It’s All Gone A Bit French


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.

6 comments on “It’s All Gone A Bit French”

  1. Well, as one of these uniformly lazy, corrupt and dumb French civil servants, I’m certainly delighted to read this carefully-worded and, no doubt, meticulously-researched blanket statement. Thanks, Chris.

  2. admin says:

    I didn’t say I agree with it, I’m just feeding back the article, which originally came from the French press. Plus, from my own experience of dealing with the French banking system, still sending statements to the wrong address after three years of my complaints.

  3. Yes. French banking system. Excellent choice of French civil servants. ^________^

    Considering you begin by denouncing “practices of rank thievery” in “French bureaucracy”, you may not have said you agreed with it, but you certainly stacked the deck from the start. As for the article appearing in the French press, yep, I know, I live in France. There’s a massive waste of all sorts of resources in French government, both national and local, and it’s currently coming to a head in a string of long overdue scandals. But to report that by using the blanket appellation of “French civil service” over this is a rather fast and loose generalization.

  4. admin says:

    Fair point, Patrick. I’m sure there are some very efficient, hardworking people there just as there are here. But we have a long happy history of ‘Frog Bashing’, just as you have with ‘Les Rosbifs’. I’m happy to generalise about the English – see my ‘Crap At Sport’ piece!

  5. Helen Martin says:

    And we can all come up with lack of follow through at all levels. My high school, in the late fifties, never spelled my last name correctly. I pointed it out year after year but even when I won a book prize(!) the ex libris label was filled in incorrectly.
    We constantly hear complaints about “lazy teachers” with their “excessive” time off and short working hours, but when you ask for an example the complainers can’t come up with one since they won’t describe any of their acquaintances that way. The response is always, “There are bound to be exceptions.” The people on the criticized side should also remember the saying, “No smoke without fire.” The woman in question was writing about her own experience and feeling that she and her colleagues were an unfair drain on the public exchequer. I know of teachers who took advantage of their hours in improper ways, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to create an ugly incident that wouldn’t change anything nor be ‘sent to Coventry’ as they say. I imagine you could do the same, Patrick. It all ends badly, with strict controls on everyone’s movements unless things are cleaned up from inside. I don’t know how to handle it without having colleagues ratting each other out, though.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I wonder if Aquitaine would be different if England had held onto it. Oh, dear, that opens a whole different can of worms, doesn’t it?

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