24 May 2011

Chômage, Part 2 — The Unemployment Office

In one of the final English lessons I taught just before "going chômage", my students, two middle-aged women who were themselves recently laid off, began planting little seeds in my head about what it can be like dealing with the Pôle-emploi, the French equivalent to the unemployment office.

I didn't get my unemployment check for over two months!


If you want anything you have to go there in person, stand in line and then practically make a scandal...


They sent me to a job interview for a secretary's job — and I'm a diamond cutter!


...inefficient...slow...don't understand...they just want to shove you into any 'ol job as quickly as possible...

First Contact
The choice I had made a few days earlier was suddenly looking less attractive. Is this really what I signed up for? As far as I knew, I wasn't even in the system yet and already my confidence in it was starting to dwindle.

After signing up for the CRP, I was informed that I needed to call the Pôle-emploi within a period of three weeks in order to verbally confirm my participation in the program. If they didn't hear from me before the end of this time, they would understand it as a refusal on my part.

So during the Christmas holiday I dialed the number, navigated through the automated menu and after a wait of only two minutes, eventually fell on an employee from the Pôle-emploi. The human voice caught me off guard, like leaning against a closed door that opens unexpectedly from the inside.

"Oui...eh...bonjour...yes, hello, my name's...and I just signed the papers for the CRP. And so I'm calling to confirm."

I should have seen it coming, but from the other end of the line I hear: "But monsieur, you do not need to call."

"I don't—but on the paper, where I signed it said I had to—"

"Yes, but it's not necessary. You signed the paper, yes?" now with a slight hint of annoyance, as if I was calling undue attention to an elephant standing in the room that was better left ignored.

"Yes, I signed them."


"On the 13th of this month."

"Then it's fine. As soon as we receive the papers from your employer we will call you and make your first appointment."

"So I don't...have to do anything?"

"No monsieur. We will call you. Do not worry. It is taken care of."

"And everything will be explained during that first meeting?"

"Of course monsieur. That's right. Do not worry. Everything will be taken care of."

"Eh bien...ok...eh...thank you. Au revoir."

There's no question that this man's phone manners were professionally crisp yet polite. What unsettled me was his unwavering faith in the system. "This is the Titanic of systems" he might have said, "the über system. Do not worry."

The events that unfolded over the next few months would more or less confirm for me that, yes, the system does work. But I had to keep in mind that a machine of this enormity, one that's dealing with millions of people, can sometimes be like an old dog waking up — it's loyalty is not in question; it simply needs more time to get up and running. Even so, I couldn't help but chuckle to myself about some of those rusted out bureaucratic mechanisms that get left by the wayside and aren't immediately cleared away.

The Meeting
I don't remember when it happened exactly, but the call for my first rendez-vous came sometime in January. Meeting date: February 28, 8:45am.

I arrive early and sit in a chair with a view of the office space in front of me. I must have the first appointment because nobody else is here waiting. There's a wide corridor and rows of small cubicles on either side. People are crossing the corridor, walking one-pointedly and going in and out of doors carrying stacks of papers and colored hanging files and coffee pots; others are just arriving. It's clear that preparations for the day are in full swing.

"Monsieur Quici?" It's exactly 8:45am and an elderly man wearing a sagging grey cardigan is standing in front of me.


"Follow me please." He turns and disappears into one of the cubicles on the left. I follow.

Seated behind his desk, he opens a red paper folder and removes the CRP paper I signed two months before. Flipping through it he says, "Seems to be in order", but it's more of a comment to himself than to me.

"The purpose of this meeting," he begins, now squinting through thick eye glasses at his computer screen, "is to verify the information in your file." We start with the simple ones: name, birthdate, date I was laid off, how long I was with my former employer, am I receiving my checks? etc.

We're running along smoothly, he asking the questions, me responding, he then tapping the answers into the computer with two fingers, until we hit a snag. "I'm an auto-entrepreneur," I tell him. "How will that affect my participation in the CRP?"

(auto-entrepreneur is a simplified legal status that lets people create a personal business to sell products or services, while still being employed, with the advantage of minimal bookkeeping and administrative responsibilities.)

The two fingers come to a halt in mid air above the keyboard. He politely excuses himself to consult with his colleague next door because, in his own words, he's never come across this situation before. After a few minutes he returns with his colleague who explains that you can be an auto-entrepreneur and still receive monthly unemployment benefits, so long as you fill in another form and send it to the pôle-emploi every month.

