The English middle classes are in love with France. They eat the food, buy the houses and live the French life, until they get wind of how much it’s costing them. I did, too – but shedding my French connections has been, to put in mildly, a pain in the bum. French bureaucracy makes the Delhi railway service look like Apple. It cost me a fortune to finally free myself from what can only be described as practices of rank thievery. ‘It’s all gone a bit French’ is an expression we use to describe something that has become an expensive, not-very-good nuisance.
Now a new book has appeared which lifts the rock of French bureaucracy and exposes this viewpoint.
Incompetent, dishonest and lazy, rife with nepotism and wasteful of taxpayers’ money – that’s how France’s sprawling civil service is depicted by an insider who wrote about her experience of working five hours a week for a salary of €36,000 a year.
As a result, she now faces a disciplinary committee. France’s public sector employs 5.3 million people at an annual average cost of €40,000 each. With President Sarkozy desperate to reduce national and local government spending (56 per cent of the country’s total budget), the case has wideranging political implications. Bureaucracy is often hailed as the backbone of the French republican identity.
Zoé Shepard — her nom de plume — was suspended two months ago after her superiors in Aquitaine identified her as the author of Absolument débordée (Absolutely Snowed Under). The account is based on her time in French local government; notably in Aquitaine’s international and European affairs delegation, which employs 30 people to do almost nothing.
“There were far too many of us for the amount of work involved,” she told The Times. “In three hours a week I was finished.” She said friends and relations of councillors and high-ranking council officers were often recruited and given a glamorous title of chef de mission (head of mission). “But in fact the posts are hollow. The job is fictitious, there’s nothing to do and they spend their days on Facebook.”
Managers avoid work and ensure staff avoid it, too. On one occasion, a Monday, Ms Shepard’s manager complained that she had produced a report using the wrong typeface. The rectification on her computer required two clicks on a mouse — but he gave her until the Friday to complete the task.
A spokesman for Aquitaine said the book “damages our image and the honour of our staff”. Ms Shepard said she wrote it to highlight malfunctions in France’s public sector. Case continues.