Sunday, 4 November 2012

'Le piston' - or 'using your contacts to help you get what you need'

No Fripouille, not THIS kind of piston, you silly boy *sigh...*
Jobs for the boys, string-pulling, immoral, a useful networking tool, call it what you will but 'le piston' - using one's connections to find a job, an education, or help in other areas - is a reality here in France. Have I used it? Of course I have. After all, 'I am not more Royalist than the King' as the French say, and it can be very helpful when living in France, a country which doesn't always make life as easy for foreign residents as it does for French citizens, and in which most people use le piston when they feel they need to. Here are a few examples of how I have used it and how it has helped me even without me trying to exploit it.

For example, it can be very useful when dealing with France's notoriously complex labyrinth of civil service administration departments and formalities, as I found out about 20 years ago when it helped me to get out of a hopeless Catch 22-style fix.

This story happened when I was living in a small village with my then girlfriend, and I needed a document called a 'fiche d'état civil' to enable me to change my driving licence. It was a document containing details of your marital state, births and deaths. I say 'was' because it was abandoned in 2000.

Anyway, I needed one and off I went to the local Mairie to obtain it. I produced my passport to identify myself even though I was well known there seeing as my girlfriend's family had lived in the village for literally centuries. "Sorry" said the lady, "I'll need to see your birth certificate as well." "No problem" said I and drove back home, picked up my birth certificate, went back to the Mairie, and proudly placed it in front of her. There ensued the following conversation.

"But it hasn't been updated since you were born."
"Yes I know, and that's because British birth certificates only contain details of birth and the identity of parents and it isn't used to record subsequent deaths and births as is the case for its French equivalent. So it can't be updated and even if I renewed it it would contain exactly the same information as it does now."
"Well in that case I can't give you a fiche d'état civil, not now, and not in the future either."
"But how can I update my driving licence without one?"
"You can't. Sorry, but the law is the law."
"But you know who I am! I've been popping in for one thing or another for years!"
And that was that. I related this story at dinner that evening to my girlfriend's family and they found a solution to my problem within seconds. "Phone Chantal" said someone, "she'll look after that for you."

'Chantal' was a family relative who just happened to be the Mayor of a large village of about 5000 inhabitants about 20 kilometres away. I phoned her the next day and she told me to pop round to her Mairie where she would personally give me a fiche d'état civil. And she did. Job sorted. Le piston oblige.

Le piston also helps when you get into trouble with the law for minor road offences, on the condition that you are friends with a gendarme. I, like most other people, have had to pay fines for speeding, illegal parking and similar offences over the years. And I always paid on the spot because I knew I was guilty and it would have been churlish to argue that I wasn't.

One day though I was booked and recieved a hefty fine for failing to stop fully on a white line at a stop junction. I didn't agree with that as I was convinced that I had stopped, if only briefly, but nor did I argue and I took my ticket politely but didn't pay on the spot. Then I telephoned a gendarme friend and explained my situation. He believed my version of events and told me not to worry. Two days later he called me back to say "I've had your fine cancelled", and that was the end of it. (As a footnote to that, I hear that this particular use of the police piston - to get fines cancelled - is harder to do these days, so don't count on it working like it used to.)

Another story involving le piston happened a long time ago when I asked an estate agent friend to help me find an apartment. My problem was that I wasn't earning much at the time and didn't have enough money for the deposit. So he found me an apartment within days and I didn't have to pay a deposit, an expensive obligation which is very difficult to get around.

Then there's the world of work. I am a translator who works within a fairly narrow range of what could be called 'niche' markets. There are few opportunities for work there but on the other hand those in this sector who need translators all know each other and I have often found business by being introduced to new clients by existing ones who recommend me. In fact this has worked so well that I don't even need to go out and prospect for new clients any more

So much for my experiences, but there are many other areas in which it works. One of them is education. If you have children and know well-placed people in local education authorities or headmasters/mistresses it is relatively easy to circumvent laws which oblige parents to send their children to schools in their catchment area, particularly in cities. So if you live in a more modest area but have high hopes for your children it is possible to to place them in better schools in better areas of a city by using your connections. That may cost more travel time for the children, but many people think it's worth it. It's the same for the better universities. Your child will still need to take an entrance exam even if you use le piston, but at least they are guaranteed to be pre-selected and to be able take it.

Graduates with well-connected parents find it easier to get good jobs, and even in less exalted jobs le piston can work wonders if you are friends with, say, the owner of a local business who has a job on offer which may suit your son or daughter's needs.

In other words, le piston is everywhere, whether we like it or not. As to the French themselves and their attitudes towards it, 88% of them thought that le piston takes priority over talent in a survey carried out 2 years ago and whereas 75% of them would use it, only 20% said they would never use it out of principle, although I suspect that many of the 20% may well have been telling little fibs.

Is it immoral? I don't intend to take firm a stance in this blog, which is just here to explain how and when it can work and has done for me, although I am inclined to think that it isn't a uniquely French phenomenon and I am convinced that it is no more prevalent here than Britain or elsewhere.

One thing's for sure though, and that is that without it I would have had a hell of a job getting my driving licence changed, I would have had to pay a heavy fine I didn't deserve, I may have ended up homeless at one time, and without it my professional life would be much more difficult than it is.

Have you had any experiences involving le piston? Is it a natural reflex or should it be condemned? My jury's out on that. What about yours?

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