France Info is by far my favourite radio station. I like it because it keeps repeating the news all day so that if you tune off at any time, the same information will soon come round again. I usually listen when I’m cooking or eating by myself. They don’t just do news. They also have regular features such as the meaning of words.
Yesterday, they were talking about the difference between service civil and service civique.
Until it was absolished by Jacques Chirac in 1996, 10 months’ service militaire was compulsory in France for all men over the age of 18 if considered fit. Call-up could be delayed if the conscript was a full-time student in higher education. Conscientious objectors were required to do two years of service civil as opposed to militaire. Nothing to do with our civil service.
Service civil was then replaced by service civique which is voluntary community work open to all young people from 16 to 25. They are paid 573 euros per month for a minimum of 24 hours a week for 6 to 12 months. So service civil no longer exists.
What we call the civil service in Great Britain or the public service in Australia is known as la fonction publique in French. Civil servants are fonctionnaires. Un haut fonctionnaire is a top-ranking civil servant or senior official while un petit fonctionnaire is a minor official.
La fonction publique covers a much broader range of activities than our civil service. There are about three million fonctionnaires (also known as agents de l’Etat). They include teachers, social services staff, post office workers, police officers and employees of the French rail services.
They are recruited by competitive examination and successful candidates are known as titulaires. Because of their almost total job security, they are often stereotyped as having unfair advantages compared to employees in the private sector. It’s certainly easier to get a mortgage or rent an apartment if you’re a fonctionnaire.
Whence expressions such as il a une mentalité de fonctionnaire – he has the mentality of a petty bureaucrat. C’est un vrai fonctionnaire means he’s a petty bureaucrat. Petty of course is a deterioration of the French word “petit”.
Bureaucrate also exists, and is both masculine and feminine. Paperasserie (administrative) is red tape and dates back to the 1500s. Paperasse is paperwork. Which reminds me. I have more forms to fill out. I’m still trying to get my address changed everywhere.