Vive la bureaucratie!

I am probably not the only person in the world who thinks bureaucracy is an infernal evil, but I still find it necessary to underline the fact that bureaucracy does not only bother and tire me out, but, to be honest, it does also scare me quite a bit. I am constantly afraid I might forget about something or just not do things in a way that would match the visions of the receiving end; this leads me to the idea that I need an assistant.

It would be enough to say: “Butler!” and my personal Lurch would immediately show up. He’d ask: “You rang?”, I’d say: “You bet!”, and things would start happening. He would be instructed to find out, organize and manage everything, check all the deadlines and not even dare to think of forgetting anything else that might be necessary. All of that would be demanded of him under the threat of the death penalty… at least!

It is, however, true, that I have not yet had the possibility to put such a system into practice and I am starting to worry that I never will. I remain, therefore, exposed to the evils of bureaucracy directly with no organizational support to fall back on.

And here I need to admit that my idea of what the evils of bureaucracy actually are has been desperately limited until these days; it was the French hobby of bureaucratizing everything that really opened my eyes.

To illustrate:

“Inscription administrative”

I will start in a lighter fashion, as “administrative inscription” was in fact rather lame, just a sort of a minor warm up, and it is not really the French kingdom of bureaucracy who is to blame for it – for this inscription, the local education establishment only asks for a copy of the incomer’s European health insurance card, which does not sound too menacing at all.

Well… the idea to have a look at my card had come to me several weeks before I was supposed to leave for Paris. As a result, I found out that my card’s validity expired in 2006. Even despite immediately marching up to the insurance company’offices and exerting intensive pressure on a lady in my town’s branch, the only thing I managed to obtain for the first 3 months instead of the card was a “Replacement certificate” in Slovak language. My worries whether someone outside of (Czecho)Slovakia was going to understand it, were, however, brushed off by the insurance company by saying it was a “standardized format valid in the entire European union.”

Well, that can be perfectly true, but when a lady at the Service des Relations Internationales of local school saw it, she informed me she did not understand a word, asked whether I was also from Hungary like the three students before me (here, I would like to send my warmest greetings to the Slovak National Party & co.) and instead of registering me, she sent me to the office of a university section under which my deparment falls (N.B.: this is where my office tourism begins).

From this office, I was sent to the one next to it (see?), where I tried to explain the whole business to a local clerk, who then asked me whether what I was showing to him was that certificate, I said it was, he then made a student card for me and I was telling myself it was not so bad with that bureaucracy after all.

Ah, beginner’s luck!

“Inscription pedagogique”

This is where real fun begins. The first joke is the fact that all registrations into university courses happen by a physical inscription on a paper in a department’s office.

Had I not been emotionally involved in the question, I’d maintain it deserves profound scientific examination. For example, the timetable (only for undergraduate programs, but still) is perfectly electronic, searchable by several criteria and displayable in various versions. However, because of some inexplicable reasons, the registration itself is organized in an extremely paleozoic way, just like the offer of courses, which you have to be looking for in various odd parts of the university’s website or departments’ noticeboards (and not even an exceptionally intensive investigation is going to guarantee you will really find everything you need).

Then there is yet another level of humour for utter masochists: registration for masters courses. I had of course not even a shred of an idea that there are special sets of mystic rules governing this step, and bonae fidei marched into my department’s office in the main university building. However, here I was told that this office is working with undergraduate courses only; if I am interested in masters courses, I need to go to another building at Rue de l’École de médecine, because that is where (some) masters courses are taught.

OK, I am coming to Rue de l’École de médecine. Naturally, I do not know which office I am supposed to go to (I could have found that info on the Internet? I could have consulted an orientation board? Haha, naivity…), so I ask the doorman to tell me where I should go if I want to register for courses. The doorman tells me registrations took place in October, but if I want to, I can wait till May and register for next year’s courses.

Are you kidding me, sir?

He doesn’t look like it really. But I, for my part, don’t look like I am ready to leave, so the doorman sends me to office 21.

Here I meet a lady who also maintains that registrations are closed; but, probably as a part of office tourism promotion, she sends me to office 24. The lady in office 24 looks like she has never heard about the Erasmus program, but she is looking at me with a special kind of curiosity – the sort of way in which people usually look at exotic plants or newly discovered fauna. When I manage to explain to her that I am a student from Prague, the lady decides to discuss the situation via phone directly with the International Relations Office, and the result her investigation yields is that the person responsible for handling relations with students from Prague is monsieur Vergne. She therefore sends me to his office, which, after a couple of setbacks, brings me back to the department’s office in the main university building, where my odyssey started (“just undergraduate courses, mademoiselle!”).

Here, however, I obtain another clue, with which I enter a room full of spiders and Fort Boyard is defeated… ahem. So: here I learn that monsieur Vergne is not here now, but I can send him an email if I want to. Email I send and wait a couple of days; nothing happens.

Patience deserts me; I set out to discuss the situation again in the International Relations Office. The lady working here calls back to Rue de l’École de médecine and announces to the office staff of the place that they simply have to register me for the courses. Finito. I run to Rue de l’École de médecine, obtain a form in office 21, start filling it out… and… take it home, because office hours end, of course! I am instructed, however, to return with the filled-in form later.

I arrive on the next day; office 21 is closed and will remain closed till next week.

In the meantime, monsier Vergne sends me a message saying I should call him so that we can organize a petit rendez-vous where we can discuss the situation. I do not call him, however, because it is already sorted out, isn’t it? I will just go to the office at Rue de l’École de médecine and that will be it.

I arrive the next week. The office is still closed, the closure is extended for 2 days. I arrive after 2 days and see another notice, which extends the closure for another week. I am thinking about whether this could still be real or whether I am in one of those dreams in which you constantly return to the same doors which you can not open, but you know something important is behind them. (Can you feel my pain, Harry Potter?)

I don’t give up and come next week. The closure is extended for 2 days; after those 2 for another 3.

I call monsieur Vergne. The result of the petit rendez-vous does not, however, help me very much. (“The secretariat is still occupied with processing the previous semester…”, “Universities have awful staff shortages…”, “Don’t expect secretaries to work too effectively…”, “If nothing happens within four-five weeks, call me again…”).

I am therefore starting to part from the idea that I will officially be registered for the courses I follow here. I go to check the office at Rue de l´École de médecine the next week not really in order to find out if they – God forbid! – seiously opened in the meantime; I basically arrive just with the aim of not  interrupting the continuity, to see if they extended the closure for just a couple of days this time, or maybe a week, a month, or they for example closed for good…

A shock. They’re open. There is life, movement, people – everything. I enter and can not believe it. After a small intermezzo, during which the secretary of the place, madame Michel, is trying to convince me a course I follow does not exist, only to find out later there was just a mistake in its code, things are almost starting to look as if I really was going to be registered… but only almost (of course!). To finalize the registration, I am asked to supply my teachers’ agreement with my following their classes. I do as I am asked and present the documents I obtained to madame Michel in the hope of this finally being the last step to real registration.

Vain hope. Two weeks after, I get a phone call from madame Michel, who says there is a problem with my registration and I need to come to the secretariat. I learn it simply is not possible to register me for my courses as there is some bizarre code attached to my name which does not want to allow it. I go to the International Relations Office again, from where I am sent to my university section again, where I find out my bizarre code has already been annuled. I announce my findings at the International Relations Office, the local secretary calls to madame Michel and explains to her that she should not be looking at the bizarre code, but at the other one, choose it and the registration will then be complete. After the call is finished, the lady tells me madame Michel is “new” and I ought to “give her time”.

A couple of days later I find out I have been successfully registered.

Bravo! Fantastical! And it only took a little more than two months!

This, however, should not look as an attempt to blacken the name of the entire Sorbonne Nouvelle – it should be noted that majority of students (=those who do not have to manage their affairs through madame Michel) could not enjoy the same level of fun as me with their registration. They finalized everything during the first week and have been at peace since then. At the same time, however, no one is really able to escape various sorts of weird things and requirements altogether.

Extras (because success in getting the main courses’ registrations right is not the end)

– If you want to follow a sports course, you need to go to bureau 12, where you get a paper with a stamp. You need to show this paper to your teacher who will in turn copy your name onto their own paper.
– If you want to register for the so-called “free courses”, you need to go to office 316, in front of which, in the registration period, there is constantly a queue which is at least 15 metres long and would take at least an hour of your life.
– If you want a reader for your course, the so-called “brochure”, the teacher cannot bring it for you to the lesson – you have to go to the Bureau des polycopiés and queue again. Moreover, you are not supposed to queue empty-handed, but with a form into which you fill your teacher’s name and the course’s code and name – because announcing these data just orally to the staff would not be entertaining enough.
– If you manage to get through all this and still have enough moral integrity left to actually make it to the classes themselves, you will be given another form by your teacher, in which they are going to ask you basically about the same things which you have already filled out at the secretariat while registering for your courses. (The biggest mystery for me is the reason why my teachers need to know where I live. And also, why that should be of any interest to basically any institution including the local pharmacy (!).)
– If you are lucky and get a dorm, you have to supply a proof of your financial security and a document certifying that you have a liability insurance. Aside from that, you have to find yourself a warrantor and produce a copy of this person’s ID card, a proof of their last three payoffs, about their having properly paid taxes, a bank account statement, a proof of residence, a verified copy of the seating order at the Versailles peace conference and an officially translated record of grades of your neighbour’s half-aunt from the fifth grade of her elementary school… Mais bien sûr, je plaisante – the rest, however, stays.


The most interesting point about the entire thing is then the fact that in a number of cases, no one is really interested in seeing the required documents, deadlines are ignored, things are done in a way completely different from the prescribed track, institutions are losing your documents and a university happens to forget to include half of your results into the final grade calculation.

You can then be asking yourselves what the point behind all this actually is. This is a question I ask myself fairly frequently (with a varying degree of desperation depending on the circumstances), and I have not yet found any satisfying answer; I have, however, developed a so-called theory of contact, according to which the French, because of some inexplicable reasons, are trying to maximalise the number of clerks you need to communicate with practically in any matter. The situation is then even better if each of the clerks are localized in a different office and preferably also in a different building – that gives the whole thing another dimension of adventure. Of course, the effort to maximalise the number of forms needed to sort out anything features prominently in my theory of contact as well.

The theory can then be perceived in two ways: 1. Positive perception: Bureaucracy as understood by the French is a sort of an unorthodox society-wide party game, a massive open multi-player RPG, whose role is primarily to provide players with the possibility of training in small talk and socialisation in general; 2. Negative perception: Bureaucracy is a cruel battle in which clerks are trying to give hell to ordinary citizens – to see this process visualised, please have a look at the video below (supplied courtesy of monsieur Marek A.).

I do admit that the theory of contact is not yet perfectly developed and much field research is needed to elaborate on all of its facets. Talking about which, I am afraid that the marvellous opportunity to carry on with this research is not going to be something I will be able to avoid in the following months.

(Slovenská verzia)


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