The Other Side of the Desk

Learning to navigate French bureaucracy

by Lincoln Peek, guest writer; illustration by Eleanor Anderson, editor

I began to lose it on my third visit to the French Consulate in New York. “I don’t know what language I need to explain this to you in, but this is not what I want. I told you that this is not what I want.” But the fonctionnaire on the other side of the window turned me away yet again, and even called me stupid this time. “Deep breath,” I told myself, “getting angry will only hurt your cause.” I responded in my best calm-yet-forceful voice, “You told me that the bank statement could not be printed from the Internet; this was faxed to me by my bank.”

“I only want the name of the account holder, the name of the bank and the amount of money in the account,” she said.

I was flabbergasted—that was exactly what was on the piece of paper I was frantically shoving towards her. I had even underlined those three things. Was she really trying to turn me away for giving her too much information? This was a bank statement. They all looked more or less the same, right? My mind was racing, trying to identify the fatal flaw, the incurable deficiency in this seemingly standard piece of bank correspondence. I pushed it towards her again, pointing at the relevant information, while repeating that this was in fact exactly what she wanted. Finally, with a look of disgust that conveyed her assessment of my (apparently) poorly wired brain, she snatched the statement out of my hand and told me to sit back down and wait. I would of course be waiting for more than an hour, but that was okay; I had won. I could spend that hour knowing I had finally been deemed harmless to the great French Republic, and the vast French bureaucracy was finally finishing its slow but unavoidable process of letting me into the country.

It was late August, the beginning of my last week in the U.S. before I was to leave to study at L’Institute d’études politiques de Paris, also known as Sciences Po. My visa situation was getting pretty dire. I had blundered through the early steps of the process during the summer, and I was entering the final phase of the two-month ordeal I had endured in order to get a long-stay student visa. The bank statement was required to prove that I had amassed enough money to survive for a year in Paris, which is no small feat.

It wasn’t until I began school at Sciences Po that I realized I had not simply been the victim of some undersexed, overworked consular agent with a grudge against clueless students. I learned that, for better or for worse, bureaucracy is the norm in France.

Sciences Po offers an orientation program for foreign students bearing the inviting name of the “Welcome Program.”  When I first signed up for it I was expecting help with the French language, finding my way around Paris—all that good stuff.  The program did of course provide that, but by far the most helpful (yet bizarre) part of the program was my class of méthodologie. Basically a primer on how to survive at Sciences Po, the class teaches you how to write your papers and engineer your presentations. In turn, these lessons also offered invaluable insight into the rationale behind the many oppressively bureaucratic tendencies that I’ve encountered since arriving in Paris.

The model for teaching at Sciences Po is, ironically, very Prussian. The University was founded in 1872, right after the very by-the-book and doctrinal Prussian army mopped the floor with a French army that prided itself on “improvisation” and “élan,” the French word for vigor and flair. The French, never late to a good riot, immediately toppled the Empire of Napoleon III and replaced it with the Third Republic.

One of the things that became all too apparent in the war (unfortunately, in the form of a large number of French casualties) was that the Prussian army was much better supported than their French opponents. French units reached the frontlines, haphazard and often without adequate equipment, to face well organized and extensively equipped Prussian armies that the frighteningly punctual German rail system had ferried to the front lines.

This same attitude influenced Sciences Po, which my professor emphasized is actually not really a French school. Instead, it is a Prussian school, modeled after the Prussian military strictness and precision that brought them to victory. There are several different types of assignments that you do at Sciences Po, but they are all broken down into the same basic structure. This being France, rationalism is prized above all else, so students must use the Hegelian Dialectic in each paper.

I was unfamiliar with Hegel’s “art of investigating or discussing the truth of opinions.” Basically, every paper is divided into two parts. In the first part you must assert yourself, just like any paper that you write at CC. Make sure you pick what you don’t actually believe in for this first part, though, because in the second, you’re going to attack that. Ruthlessly. In the end, your second opinion (the official term is “antithesis”) should triumph, but only by a tiny margin, so that in the end you have a conclusion that reads like the most limp-dick stand you’ve ever taken on anything. It should sound like you’re trying to justify hunting to your vegan girlfriend—“Okay, baby, I know that it’s barbaric, and it’s a really tough call, but I just kinda think . . .” If you don’t follow this formula, well then, tough luck buddy, sounds like you won’t be getting anywhere in Sciences Po.

You won’t be getting anywhere within the French Bureaucracy either, because it’s this same religious attention to structure that drives the uninitiated crazy. That was what my experience with the bank statement taught me—even though I did have the necessary information on my bank statement, the agent didn’t initially recognize it as such because it was not in the format that they were expecting. Another thing I found bizarre was that all of my applications had to be filled out entirely in capital letters. It wouldn’t otherwise occur to me that this formatting could be so important, and in fact it took two tries before I remembered to write entirely in capitals. Yet Sciences Po is dedicated to churning out students who will be able to fill out forms with such precision. This attention to detail is born from the peculiar structure of Hegelian thought and the discipline within that structure.

More importantly, however, the Sciences Po methodology is specifically geared to prepare students for a high profile career in the service of the French Republic, in public administration or politics. The adherence to the Hegelian dialectic ensures that graduates of Sciences Po can rationally analyze and defend any issue. We were told that we should be able to defend Nazism if asked to. Furthermore, students are required to study internationally or complete an internship abroad for their third year, which guarantees that they will have first-hand experience in other countries. Finally, Sciences Po students must be proficient in both French and English. My methodology professor, who is also a professor at the even more prestigious graduate school École National d’Administration, or ÉNA (graduates are called énarques in reference to the fact that they will become French political royalty immediately upon graduation), said that, “Sciences Po students are recruited because they think differently.”  In his words, “they see the problem.”

Apparently, France agrees. Sciences Po graduates include a long list of more than ten French Prime Ministers, several presidents and a surprising number of foreign leaders. Initially this was strange to me, because it seems that the methodology stifles creativity. The constraints are part of a conscious decision, though, that uniformity and balance are the key to increased efficiency. During the Welcome Program the quotation that stuck with me was “We want you all to function excellently, we don’t want geniuses.” Though you will never hear this at Colorado College, it makes a surprising amount of sense within the realm of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy was designed to streamline the many overwhelming functions of the modern state. These functions are so vast that no one person can manage them, so the next best thing is a small army of bureaucrats who organize their thoughts the same way, and can quickly identify the innumerable pros and cons of any policy.

The problem, of course, arises when an outsider runs into this strange bureaucratic thought. Neither the bureaucrat nor the foreigner can process and rationalize the information they’re receiving as effectively as usual, and what’s worse, neither person can understand why the other’s logic is so hilariously twisted. After a day of frantically emailing, calling, filling out forms and wondering what the hell I was doing wrong, my head felt like I’d just run it full speed into a brick wall like a battering ram. And I kind of had. Without the flexibility that I was used to, I was lost, and I was just going to have to bump heads with bureaucracy until I got it right. Not the most efficient way, or the most fun. But in the end they let me in. Now it’s my turn to learn how to think like a fonctionnaire.

The Other Side of the Desk PDF


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