Give And Take
Angie Power moved to France from the UK over twenty years ago to settle in a small provincial town. Her experience as a secondary school teacher in both the English and French state school systems, in bringing up her own children abroad, and in tracing their lives at local schools and watching them develop their bilingualism has provided her with some valuable lessons to pass on to other parents.
When I first moved to France over 20 years ago, I thought it was natural enough that one of my new acquaintances and neighbours asked me why I had uprooted to live in a new country. When I replied that it was because I had found a job, one of them looked at me knowingly and inquired ‘Piston?’ I assumed that she was referring to the name of a firm or an employer and replied ‘Non’. Even when I looked it up in the dictionary, piston still left me puzzled. I did not get the gist since the word seemed to be the same as in English: as in a piston of a machine or a pump. I scoured a thicker dictionary and the penny dropped! Piston – nowadays more ‘correctly’ referred to as des connaissances – is French for string-pulling: to have friends in the right places. She was asking me if I had got my job because someone in a position of responsibility had used their influence.
My reaction 20-odd years ago was one of surprise that someone who I hardly knew should ask me such a personal question. I also felt belittled that she obviously believed that I was incapable of getting a job on my own merits. But nowadays, I realise that she did not mean it like that at all. Like many other French people, she would have considered being recommended by a friend for a job of her dreams as simply using her advantages to the full; in the same way, I suppose, as some people have good looks on their side and some people naturally perform well at interviews.
RECOMMENDATION FOR A JOB
Universities are the result of egalité to the extreme since anyone who has received a high school diploma (such a person is called a bachelier) can enrol at a university of their choice. Yet, at the end of their studies, it may well be the one with the most connections who actually gets the job and, in fact, recruiters estimate that many managerial posts are the result of this.
There are those who argue that nowadays when a post as a gardener at the local town hall, for example, is put in the small ads and attracts hundreds of candidates and one of them is recommended by a friend, time is actually saved in the recruitment process – on the condition of course that the person who is being recommended has green fingers.
The same seems to be true in other areas of life. Whether it is looking for a job, getting a promotion, finding a place for your child at the local crèche or getting an official stamp on something, you risk being overtaken by someone who is only better than you because they have more influence.
EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE
As far as school life is concerned, the 35 académies of France are cut up into sectors, and towns are parcelled up according to precise demographic and sociologic criteria so that children can find themselves in the catchment area of a school where they know very few pupils. Valid legitimate exemptions to the rules exist: if a brother or sister is already at the school which is not in your zone, or if your child minder already takes her own children to that school. Some parents try and get their children into the school of their choice by using the address of someone known to them who lives close to the school (even their firm’s address) and it has been known for a very wary headteacher to insist on seeing a telephone bill, a gas or electricity bill or tax sheet to verify that the family really does live at the address written on the enrolment form.
However, there is another way of getting a child into the school of their choice because each year a commission reviews complaints from disappointed parents and it authorises exemptions called dérogations. I heard the word uttered over and over again by mothers at the school gate from the time that my children enrolled at primary school right through to their lycée. Some obtain their dérogation more easily than others, and if you do happen to know someone with a bit of influence, it does help. According to a report by l’Education Nationale, 20% of teachers in secondary education, manage to enrol their children in schools outside their sector.
I have spoken to French people who admit that this culture of using connections is deeply ingrained: that there is something in their gaulois spirit that makes them use networking and they go so far as saying that they cannot resist the temptation to cleverly pass before others. As one of my friends said ‘whereas the English usually queue one behind the other at a bus stop, the French have a habit of pushing in front’. This admission by a French person to something that I have noticed brought a smile to my face. There may then be something in the French character that makes them jump a queue.
The case is sometimes made that it is because life has become so difficult that the French use their connections. Administrative rules are too rigorous, there are fewer jobs around. Places are limited at the crèche and in old people’s homes. There are only so many council flats and places for your boat at the ports. It is a question of patience: why bother wasting time as your name creeps up the waiting list?
This ‘putting in a good word’ ethos may also be due to the fact that the French seem to prefer dealing with someone who is already known to their network of friends and acquaintances: it is both reassuring and reliable. On a day-to-day level, they ask amongst themselves for a good plumber (hairdresser, doctor, baby-sitter and so on) before looking in a telephone directory. Then they always tell the plumber the name of the person who recommended him because they feel they will get better service that way. As for the plumber himself, he is able to place his new client in terms of who he knows and can therefore rely on getting his bill paid. All in all, it may be an excellent way of simplifying life.