expat English scroungers 0 French bureaucracy 1

Thinking ahead, we’d like to insulate the house against the looming and probably expensive winter chill. Hoping to scrounge public money we visited the “Heart of the Village Renovation Fund” office in Beziers.

In relentless and still vaguely fashionable pursuit of positive green press, the authorities are promoting subsidies to make homes more energy efficient. Promotion, of course, offers all the creditable credibility of being seen to be doing offset by entirely cost-effective potential of never actually having to do.

It became a practical demonstration of why the blood transfusion service doesn’t do its best work with stones.

Just outside the renovation fund office there’s a monument that perfectly symbolises our struggle. It shrugs with Gallic irony in the face of common sense.

On the edge of the newly reclaimed square that used to be the old Beziers post office, more-or-less opposite the Mairie (town hall), they’ve put up a shed. It’s built of metal sheets, a couple of metres tall and maybe twice as long, and it’s open onto the street all along one side, like a bus shelter. Its ability to meet the basic functions of a shelter in times of wind or rain, you might need one, are slightly compromised by that open face and because none of the walls actually meet at the edges, and with it being entirely metal it’ll be a collection of hot-plates in summer. Punched out of the back wall are what we think are the names of some – but not all – of the towns and villages around Beziers, in letters that for no obvious reason shrink in size like an optician’s chart. So it’s not even, like, a war memorial or anything.

When you arrive at the “Heart of the Village Renovation Fund” office you might even take that as an encouraging sign. After all, here’s a city whose public purse is deep enough to support pointless, charmless lumps of outdoor art. A few hundred euros to insulate your garage ceiling won’t be a problem!

As I said. Irony.

As with most services run by “fonctionnaires” (French civil servants), in the renovation fund office there’s a barrier to separate public supplicants and the civil servants’ private work-space. The outer office was sparsely but appropriately decorated with a small meeting table and their range of posters promising “subventions” (grants) to the green and needy. Inside a half-glass partitioned inner sanctum the incumbent could be seen conspicuously engaged with other important matters. We took seats and awaited her convenience.

I think it’s fair to say that when she eventually emerged we did not see her at her best. She determinedly set about performing the dictionary definition of jobsworth, rapidly closing down any avenue of inquiry we tried to open with the familiar if unofficial motto that fonctionnaires apply to all but their own interests:

“It’s not possible.”

We don’t yet live an immersive life in our adopted country. Our spoken French isn’t fluent, we don’t speak it at home, but under most circumstances when we meet the outside world we get by pretty well. Some sympathy on the listening side is often a great help, and we were getting none of that here. My translation engine usually takes a few minutes to come up to speed, but in this cold climate I felt about as bilingual as a pot-plant. 

Jacqueline took up the slack and played what’s usually our trump card. The fastest way to any French civil servant’s heart is usually to appeal to their insane lust for paperwork. To this end we always carry a heavy concertina file of personal paperwork to any meeting. It’s a clear sign we understand the rules of the game.

No such luck here. A glance at Jacqueline’s payslips for this financial year, and she declared we’d earned too much to qualify for support to improve our house’s insulation.

I could go on about the perverse irony of being told by a middle class woman in her thirties doubly wrapped in a pashmina shawl and the security of a civil service job for life that even unemployed we were still too rich for a home heating grant.

But I’ll just leave it there.

We persisted, and asked about other kinds of support, such as grants to renovate the house facade. This is a depressed region where the tourist euro is king, and the powers that be would prefer villages try to look less like abandoned ghost towns and more like charming cultural heritage photo opportunities.

Our powers of communication slowly improved, and I think our naive honesty started to overrule her initial presumption of naked graft. She seemed to thaw, and went to check if we lived in a part of our village that would qualify for gentrification aid. Her apologetic report was really the straw that broke the camel’s back.

We live in what is very definitely the heart of our village here. It’s an old house, at a junction of long-established and authentically narrow roads, and we’re so close to the town hall and the bakery that it makes no sense for me to put on my ipod when I go out to buy bread (although I always do). But apparently the local administration have redrawn the official lines of demarcation to exclude us, officially, from the “coeur du village”. I have to say, on hearing the news, in more ways than one.

Anyway, on the bright side we were in and out of the office quickly enough to be able to get a cup of coffee in the town square in the morning sunshine before the lunchtime rush, and get to Beziers market before it closed. Got some bargains. Cheap peppers and cherry tomatoes, and colourful pictures of the mushrooms in season.

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