Sunday, February 5, 2012

A waste of trees

It is a truth, universally believed, that French bureaucracy is the worst of all European administrative systems, created and run by overly clever, under employed people.

Some early examples: some thirty years ago an official wanted to know how many books we had brought into France – do you know how many books you own? But he insisted on a figure. So, with gestures, I indicated the length and height of our bookcases. We looked at each other and then compromised on a figure. Rule one: answer the question even if the answer does not bear much relation to reality. A box ticked, is a box forgotten.

Then I was in the driving licence issuing offices of the Perigueux Prefecture for about the third time, getting yet another driving licence for my dearly beloved but document careless husband. After some while I was received at the counter where I duly handed over the dossier, copies of passport, birth certificate, utility bill, cheque (and probably a few papers). The lady recognised me from previous visits. Listen, she said, when you get the new driving licence photocopy it, we can issue new licences upon presentation of photocopies. Rule two: keep a photocopy of all possible forms of identity document.

We wanted to build a half way decent stable for Clea's retired horse Diva Bella, as temperamental as her name would indicate, and friend. Unfortunately the square metres involved meant we had to apply for planning permission. The latest planning permission rules demanded that new constructions be within x metres of existing ones because local utilities would have to supply water and electricity – at their cost. It was no use screeching that we were not offering showers or TV's to the horses, a rule is a rule. In desperation I went to the Mairie with my problem. The Maire's attitude was quite simple: if you won't get planning permission, don't ask for it, if anyone bothers you, refer them to me. Rule three: make sure the town hall is OK with what you are doing.

The upper layers of the French administration have an obsession with micro-managing the country and the firm conviction that they are clever enough to
envisage every possible situation and eventuality. One size fits all. Fortunately
for France, the lower, rural layers of its civil service are essentially pragmatic. It is they who make the perfect systems work, tie a knot and get on with it.

An excellent example was the simplification of postal addresses for rural areas. It was decided that each village or hamlet would depend upon the post-code of its nearest large post office. So our village, St Aquilin, would carry the post-code of St Astier and addresses were simply: - name, street or hamlet, village and post-code of St Astier. (Compare that to English rural addresses.) All admin computers were duly re-programmed. However, actually on the road, a few of the St Aquilin houses (including ours) were served by another post distributing office with a different post-code, an affair of logistics. It has taken years to get flexibility into the admin computer systems. Meanwhile our post was shuffled between the two distributing offices, passing our gate each time.

Max Weber (1864-1920) the German sociologist and highly reputed scholar of all matters administrative has been quoted as saying that bureaucratic administration is 'domination through knowledge.' He also saw bureaucracy – though the most efficient way of running a country – as a possible threat to individual freedoms. And a threat to our freedom is what we are experiencing now. Some young civil servant, in the labour service, is trying to make our loss making small holding , with its one employee, conform to all the rules and regulations created for larger entities. One size fits all. Our opinions, ways of doing things, don't matter. The rules do. I had better go visit the Maire again and cry for help.

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