My husband and I need French permis de conduire (driver’s licenses). Makes me nervous. French paperasserie (red tape) is notorious. Of course, bureaucracy has a bad rep everywhere. Lately Le Monde discussed the nightmare of trying to pay a fine in Russia, and we won’t even mention the US Immigration Service. Besides, what am I afraid of? A recent sondage (poll) says “73.2% des Français” are proud of their fonctionnaires. The five to six million civil servants or employés de la fonction publique (literally: public functioning), who represent 20 to 25 percent of the working population of France, are a class act. Civil servants run all government agencies, from la Poste (the postal service) to the Elysée Palace, including public hospitals and Education Nationale. Access to these jobs is exclusively by competitive exam and includes lifetime job security. The French consider this le rêve (a dream job).

Still, it’s a love-hate relationship. Look up bureaucratie in Robert’s Dictionnaire. First definition: “l’influence abusive de l’administration” (misuse of official power). Napoleon’s improvement on the centralized administration inaugurated by Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, was to give local prefects executive power, thereby attaching the hands of petty bureaucrats to the long arm of the nation. Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), twice prime minister, noted humorously, “France is an extremely fertile country: If you plant fonctionnaires, what grows is taxes”. He further commented, “Fonctionnaires are like books in a bookcase. It’s the ones on the top shelf that get the least use”. Maybe that’s why fonctionnaires are called ronds-de-cuir (literally, rounds of leather). A rond de cuir is a cushion shaped like an inner tube, a functional aid for people who’ve developed hemorrhoids from sitting too long.

But back to our driver’s licenses. First stop, la gendarmerie (police station), where a smiling fonctionnaire leans toward us conspiratorially. “Don’t get a permis de conduire“, she says. “Just use your foreign one. We don’t deduct points for infractions from non-French licenses”. But what if we have an accident? Answer: The insurance won’t pay. So we’re off to the sous-préfecture for licenses, bringing the required papiers: passports, photos, current driver’s licenses, birth certificates, and preuves de domicile (proof of address).

It’s a little like the fish counter at the supermarché: take a number, faire la queue (wait in line). Our turn finally comes. The fonctionnaire just needs to verify la réciprocité. Quoi? Since there’s no national US driver’s license, France requires a separate reciprocity agreement with each state in order to just exchange a US license for a French one. Only a few states have them. Auguste has a New Jersey license. New Jersey n’est pas sur la liste. “So what should I do?” he asks.

“You have to go to driving school”, she says, “then pass a driving test”.

“But I passed my test in Holland when I was 18 years old.”

“Why didn’t you say so? France has réciprocité with les Pays-Bas“. Auguste tossed his expired Dutch license years ago. Pas de ‘blème (no problem). Just ask Dutch authorities to document that you’ve had a license. At gendarmerie, declare license lost. At préfecture provide documentation and declaration, plus self-addressed stamped envelope. Eventually you get French license.

My turn. Colorado has réciprocité. Extra! (Extraordinaire, great) I sail through, pocketing temporary license and providing self-addressed stamped envelope. Envelope arrives-no license. Inside, letter requesting copy of my titre de séjour (long-stay visa).

Wait a minute! As the non-working wife of a European citizen, legally I don’t need a visa. But in l’administration, sometimes the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. The legislation is complicated, and fonctionnaires famously devise information au pif (by nose, i.e., by the seat of their pants), or worse, à la tête du client (depending on whether or not they like your face). Four email exchanges, five trips to the wrong offices, and no official can help me out. Everyone says something different. C’est kafkaïen (Kafkaesque). Finally they insist I get a visa anyway. Want to say “Catch 22” in French? Try cercle vicieux or situation inextricable.

I wait for hours outside the préfecture for a chance at one of the 49 daily appointments to apply for long-term visas. The 293 people behind me in line don’t get one. I show the fonctionnaire all the required papiers. “Mais où est votre mari?” My husband? I didn’t bring him-“Il n’est pas sur la liste!

If you can’t fight city hall, make fun of it. In Paris theaters at the moment, not one but two comedies mock civil servants: one about a fonctionnaire who wants to organize a general strike so he can go to a soccer game, the other a revival of Georges Courteline’s 1893 play Messieurs les Ronds-de-Cuir.

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