Amuse-Bouche No. 19: La paperasserie (red tape)by Julia Frey(julia.frey@aya.yale.edu)How do you say “Catch 22” in French?My husband and I need French permis de conduire (driver’s licenses). Makes me nervous. French paperasserie (red tape) is notorious. Of course, bureaucracy has a bad rep everywhere. Lately Le Monde discussed the nightmare of trying to pay a fine in Russia. And we won’t even mention the U.S. Immigration Service. Besides, what am I afraid of? A recent sondage (poll) says “73.2 pour cent (%) des Français” are proud of their fonctionnaires. The five to six million employées of la fonction publique (literally: public functioning), who represent 20 to 25% of the working population of France, are a class act. Civil servants run all government agencies, from la Poste (the post office) to the Elysée Palace, including hospitals and l’Education Nationale. Access to these jobs is exclusively by competitive exam and includes lifetime job security. The French consider this le rêve (a dream job).Still, it’s a love-hate relationship (“je t’aime moi non plus”). Look up bureaucratie in Robert’s Dictionnaire. First definition: “l’influence abusive de l’administration” (misuse of official power). Napoléon’s improvement on the centralized administration inaugurated by Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, was to give local prefects executive power, thereby attaching the hands of petty bureaucrats to the long arm of the nation. Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929), twice prime minister, noted humorously, “France is an extremely fertile country: If you plant fonctionnaires, what grows is taxes”. He further commented, “Fonctionnaires are like books in a bookcase. It’s the ones on the top shelf that get the least use”. Maybe that’s why fonctionnaires are called ronds de cuir (literally, rounds of leather). A rond de cuir is a cushion shaped like an inner tube, for people who’ve developed hemorrhoids from sitting too long.But back to our driver’s licenses. First stop, la gendarmerie (police station), where a smiling fonctionnaire leans toward us conspiratorially. “Don’t get a permis de conduire”, she says. “Just use your foreign one. We don’t give traffic points to non-French licenses”. I’m astonished to hear an official suggest using the “système D” (for débrouillard -- i.e. finding a clever, but unofficial way around a problem). But what if we have an accident? Answer: The insurance wouldn’t pay. So we’re off to the sous-préfecture for licenses, bringing the required papiers: passports, photos, current driver’s licenses, birth certificates, and preuves de domicile (proof of address).It’s a little like the supermarché fish counter: take a number, faire la queue (wait in line). Our turn finally comes. The fonctionnaire just needs to verify la réciprocité. Quoi ? Since there’s no national U.S. driver’s license, France requires a separate reciprocity agreement with each state. Only some states have them. Auguste has a New Jersey license. New Jersey n’est pas sur la liste.“So what should I do?” he asks.“You have to go to driving school”, she says, “then pass a driving test”.“But I passed my test in Holland when I was 18 years old”.“Why didn’t you say so? France has réciprocité with les Pays-Bas”.Auguste tossed his expired Dutch license years ago. Pas de (pro) blème. Just ask Dutch authorities to document you’ve had a license. At gendarmerie, declare license lost. At préfecture provide documentation and declaration, plus self-addressed, stamped envelope. Eventually you’ll get French license.My turn. Colorado has réciprocité. Extra (extraordinaire, great) ! I sail through, pocketing temporary license and providing SASE. Envelope arrives—no license. Inside, letter requesting copy of my titre de séjour (long-stay visa). Wait a minute! As the non-working wife of a European, legally I don't need a visa. But in l’administration, sometimes the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. The legislation is complicated, and fonctionnaires famously devise information au pif (by nose, i.e., by the seat of their pants), or worse, à la tête du client (depending on whether they like your face) Four email exchanges, five trips to the wrong offices, and no official can help me out. Everyone says something different. C’est Kafkaïen (Kafkaesque). Finally they insist I get a visa anyway. Want to say “Catch 22” in French? Try cercle vicieux or situation inextricable.I wait for hours outside the préfecture for a chance at one of the 49 daily appointments to apply for long-term visas. The 293 people behind me in line don’t get one. I show the fonctionnaire all the required papiers. “Mais où est votre mari ?” My husband? I didn’t bring him—“Il n’est pas sur la liste !”If you can’t fight city hall, make fun of it. In Paris as I write, not one but two comedies mock civil servants: one about a fonctionnaire who wants to organize a general strike so he can go to a soccer game, the other a revival of Georges Courteline’s 1911 play Messieurs les Ronds-de-Cuir.
