Monday, February 8, 2016
HOW FRENCH BUREAUCRACY WORKS...REALLY
I am fond of saying that the French didn't invent bureaucracy but they did refine bureaucracy to a high art. And indeed, although the French economist Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay is credited with having coined the word, pejoratively at the very outset, there is convincing proof that bureaucracies predated the current French version by millennia. Why are our most common examples of ancient scratchings on clay tablets lists of mercantile goods or stockpiles in royal coffers if not for the overriding need of humankind to keep official records as though they had value in and of themselves?
We all hate paperwork. I get it. Damn those bureaucrats, keeping us buried in piles of paper so that they can draw a pay check. Petty. They find reasons to deny our most reasonable requests. Their rules are arcane, defying understanding. How wonderful life would be without those officious paper pushers.
You are wrong. Bureaucrats are your friends. Yes. I repeat. Bureaucrats are your friends. You just haven't been viewing them through the proper lens.
You see, you have the idea that bureaucracies are created to throw obstacles in the paths of the daily lives of ordinary citizens. Not true. Not at all. Rather, bureaucracies exist to confer power on the petty bureaucrat. That's the real secret. And though that sounds dangerous, think about it. The petty bureaucrat is so well versed in the confusing, often contradictory jumble of rules and regulations that they are charged to enforce that they know how to create any result, circumvent any prohibition. Approve any request.
Approve any request?
Yes. Approve any request. They just need a reason.
How does that work, you ask?
Well, 50 years ago in Mexico, it meant keeping a wad of money folded into your passport. If you had a problem with a functionary of the Mexican government, you would first be asked for that passport. You would hand it over, wad and all. It would be returned, intact but lighter. Papers stamped. Problem solved.
That was then. In Mexico. This is now. In France. I wouldn't try bribery. Nope. As tempting as it might be, I wouldn't. Here's what I would do, what I have done. I would contact a professional, someone with experience dealing with the bureaucracy/bureaucrat in question.
Money changes hands, it's true. But we're talking fee for service in the professional sense. Not bribery.
Case in point:
We are Americans. We don't have an EU passport, any EU identification cards, or any other form of paperwork that would ease us into the French social system. Our one saving grace is that we are of full retirement age. (Saving grace? Being old? Ah, well...) In theory, all that we had to do was to fill out the paperwork, make an appointment, and we'd be on our way. And how many times have you heard that? Rather, how many times have you heard the horror stories of dossiers thick and overflowing, of requests for more documentation and more documentation and more? And after not months but years, the desired result is still somewhere over the horizon? How many times?
We chose a difference route. We have an English-speaking French accountant - Sarah Vedrenne of AdviceFrance. We began using her when we bought our holiday house in 2005 and rented it out when we weren't using it. There's history there. so we called Sarah and asked her to assist us with our titres de sejour and our registration with CPAM. Sarah had us round to her office in her home up above Pezenas. She gave us a list of documents to bring including those that required an official translation. When we arrived, we reviewed the documentation piece by piece. We reviewed our American tax forms. We discussed what qualified as French income and what did not. Sarah made photocopies. We called the sub-prefecture and made an appointment. On the day, Sarah met us in the waiting room.
Now comes the good part.
When our names were called, Sarah greeted our examiner with a smile and a handshake. They had danced this dance before. Sarah not only had every document required but she had them arranged in the order in which the examiner asked for them. Question asked. Question answered. No muss. No fuss. No searching through files for that one particular, elusive piece of paper. Our two dossiers were opened, completed, and approved in less time than it took the single woman before us to complete her interview. Smooth as silk.
Having been approved for our titres de sejour, Sarah immediately filed with CPAM. Yes, a round or two of additional documentation was required. And yes, once approved we had to file a raft of paperwork to get refunds for our expenses back to the date of application. But less than six months after that application, our bank account was enriched by several hundred euros, the amount that CPAM covers for visits to the doctor and for our prescription meds.
Could we have done it by ourselves for ourselves? I have no doubt. Would it have gone as smoothly? Not likely. Was it worth Sarah's fee? Every penny.
Dress with respect, office casual. Smile. Be polite.
Hire a guide.