Whether you want to renew your carte de séjour, apply for citizenship, or get a French driving licence, you have no choice but to apply online.
This policy of ‘modernisation at all costs’ excludes the most vulnerable in society, as well as non-EU nationals, says historian Claire Lemercier, co-author of the book La Valeur du service public.
“There has been a real acceleration of going paperless since 2012, once under Hollande, and in 2017 with the arrival of Emmanuel Macron,” she said.
France’s defender of rights, Claire Hédon, highlighted the difficulties in a report published last year: 15% of French people (30% of over-65s) do not have an internet connection at home.
A third gave up on an online process
Non-EU citizens are among the most affected, as they must request right of residency online, and almost all their other rights are dictated by this.
Ms Hédon also addressed a common misconception: a quarter of those aged 18 to 24 encountered difficulties in carrying out online procedures alone, 14 points higher than the average.
A study from statistics body Insee found that a third of adults gave up on at least one online administrative procedure in 2021. Three-quarters of these found an alternative method, but a quarter abandoned completely.
Inability to use a computer adds to shame
“What we hear from administrative staff is a lack of support for users, and for staff who have to explain these new tools.
“They also say the tools have been developed too quickly, with not enough communication between the administration and the companies making them,” said Dr Lemercier.
“This creates new types of inequality, not just in terms of age and income, but language, disability, and more.”
People who speak little French could previously ask for help, or even fill in forms in English next to the boxes, which is impossible online, she said.
Those who seek in-person help are shown to computers, as staff are instructed to spend as little time with people as possible, meaning many turn around and leave.
“Asking for benefits is already something lots of people choose not to do. If you are shown to a computer and have to admit you do not know how to use it, that adds to the shame.”
It has been said the reforms transfer labour from the administration to citizens, but Dr Lemercier says they also create additional, difficult work for the few, usually female, staff who still have contact with the public, notably secretaries in rural mairies.
“Their interactions are often strained as they have to explain what they are unable to do.”
No profit in spending time with people
She believes this digitalisation is a result of two factors: the fact that many decision-makers are “sincerely convinced” digitalisation will solve all problems, because they do not have to use these tools on a daily basis; and money-saving objectives.
“I have occasionally heard managers use the term surqualité, meaning public services must not provide excessive quality, which would be too expensive.
“There is an idea that spending time with people, especially those who often show up at the counter – the poorest, most foreign, most disabled – is not profitable and therefore not a priority.”
‘People with more power get more help’
Sociologists observed this phenomenon in physical queues, before everything went online, she said.
“Lots of services created a separate queue for people who often contacted the administration – typically people with short-term cartes de séjour, or the very poor or disabled.
“Assurance Maladie would openly have a queue with a maximum of three minutes per person, for the people in the greatest need but who are unlikely to complain, and then a slightly nicer queue where they spent a bit more time with groups who were more likely to complain to their MP or have a lawyer.”
Poor service online is invisible
There might no longer be queues outside the prefecture, but they now exist online.
“The fact that there is no physical queue renders the problem invisible, and means it is more difficult for associations to mobilise people or for people to complain together.
“It individualises the problem, and that is clearly an ulterior motive of the organisers.”
40% online administration accessible to people with disabilities
Other groups that are disadvantaged are people with visual impairments or cognitive disabilities.
Dr Lemercier said many already found paperwork difficult because of complex bureaucratic language, but ill-adapted websites have made things even worse.
In early 2022, only 40% of online administrative procedures were accessible to people with disabilities, according to the defender of rights.
Dr Lemercier believes Ms Hédon’s warnings have gone unheeded, as qualitative complaints are not taken as seriously as reports of money being wasted.
“What is missing is an evaluation based on people’s experiences, as this is completely absent from the culture of the people who govern us.
“They are taught in government schools that everything must be put into figures.”
Further legal battles expected
Creating specific digital help schemes for the poor or elderly is not the solution either, she said, as not only can these exacerbate feelings of shame, but anybody can be affected by these issues.
Several associations have challenged France’s rule that carte de séjour applications must be made online.
Last June, the Conseil d’Etat ruled there must be an alternative solution in case of problems with the online platform.
While prefectures can agree to process documents via post, no official Plan B appears to have been put in place.
“I think we will have a classic situation where associations will have to return to court, this time to make sure the decision is applied,” Dr Lemercier said.
“The battle is only just beginning.”