Most French bureaucrats struggle with ‘absurdity’ of their work, survey shows

Most French bureaucrats struggle with 'absurdity' of their work, survey shows
People receive help at the CAF in Lyon. Photo: Philippe DESMAZES / AFP.
You find French bureaucracy ridiculous? Don't worry, so do the bureaucrats... according to a survey of French public sector workers.

It’s common for people interacting with French administration to question the purpose of what they’re being asked to do, but the results of the study, published on Monday, show that the fonctionnaires themselves are almost universally confronted with the same feelings.

Apparently, 97 percent of public sector workers said they had thought, at least once while at work, “That’s absurd… Or if it has a purpose, it’s not the one I signed up for” while 8 in 10 said they were “regularly” or “very frequently” confronted with this feeling of absurdity. The frequency of such thoughts increased with the age of respondents.

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The collective Nos service publics represents fonctionnaires – public sector employees which includes civil servants and bureaucrats but also teachers, healthcare workers and certain types of police officers.

According to the collective, which was created earlier this year to highlight public administration’s failure to meet people’s needs, the results represent a “profound malaise” in the public sector.

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They questioned 4,555 people online between May and August. Since the survey was voluntary, employees in positions of responsibility are over-represented in the study, but its authors say respondents came from “all ages, all positions and all sectors”.

Lack of funding

Concerns over salaries and career advancement come second to frustrations encountered when executing tasks – “a lack of resources, disagreement over the relevance of received instructions, a loss of meaning to their task”.

In total, 64 percent of respondents cited a lack of resources, rising to three quarters in the justice, health and education sectors. Overall, this was the most common difficulty faced by civil servants.

Nos services publics have also published over 2,500 written accounts of public sector workers who provided specific details concerning their working conditions.

One pediatrician in a newborn intensive care unit spoke of having to “treat patients on an assembly line, without being able to take the time to speak to the families”.

“I’m being made to give class to 35 pupils at a time, while prioritising oral interaction,” said Isabelle, a high school English teacher.

Many people also cited the weight of bureaucracy as well as contradictory orders, which combine to waste time and prevent them from achieving their primary aims.

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“We are asked to do more and more paperwork, and we have less and less time to correctly prepare the class,” one primary school teacher wrote.

An employee at the justice ministry added: “Constant changes of priorities and direction, a lack of coherence in contradictory orders and commands.”


Although the reality of working in the public sector is often not what people expect, 68 percent of people who answered the survey cited “serving the general interest” as one of their reasons for joining.

Once in the job, this motivation often comes up against “the impression of serving a particular interest (whether it’s the manager’s, the politician’s, or a campaign’s), rather than the general interest” according to the study.

Just over half of people said the public interest was a factor in their decision to continue working in the public sector. The “difficulty of changing” was the main reason people continued to work in National Education, however.

You can read the testimonies on the Nos services publics website.

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