My wife is a mine of information. In the course of her therapeutic duties, she picks up any shiny little nuggets that she can reveal to me without betraying client confidentiality.
Last week, for example, she told me something very surprising. God knows, I’m not easily surprised about matters to do with the national health after all this time among the hypochondriac tribes of Gaul. But this floored me.
Did you know that, when he or she gives someone a sick note, a doctor can specify certain hours during which the patient can legitimately be out and about? In other words, I suppose, if Monsieur or Madame Ixx is spotted wandering up and down the aisles of their local Leclerc with a shopping trolley between the hours of, let’s say, 15.00 and 16.30, then it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are swinging the lead. (Or le swinging, as it may popularly become known.)
As an outsider observing the curious rituals of the master race, it doesn’t take long to deduce that the French are addicted to their doctors. Since doctors are generally in the pockets of Grand Pharma, it also doesn’t take long to figure out that there are plenty who prefer to sign off evident malingerers rather than hold up the queue or disturb the peace. But surely someone is either sick or isn’t sick. And if someone is sick, shouldn’t that person be in bed rather than abroad between certain hours?
For me, the discovery of this ‘qualified sicky’ exemplifies what is wrong with France. It’s the absurd consequence of a nanny state gone mad. The idea a) that a doctor, a servant and representative of The State, could specify on a piece of paper that Monsieur or Madame Ixx can only leave their sick bed between certain hours, and b) that Monsieur or Madame Ixx might actually sheepishly follow this prescription suggests that there is a deep-seated and genuine social malady requiring major surgery.
I wouldn’t want you to think that I’m adopting a holier-than-thou stance about sick notes just because I’m self-employed and therefore can never afford to be sick. It’s nothing to do with that, and I’m even prepared to accept that many sick notes are legitimate. But I do have personal experience of just how easy it is to work the system. I was once shamelessly guilty of throwing the knotted rope into the sea to determine its depth during my 15 years in Britain’s Civil Surface. In my defence, I have to say that I was only young at the time. Maybe it was because my precious weekend had been ruined by a nasty bout of gastro-enteritis, or maybe it was the dawning realisation that my one-man war on waste would not help my promotion chances, because the only way to rise to the top in the organisation was to show yourself adept at paper-pushing, obfuscation and passing of the buck so that it stopped neither on your desk nor, more crucially, the desks of the people above you.
Anyway, it seemed very unfair that I should feel fine again come Monday morning, so I determined: dash it all; I’m not having this! I put on two jumpers and squeezed myself into a tight jacket and ran all the way along the Upper Lewes Road and then down to Preston Circus and the surgery of my nice but rather inept doctor. He was a squat Asian gentleman with a tiny voice and gold-framed bi-focals, who had better remain anonymous because I am sure that he was doing his best in the face of belligerent malingerers and frequent inducements from the drug companies. He had this annoying habit of nodding mechanically whenever I attempted to answer his question, And how are you feeling today?, and then scribbling out a prescription before I’d finished.
On this particular day, I was early enough to be first or second in the queue. So, when I was called in to his inner sanctum, I was still sufficiently wheezing from my exertions and apparently running such a high temperature that it must have seemed like I was knock-knock-knocking on heaven’s door (if lead-swingers go to heaven). He wrote me a sick note for an entire week. I came out of that surgery like one of those people in annoying adverts that punch the air and go ye-e-e-sssssssss! That afternoon, I even chanced my luck by taking the bus up to the municipal golf course for a round of golf. Did I need a note to tell me that I could legitimately be abroad at that time? I did not.
So I know about sick notes. There will always be a few dodgy sick notes even in the most public-spirited of utopian societies. The trouble is that the qualified sicky suggests that it so endemic as to have become almost acceptable. Earlier this summer, for example, Debs and I were sharing an aperitif with the Parisian who works (fitfully) in a state hospital. He and his mate had spent most of July rendering the walls of the house he is renovating down below us. He was lamenting the fact that he and his family would be returning to the big city that weekend. Debs asked him if it was back to work on Monday? Without the slightest shame or sense of irony, he shrugged and suggested that he would see how he felt, because he had a long-term note for his sciatica.
What hope of reform is there? Each bright-faced and breezy new leader elected to the Palais de l’Élysée – often with a mandate for some kind of change – is presumably aware of the socio-economic implications of the qualified sicky. Yet, no sooner does he knuckle down to the task of doing something to change things than he is de-railed by plummeting ratings.
Just as the tiny oligarchy of American zillionaires will no doubt use their obscene wealth to stymie President Obama’s modest efforts to tinker with the tax system, so everyone with a vested interest in the qualified sicky will do their utmost to prevent any kind of useful reform. Custom and practice über alles. So what’s the point? Why bother, one is tempted to ask?