list CAF as one of the options available. So I phoned the only phone number given. This time I spoke to a human person but she wasn’t from CAF so was unable to help me at all, despite the fact I told her I was standing outside the office just trying to make an appointment. In desperation I banged on the door. The human person who appeared almost instantly was the one with whom I’d just been conversing on the phone. I think she could probably see me outside the window the whole time. Again, I think you’ll agree this is artistic expression of the highest order.
To cut short a very long story, I finally managed to make an appointment and presented myself to a different permanence today (the local one was closed over the school holidays, because it caters to parents, many of whom will find that the most convenient time to visit. Again, brilliant.)
The man I met with was polite and helpful and a true artist. It was clear that there was a lot of documentation missing. Eventually we established what I needed to supply. (It was, of course, paperwork I had not been asked for before.)
Some of the things he asked for I had with me in anticipation, but he wouldn’t allow me to give him copies at that point. Instead I have to upload everything to the website. But not today. I have to wait until tomorrow to do that. I don’t know why. There probably isn’t a reason anyway. It’s just another artistic flourish.
I’m getting wise to the way the performance unfolds here. (I feel like I’m at the end of Act Three in a very modern play that only the cleverest people in the audience understand.) So I asked the man if he was sure that what he was asking for was absolutely everything they needed in order to process my claim. After tomorrow obviously.
At this point he uttered the word that always strikes fear into my heart: ‘normalement’. What this means roughly is “under normal circumstances yes, this is all fine, but this is France, so random bureaucratic and frankly artistic elements can be thrown at you at any point without warning.”
I asked him, on the off-chance that this would happen and that I could possibly forestall it, if he’d just check for me that they had everything else.
This is where the performance to date peaked. It’s just beautiful. They’re missing my tax declaration and the certificates proving our children are in school. These are not missing because I haven’t supplied them. No, the absolute circular beauty of this unending work of art is that they’re missing because a whole year has passed since I first supplied them. They’re out of date.
I’m trapped in an art installation that I fear I will never escape. And all I can do at this point is admire the creative genius.