We continue: more questions, more answers poked into the keyboard. Following the computer prompts, he asks me what sort of job I'm looking for, what salary I'm after, if I have a car, how far I'll accept to drive each day, then, "Languages. Do you speak any foreign languages?"

"French," I say.

"No no, a foreign language," he repeats.

"For me, French is a foreign language." He laughs. "I suppose it is," he says. He looks down and types 'French' and 'English'.

"Do you have any other questions?" he asks almost too fast and with an edge that says he wants to end our meeting. We'd gone over our allotted time because I was a cas particulier (particular case) according to him, and he no doubt had a long day ahead with more people like me to process.

"How can I use my DIF?" (Droit Individuel à la Formation - in France employees have the right to 20 hours of professional training each year which accumulate when you don't use them. I was sitting pretty on 120. Or so I thought.) "I was told I could use it towards some specialized training if I wanted."

"No," he said bluntly. You lose your DIF when you accept the CRP. Anything else?"

"But my HR director told me—"

"Not true. You can't use your DIF anymore. It's gone. You had another question?"

I did, but I wasn't sure it was worth asking. "What about...reductions...for things like movie tickets and museum entrances? I understand that—"

"There are none."

For a meeting that was supposed to explain everything, I left feeling a little more puzzled than before, a feeling that would follow me to the next round of meetings.

What I did now know was that I couldn't use my previous training allocation and I wasn't eligible for any reductions, which has turned out not to be true. I've since gotten into museums for free and got a discounted membership at my climbing gym.

I also learned that this was my first and only meeting with this two-fingered typist from the pôle-emploi. It had been planned from the beginning that all follow-up meetings would be with an subcontracted consultancy. Though he didn't spell it out directly, I guessed that if the pôle-emploi had to handle all individual cases themselves, this man would turn the color of his cardigan before seeing the light of day again.

He must have noticed the confusion on my face as I was leaving because he told me not to worry, that they (the consultant) would be able to clear things up for me, all of which sounded unsettling familiar.

Next: The Employment Consultant

20 May 2011

Chômage Today - The Reality of Unemployment in France

This week GFiMP steers into previously uncharted territory with the first in a multi-part series that takes a personal look at the somewhat sensitive issue of unemployment in France.

I've waited nearly five months before taking this step. Not out of any overriding sense of guilt or shame or embarrassment. I'm not doing it to sensationalize or 'sell copies'...or even find a job. Although pragmatic as I am, if an offer does come of it, why not?

What's ironic is that I normally avoid reading — and writing — the story-of-my-life type of blog or article. Except in rare cases, I fail to see — or appreciate — the relevance.

But the fact of unemployment can't just be swept away and forgotten. It affects nearly 2.6 million people in France directly (9.6% of the working population at the beginning of 2011), not to mention dependent spouses and other family members.

So I finally decided, what the heck, I'll reveal a little of my own story; maybe it will help defuse some of the social stigma unemployment stirs up. Maybe it will simply inform people living elsewhere, or who've never gone through it before, what chômage in France can be like. From one person's personal perspective.

This is not your typical 'Got France in My Pants' post. But it is a very real one.

Enough explaining — let's get to it...

mid-December 2010
My last day of work coincides with the Christmas holiday. No time to make any plans, not even a good-bye party or drink with colleagues in the pub around the corner. Head down, I plow on through, determined to finish my tasks before leaving. 10 years I've worked here, and now I'm scraping for time to complete a simple project. But I do, enough, at least, for the next person to pick up where I've left off. I go into the holidays feeling a bit empty inside. I remember what it was like to walk away after an intense week of exams during college and feeling "now what?".

During the process of being laid-off, my employer presented me with several options. It was an important decision, not one to be taken lightly, because my choice would greatly impact my immediate future.

The first was called CRP for short. Another bureaucratic acronym, this one meaning la Convention de Reclassement Personnalisé. In other words, your personalized reemployment program. Sounded interesting from the get-go.

If I agreed to it, the termination of my contract would be fast-tracked, and I'd walk away 21 days later, unemployed.

Accepting the CRP is a bit like signing up for a personal gym trainer. Need to get back in shape? Here's Brutus. He's all yours...for the next 12 months.

Under the Brutus regime, I would have the status of "professional trainee" and benefit from regularly supervised workouts (meetings) as well as a battery of tests, training sessions and various on-line and print resources. Everything to get me back to work as soon as possible.

