Getting paid in France

The French rarely care about getting paid. Of course their culture is set up around limited store hours and low pay in favor of extreme amounts of vacation. This we know. But they don’t even really understand why one would care about things like getting paid on time. While the situation may be bad in normal French life, it is mind-blowing in the university system.

Story #1

I first started my French post-doc in August. Normally pay comes by direct deposit at the end of the month. I waited until the end of October to receive any money. I had just moved from Germany so I ran out. Tiffany had to send me money from Germany and the professor I worked for loaned me some. Of course I had some money back in the US, but I wasn’t prepared to go months without pay. And, from my perspective (which I’d argue is correct), why should I? I was in a contractual relationship with an organization to do some work in exchange for pay. But apparently this is normal. It’s incredible.

Story #2

I was employed by two organizations during my time in the French lab. One was the university, Arts et Métiers ParisTech (ENSAM), and one was a somewhat private association (I don’t really understand the organizational structure), ARTS. The association has an absolutely terrible human resources department. They don’t respond to emails unless they want to argue with you. I stopped responding to theirs as well though, out of principle, so at least that worked out alright. But ARTS was comparatively really fast at paying out travel reimbursements. ARTS can get it done in about one month (which is still not great compared to the American 1–2 weeks) while ENSAM routinely takes anywhere from 4 to 6 months. Which account the money comes from depended on various circumstances (as is typical even in American universities). If I was lucky, it would be ARTS. If not, it was ENSAM.

I went to a conference last March down in Arles (south of France, not far from the sea), which was to be paid by ENSAM. My colleague and I registered a couple months in advance, as presenters usually must register and pay by a certain date to confirm they will show up. That date came and went, as ENSAM had still not paid the bill. Though it was an international conference, because it was held in France I guess the organizers understood the type of incompetence in French universities. Our secretary contacted them and arranged a deal wherein we had to submit personal checks for the registration fee but they wouldn’t be cashed. We finally got our checks back a couple months after the conference, because ENSAM had finally paid the bill (after the conference was done!). This is existential stuff if you are a university who wants to publish papers and be respected internationally. You might not get such friendly treatment if you call some American conference organizers and tell them you can’t pay until two months after the conference. Note that when I say “can’t pay,” I really mean “can’t be bothered to pay.”

Now it’s November, but this fiasco is still going. Though the conference has been paid for, ENSAM still hasn’t reimbursed me for my travel expenses. My colleague got reimbursed back in July, so the secretary (after much prodding, because in France they are used to this) contacted some people to find out what happened. It turns out that I had accidentally had the hotel invoice made out to the ARTS address instead of ENSAM. Though this makes basically no difference to anybody rational, it completely stopped the process for ENSAM. They weren’t going to even bother telling me about the problem or proceed with paying me for the other expenses, which were numerous. They apparently assumed that the problem of my 500+ Euros would simply go away if they ignored it. The secretary asked the hotel to issue a new invoice and now the process is moving again, allegedly, but it’s been two more months and I still haven’t seen my money.

Quality of life is impacted

I say all that French vacation is great, but time is wasted on this stuff and I can’t exactly go on vacation without any money. I don’t like the stress of dealing with people who don’t uphold their end of contracts. I don’t think ENSAM deserves to be a world-class university, because it doesn’t behave like one.

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