FGB Free Clinic - Case no. 2 - Claude Guillaume Montet
XXIII Congrès national de Généalogie

Too Much Paper or Too Little Documentation?

Fighting Fonctionnaires

Daily life in France is regularly discoloured and befouled by one annoyance: dealing with bureaucrats, les fonctionnaires. They have in France an inordinate amount of power, which they delight in abusing. They are usually rude, abrupt, arrogant, critical and determinedly obfuscating and obstructive. It is every bit as difficult for the French themselves to deal with them as it is for foreigners. They are a despised class who care not a whit that they are detested, for they feel themselves far superior to everyone. They do not think of themselves as civil servants ("servant" being an abhorred word in France since the Revolution); indeed, their real function, as outlined here, is to protect the institution which employs them, not to carry out the functions which are its purpose for existence.

The simplest requirement, be it a driving license, a passport, the need to change one's address with the tax authorities, etc. will require authenticated copies of numerous documents. There is no list of what is required; it is up to the mood of the fonctionnaire making the demand. Supplying the authenticated documents may lead to a request for more. As no copy may be more than three months old, it is possible that, by the time the last request is fulfilled, the first may have to be renewed. (Some time ago, we told of our own experience here.)

People have different ways of dealing with this but just about everyone agrees that it is fatal to one's cause to lose one's temper with a fonctionnaire. Immediately, with a smirk of triumph, they accuse one of threatening behaviour and will completely ignore one from that point on. You have not got a prayer. Your file will be "lost" and it will take years to get the process going again. There is no complaint process, no ombudsman. All who live in France are at the mercy of the fonctionnaires.

Occasionally, in the interest of some streamlining programme or if the government wants to make some token action toward easing the paperwork pressures on businesses, some little law is proposed to reduce the amount of copies required for a particular operation. Sometimes, this works. In the past, it was necessary to send up to eighteen copies of a person's death registration to all the government bodies that needed to know that the poor soul was no longer with us. Now, a single online form is all that need be completed and the others are notified automatically.

A recent reform effort has both archivists (who are, we stoutly maintain, the only truly nice people among  fonctionnaires) and genealogists ready to give someone in the Ministry of Justice a double moulinet. That ministry has proposed that, if a commune were to have an appropriate electronic system and database, a second register book for births, marriages and deaths -- the actes d'état civil -- need not be maintained. Recall that the procedure has been, for a couple of centuries, for every commune to maintain two register books, keeping one in their own archives and sending the other to the Departmental Archives.

Archivists argue that there is no complete system from central government that is ready for communes, which means that those with wealth will have and those without will not, creating a "two-tiered system". They also point out that no plans have been discussed for archiving the electronic vital records, merely for their short-term back-up. Their concern is not to avoid electronic records, but to ensure that all citizens can at all times obtain the documents necessary to their identity and legal status.

Genealogists are much more combative and say that the idea is wrong, wrong, wrong. The Fédération Française de Généalogie says that the physical civil register would be the only one with authenticity, as the electronic records cannot be authenticated. Reliance on just the one physical register would be very risky. Recall the burning of the Paris City Hall, they say, with the loss of eight million registrations. They, too, are not opposed to modernization, merely to the weakening of the existing system. They have launched a petition against the bill on Change.org and are urging all to sign.

What will happen? It has been our observation that, whenever anything is protested in France, even if quite tepidly, the government caves. We predict that both registers will be maintained AND that electronic registration will be introduced, ensuring a long and smug continuation of the status quo for the fonctionnaires.

©2015 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy