Having just had a frustrating experience at my local tax office, I started with the section on fonctionnaires. The word fonctionnaires is often translated into English as "civil servants" but in France it encompasses a vast army of 6 million people, from teachers to firemen to the lady in my local tax office, who are employed by the state to carry out its functions.
There are 3 main categories of fonctionnaire: A, B and C. In theory, to be a C, you don't need a university degree, to be a B you might well and to be an A you probably need a post-graduate qualification. There is also category A+, who are the highest ranking civil servants. The book explains how, to get a job as a civil servant, you have to pass a gruelling concours (competitive exam) which tests "general culture", technical knowledge and aptitude for the position. Pass rates for these exams range from 1 to 12 percent. For those who pass, further training of up to two years is often required. In other words, getting to be a fonctionnaire is hard.
All of this was very interesting to read, but it didn't answer the question that every expat has at the front of their mind almost from the moment that they set foot on French soil: if these people are so carefully selected and highly trained, why on earth are they so inefficient and unhelpful? So I turned to Understanding Frenchman in search of the answer and this is what he said.
In France, everybody wants to be a civil servant. (Well, not quite everybody, but if 10 percent of the population actually are and the pass rate for the exam is only around ten percent, a lot of them do!) The main reason for this is job security. Fonctionnaires are guaranteed a job for life, get to retire early and are virtually impossible to sack. For many French people, these benefits far override the higher salaries that they could be earning in the private sector. As a result, far more people want civil service jobs than can actually be given them, and as a result of that, the people who end up with the bottom and middle jobs are overqualified to do them. They take them anyway, though, partly for the reasons mentioned above and partly because it's easier to get promotion within the civil service than to apply from the outside. Movement through the ranks depends on performance management grades, and even movement from one geographical location to another depends on a system of points gained partly through performance and partly through length of service. Crucially, though, "customer service" (I hesitate to use the expression because it's our taxes that pay their wages, but you know what I mean) is not one of the assessment criteria.
To put it crudely, when you go to your local tax office, the chances are that the person you are confronted with is bored with their job, has very little external motivation to help you and is just waiting (or potentially working very hard, but not at helping you) until they have enough points to move on to a job that actually suits their interests and capabilities. Obviously, this is not the case for everyone, and there are probably plenty of devoted fonctionnaires out there who do care about their jobs and about serving their country, but the chances are that they're not the ones that you meet in your daily life.
And why is it that the private sector can't offer salaries and benefits to rival those provided to employees of the state? It's because in France it's both difficult and expensive to employ people in the private sector, mainly because of the high charges that private companies have to pay to the government ... to pay for the fonctionnaires!