It was perhaps an oversight on my part to expect my wife, who spoke almost no French, to take care of all things “family” after our move to the Republic. However, it seemed fair at the time, seeing as I was the one working, that she should deal with paperwork pertaining to the home while I would deal with anything work-wise.
On the face of it, I reckoned that nothing could be worse than having to understand the workings of French income tax, business law and payroll legislation. I now admit that I was wrong and I apologise to my wife (who still is my wife despite everything) for abandoning her to the quagmire of paperasse and fonctionnaire-induced stress that she subsequently found herself in.
To fully appreciate the situation, imagine for a moment being pregnant, having a grumpy 18-month-old, teething toddler permanently at your side, and being unable to express yourself in French much beyond what you like to do in your free time. Throw into the equation that you’ve not slept for more than four hours straight in about a year … well, you get the picture. Imagine your spouse then hands you a bunch of official looking letters written entirely in French and asks you to sort out what needs doing – because he doesn’t have time. And in a world where Web 2.0 doesn’t exist, in 2006, when just about anything you can do online these days just wasn’t possible.
Ten years ago, websites were largely static pages of information with no interaction possible, meaning you had to physically go to the appropriate office to fill out forms with a thick, black Biro (I know, you’re having palpitations, right?).
Being the emotionally sensitive kind of guy that I am, returning home from the office I often sensed a degree of post-traumatic exasperation in my wife’s demeanour. Still, with my own workplace problems eating my brain, unenviable in equal measure, I was rarely good at oozing sympathy or listening with much enthusiasm either.
If I knew what I know now, of course I wouldn’t have dared put her through it – for any spouse made to endure such bureaucratic torture would surely have filed for divorce or, at the very least, picked up a pack-a-day Gauloises Bleues habit.
And yet it was my wife who dealt with it all, staring down those fonctionnaires with a cool threatening smile, and it is thanks to her that we managed to transfer into the French social security and healthcare despite their ridiculous complexity and opaqueness.
The situation would have been far simpler had either one of us been employed. A “foreign” household comprising of one freelancer, one unemployed mother (as yet unable to claim Jobseekers Allowance) and one baby was far from the typical profile that the institutions were used to dealing with. Indeed, more often than not, in our situation, the duty manager usually had to be called so that the correct forms could be located, if they existed at all.
Indeed the worst case scenario has since become a dinner party staple: the impasse that occurred at the Mutuelle de l’Est when, after failing to comprehend our case, the fonctionnaire disappeared for 20 minutes seemingly to consult with the higher powers – only to be spotted by the fire exit enjoying an extended pause clope.
All this just goes to show that paperwork is not something to be undertaken alone in France – the stress and frustration it causes are simply too much to bear. Why else would there be so many fonctionnaires – if not to spread a collective pain?
Barth Hulley lives in Strasbourg. His recent book, Freelance in France 2015, offers practical advice on working for yourself in France. See www.freelanceinfrance.fr