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Comments

  • I like how you use the word malheur everything becomes so relative then, (smile)
    thanks
  • That's my opinion as well-- in France, with the système D, at lest sometimes you can CUT the red tape. Not in the US, the country which invented "Catch 22" (see below for meaning). I have to admit I didn't know you couldn't get a SS# if you weren't working -- malheur !
  • Not any better in the US for us French. Unless we have a social security #, which we are not allowed to have as non-working spouses, no drivers license, not the right to open a bank account, etc. etc. I actually think we get it much worse than foreigners in France... with the only difference that there things being more arbitrary and flexible, sometimes you can get lucky. Here in the US it is by the book 100% all the time even when it is completely absurd.
  • Merci Blog Hogger. A hug from the blogger.
  • Le 22 à Asnières, c'est un des grands classiques de Fernand Raynaud, dont le charme est particulièrement désuet. Malheureusement, je n'en trouve qu'une très mauvaise version sur DailyMotion et une, qui a l'air très bien mais qu'il faut télécharger pour 1,50€, sur le site de l'INA: http://www.ina.fr/divertissement/chansons/video/I06268515/fernand-r...
    Ceux qui ne connaissent pas Fernand Raynaud peuvent facilement découvrir d'autres de ses sketches, gratuitement. Personnellement, j'ai un grand faible pour "Les croissants". Peut-être parce que c'est presque du Raymond Devos?
    Le 22 septembre, c'est une chanson de Brassens.
  • Thanks, Claude L. for the explanation of the title Catch 22 . I'm delighted to know. And I haven't got a clue what your other references mean... so I hope you'll elaborate. As for hogging the blog, I want more people to join us in the search for a funny translation of "catch 22" into French!
  • Il y a aussi le 22 à Asnières ... Je suppose que les jeunes ne connaissent pas et ne comprendraient pas. Et "Le 22 septembre, aujourd'hui je m'en fous", de Brassens.
    Why 22? For what it's worth, see "Explanation of the novel's title" in Wikipedia
    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catch-22#Explanation_of_the_novel.27s_...)
    Sorry, Julia, for hogging your blog!
  • Discussion très intéressante. Pourquoi 22 et non 24 ou autre chose? En français il y a quelques chiffres privilégiés dans les expressions populaires ou orgotiques, ce qui fait que le Dreigroschenoper de Brecht devient l'Opéra de quatre sous (et non trois). Il y a souvent 36, et le 22 apparaît dans l'expression, passée de mode me semble-t-il, de "22, les flics!"
  • Merci, Claude L. pour cette limpide explication de "Catch 22", expression qui ne peut être évidente, même pour l'anglophone (et meme si on connaît le roman).
  • Ah, non, messieurs Collins et Robert! "A tous les coups on perd", c'est "a lose-lose situation", où on a LE CHOIX entre des lignes de conduite qui mènent toutes à l'échec. Avec Catch-22, on n'a pas le choix, IL FAUT remplir simultanément des conditions incompatibles, ou remplir des conditions dans un ordre impossible. Avoir à la fois la poule et l'œuf, mais ça, ce n'est pas une expression. C'est pourquoi nous n'avons, à mon avis, encore rien trouvé de mieux que "cercle vicieux" et "quadrature du cercle", expression dont le côté oxymorinique lui donne un net avantage sur les autres. Mais merci pour les suggestions, et continuez à chercher!
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