Perhaps the most attractive element of the CRP — and the deciding factor for those who eventually choose it — is the money. Quite understandably so.  For a maximum period of 12 months, the trainee receives roughly 80% of their gross salary of the last year; enough time and money, one would think, to find their way back into the workforce, even if it means re-inventing a new job for oneself.

If that last idea conjures up images of 12 lazy months of trolling beaches with paper umbrellas in tall drinks, taking languorous afternoon naps or watching mid-day television, remember that Brutus is on your back, every week, working with you to formulate a plan, tighten up your CV, write cover letters, practice interview techniques, approve further training if necessary. And if one day Brutus comes to you and says he's got an offer that matches your professional objective and skills base, you are committed to following up with it.

That's all part of being a CRPer. Nearly one year's salary. Up to 12 months of personalized professional coaching (less, of course, if you find your way back to work sooner), and resources at one's disposal. The other options were much less interesting: less than half one's salary, no personal trainer, a full two month's notice, etc.

I won't say it was a done deal immediately. But it didn't take me long to make my choice. After a few days of careful deliberation, I signed on the dotted line and began counting 21 days to a whole new life experience.

Early January 2011
I pop into the office on the 4th to return the company laptop and mobile phone and to pick up my going away check. I kiss the admin girls on the cheek. I mean, this is France after all. Shake hands with a few of the managers. Hear a few rounds of "good luck" and "thanks for everything". Someone hands me the latest issue of the company newsletter and points to my name in the sidebar in teeny print: there's a recipe of mine for Tibetan soup (not really mine, but one I "borrowed" from a café blackboard) and a note mentioning I'm the author of a blog (Got France in My Pants) and that everyone should go check it out. I smile, agree wholeheartedly, and am out the door for the very last time.

Over the last several years I've tried to image exactly what this moment would be like: the feelings of accomplishment, the rousing farewell party, the teary-eyed good-byes. Because in every one of those daytime reveries from the past I was walking directly into another job with grand (grandiose?) responsibilities and a salary to match. But that's not exactly how it goes here. Though I don't succumb to it, I think I understand how someone could feel overwhelming shame or guilt or humiliation standing at such a crossroads. Fortunately I've got ideas of what I want to pursue now that I've got the time and resources for it. Still, walking out that door is like staring into the void with no promise of anything beyond 12-month's salary and an unsettling vision of some abnormal, goal-driven employment consultant whose only ambition is to get me back to work as fast as humanly possible.

Next up: Meeting the Employment Office

11 May 2011

Did You Know...? Part 4

Everyone who lives in France or the DOM-TOM (overseas departments and territories) and pays what's called taxe d'habitation — local residence tax — must pay an annual tax on their television.

This tax, known as la redevance audiovisuelle in French, also applies to DVD and BlueRay players. It doesn't yet apply to computers equipped to capture TV signals.

But if you declare on your income tax form that you don't own a television, you are exempt.

How much
La redevance audiovisuelle is following the curve of most taxes these days. In 2011 each taxable household will pay 123 euros (roughly 176 USD), a bump up from 121 euros in 2010, while those living in the DOM-TOM will pay 79 euros (113 dollars).

This TV Tax finances the public television and radio stations (France 2, 3, 4, Arte-France...). In Europe this isn't unusual. Germany, Austria, Ireland, the UK and several countries in northern Europe also have a similar tax. And it isn't new.

People in France have been paying this tax since 1933. But of course back then it only applied to radio sets.

The above chart, provided by the Wikipedia page here, shows just where the money from this tax went last year.

123 euros might sound like a lot of money to pay to support public radio and TV, but when you think about it, it's not for one channel or station, but more than 10.

It breaks down to only 34 euro cents a day, or less than 50 US cents. For comparison's sake, most coffee shops here won't sell a cup of jo for under 2 euros ($2.80). And as for a pack of cigarettes, you have to pay nearly 6 euros ($8.60) for a pack of 20. I know many people who go through at least that many in a single day.

But for 34 cents you can watch public TV and listen to public radio 24/7.

Why anyone would want to do that is another story.

But thanks to the TV tax, you can.

05 May 2011

Springtime in La Dombes

Buttercups and Walnut tree

Resting Dragonfly

This is an excerpt of a recording I made last week
of the frogs chanting at sunset in the lake region north of Lyon
known as  La Dombes, famous for its frogs, fish and birdpark.

©Alex Quici 2011