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...
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.
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