Jennifer Yee

A Visitor in the Land of the Enlightenment
Part 3: Catch 22

"Catch 22" is an American title, and presumably the concept is international, if not universal. The French language offers the term "cercle vicieux", but then so does English. Is it just because I have spent most of my adult life in France that the phenomenon feels so French to me? Or is there something special about the Gallic "cercle vicieux", something more circular or... more vicious?

One of the first of these "catches" I encountered in France was the source of great, though short-lived, anguish for me. One feels particularly vulnerable when attacked in the vital parts, that is -- in this case -- one's right to work, eat, study and breathe on the area of ground one happens to be on. And of course I was less accustomed to the Catch 22 syndrome at the time. This first catch caught me out when I tried to enrol in a PhD in Paris. After a few hours queueing at the service de scolarité of the Université Paris VII, I was able to get a "dossier", or a series of forms to fill in; a few days later I had assembled the necessary documents and brought the "dossier" back, and after a few hours more I arrived at the head of the queue again. No, said the woman-behind-the-counter: I had to have a valid "carte de séjour" (residency permit). -- Ah, I said, but the Préfecture de Police (where one gets these things) said I had to be enrolled as a student in order to get one. -- Perhaps, said the woman-behind-the-counter, but I can't enrol you unless you have a valid carte de séjour. -- Can the University give me an official paper saying that I can enrol as soon as I have my carte de séjour? I asked. -- No, she repeated: no student card until you have a carte de séjour. And of course, I thought, walking back out the door in a state of intense frustration due only partly to the hours I had spent queueing to get into the office in the first place, of course no carte de séjour until you have a student card.

In fact life is really very simple and all I had to do was return to the Préfecture de Police, queue patiently for the requisite number of hours in a room full of anguished, sweating foreign students (Question: Do foreigners smell? Answer: Yes; fear and anguish make you sweat) in much less comfortable situations than my own, and ask for a _temporary_ carte de séjour. With a one month residency permit you can enrol as a student, and once you have a student card you can get a year-long permit. If you time these things right, you don't have to go through as many steps the following year. What caused me unnecessary angst was that no one explained these things to me -- information being worth its weight in gold in France, don't expect anyone to give you any for free.

I encountered a similar catch at second hand when I went to apply for a work permit. To get one of these you have to go to the centre for the "main d'œuvre étrangère", or Foreign Work Office. I should have realised as soon as I got there that something was up: there were two counters, with two different civil servants behind bullet-proof glass, but although there was a very long queue at one counter there were only a few people waiting in front of the other. Foolishly, I stood in the shorter queue, and soon found out why people were avoiding it. There was a very small man behind the bullet-proof glass, and perhaps it was because of his height that he hated everyone in the queue so much, and the tall young black guy at the head of the queue in particular. In any case, since the (un)civil servant soon began to shout at the top of his surprising lung capacity, the problem rapidly became clear to everyone in the room except the person concerned: the African was asking for a work permit without having a contract from a potential employer, because the company that wanted to employ him insisted on him having a work permit before they would give him a contract. Perfectly simple, you say. Unfortunately, his level of French did not stand up to being bellowed at, and in any case the irate civil servant wasn't about to give him the information he needed for free.

By now you will be familiar with the sort of solution required: what he needed was a one-month work permit, enough to get a contract from his employer so that he could come back and get a real work permit for a year. But you can probably see why he would be tempted to work on the black market, avoid taxes and go underground.

Do not go thinking that only foreigners encounter these problems in France. From my recent years of involvement in the long-running farce they call the Education Nationale, I could give you many examples. So just one, to give you an idea... Several of my teaching colleagues are assistants, with a special status intended to give them work tutoring in the English department for a few years during their doctoral studies (officially this is limited to two years, while a thesis takes at least three and usually four, but don't start asking questions like that or we'll never get to the end of it). As employees, a portion of their salary goes in contributions to the "sécurité sociale" (National Health), which provides them with health cover for the year. The problem is, their contract as assistants doesn't start until the end of October, they have to be enrolled as doctoral students in September, and to be enrolled as a student you have to have health cover. Get it? They have to pay a student "sécu" (endearing nickname for "sécurité sociale") for the year, and then pay the obligatory monthly contributions as employees in any case, so that they are effectively paying twice over for 11 months just because of the one-month gap.

A purist would object that this last example isn't really a vicious circle. Nevertheless, there doesn't seem to be a solution for it, at least not to my knowledge. And the number of these "catches" or more-or-less closed circles that one stumbles over in France is extraordinary. As if getting anything done involves an obligatory period of banging one's head against a thick door... There are times when the whole country seems to work like that, and I am near dumb-struck with amazement at the fact that it continues to function at all. It's not just the complete absence of common-sense: the fact is that the administration is not designed with the intention of being functional at all. Perhaps it can best be understood as a natural organism that has evolved in a certain way mostly through chance and only slightly through natural selection. Why, you ask, didn't the natural selection work better? That is perhaps the great question: how does France manage to survive as well as it does? Surely the whole country holds together only by means of some long-term miracle.

Which reminds me of the old joke about Europe.
Q: What is European heaven?
A: The Germans look after administration, the English are the policemen, the French do the cooking and the Italians are the lovers.
Q: And what is European hell?
A: The English do the cooking, the Germans are the lovers, the Italians are the policemen and... the French look after administration.

Jennifer Yee