Like a letter in the mail

Last December, The French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced a change in the regulations of the Post Office; this public organisation is going to become an unnamed company and raise its own capital. The decision was very badly received by the employees and some of the customers who fear the privatisation of the organisation. In France the Post Office has had the monopoly of distribution of stamps since 1849; it is THE symbol of French public service, in the form of the postman. Reporting by Florence Maitre.

Every morning from Monday to Saturday, Marylene climbs on her bike regardless of the weather to go delivering the mail in the letter boxes. We are in Saint Jean d’Angely, a rural community of 8300 residents to the east of La Rochelle.

– Hello!
– Hello!
– Come in, but you have to give me some mail too!
– Oh well, that the least I can do, isn’t it; there you are!

We go into the home of Marie-Ange, a retired person who lives on her own. On the table, coffee and delicious little cakes. The post-lady was expected!

Oh well, I see her passing as I just about know her times. Then my goodness, well I say “Hang on, she’s coming”, then there is a little “Hi-there!” at the door.
Yeah, even if we don’t see each other, we speak to one another…
– Even if we don’t see each other, I say “Hi! Thanks!”. That’s fine. I had a serious accident 15 years ago so I was 125 days in hospital. The postmen and women were very nice: I could not walk, they brought me my mail; they used to put it on my sofa, the postman too, the parcels and everything else. And when I had a letter to put in the mail I used to put a clothes peg on the letter box and they used to come in to take my mail and all, very nice! And now, I have a post-lady I am going to keep her as long as possible because she is so nice. You can ask them for a little favour, they are always there, then they’re nice, so… I know to thank them every year too!

We call them the tips. It’s a little sum of money that individuals give to the postman each year for little favours. On her round, Marylene knows well in which house people are watching out for her. And what’s more, it is what she likes about her work.

– So some, you have to give their bell a little tinkle as then they know that the postman has been and that they have some mail. Others… Mrs Bertrand, up there, you must… I ring and wait and she comes. There are some people who do not see anyone during the day, so they like to have a discussion very much, quite simply, to have a little connection, right!
– When you started this work, you didn’t realise about all that?
– Ah but I was hoping however that there was all that. Because beforehand I was doing the counter, there wasn’t the same exchange. Here, it is much livelier. It is true that… We bring a service everyday to people… Yeah, but then it depends on our nature too, a little smile, a little hello, it is much nicer, right. I love m work, so well, it’s a pleasure. If it were only the letter boxes, it’s true that that’s not very… You do not feel valued. So here, we know what we are doing; we are bringing something to people, so that’s a lot more valuable than simple putting mail into boxes.
I do the town centre, that’s the shops, that’s very good too. Here, I have more my rounds with the old people, so the grannies and the granddads who are waiting much more. That is a much warmer exchange. In the end however, it depends on people. There are people who are not looking for that. Personally I think that it is important however.

In the movie “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis” which has been the greatest success of all time in French cinema, Antoine is a postman that people invite a little too often to have a drink. Another employee of the Post Office tries to defend him in front of his boss.

– He doesn’t know how to say no. But you know how it goes. You go into people’s homes, they are happy to see you bring them their mail: “Hang on; you can have a little drink Antoine!” Then one thing leads to another…
– One thing leads to another until he is fighting in front of the Post Office in the Postal Uniform and that is unacceptable. Maybe he doesn’t know how to say no, but I know how to say stop.
– A reprimand, that’s a bit much, Sir.
– Well, you’re not however defending him Annabelle?
– Ah no, I’m not defending him.

To stop Antoine from drinking, the boss decides to follow him on his rounds.

– Hi, how’s it going?
– Hello Mister Mayeux!
– Hello Phillip Abram, I am the manager o the Post Office in Berk.
– Ah that’s very ice to come to say hello. Come in from two minutes.
– Whooo! No thank you Mister Mayeux, it’s very nice but we must get along, it’s a little early for a little drink.
– You don’t want even a little coffee?
– Ah a coffee, that, that’s different! That we can’t refuse; let’s go!

And of course from house to house, the round ends with them well pickled, postman and boss!

– Yeah but then again, now, we have to stop, now! We must drink in moderation. What do we say, Antoine?
– Thank you.
– No, we say no!
– No, thank you.
– There you are!

So, of course “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis” is cinema. But according to our post-lady Marylene, and Gaelle who has also done this work, the truth is not so different.

– That, I don’t think that’s a caricature, really! None of the postmen drink, but you have to admit that the good humour of the postmen, I think that this is presented well, the sociable side, and all that yeah, that’s how it is all right!
– And in our area, it is the Pineau family. It’s not… well, I… yes! Fine but just one glass, because afterwards, you’ve lost the right.
– When you’re a post-lady, they offer us coffee, perhaps the men, they offer something else! It is true that they offer us more…
– A man, a drink, but a woman they are not going to offer a drink or so at meal times, or dinner “well will you have a drink”. Oh well it’s…
– Have you never seen your colleagues coming back a bit tipsy from there rounds?
– Not now. More so for the older ones, but today, young people… then the points! That’s true if nothing else that stops us. We think more about that.

Norbert Bertrand writes books today. H draws his inspiration mainly from his professional life: 42 years spent in the Post Office. At the time, getting into the PTT was really a social promotion in rural areas.

– Well, in my time, there was not a lot of time, 10 years after the war, we started work much younger. Once I had taken the baccalaureate, I found a job as a teacher, but I did not like that at all. So I took an exam for the Post Office; I had almost forgotten the exam, when I heard that I had been accepted. And then afterwards I waited a few months because at that time to go to Paris… Everyone was going to Paris, practically, 90%, it was… that was slavery all right. Very young, in Paris on a low income, it was necessary to find a place to live and really, the months were hard. I remember. In the end that allowed me to get out of military service at the age of 20 by being an employee of the Post Office. I had a proper job, so I had at last a secure job until my retirement. So in the rural areas “Ah, he has a good job”. So we used to hear talk which has always made my angry for example “He’s joining the Post Office, he’s going to have it easy, he’s not going to work too much”. It was “Little Quiet Job” that used to bother us above all because in fact in the Post Office as in all organisations, there are some people who work hard and there are people who do nothings, that’s obvious!

The Postal Service is also the Post Office that we used to find even in the smallest village with its counters, its telephones and its waiting lines. It has a different reputation from that of the postman.

– Ah yes, quite different, What’s more the people at the counters were quite spiteful people, behind the counters with their waiting lines, etc. The stand up comedians use to love all that, the post-mistress. Fernand Raynaud, for example, used to caricature the Post office with its bitter mistresses; “what’s that” etc. Well, in fact we used to feel less well I think when working at the counter than as a postman.

– Hello. To whom would you like to call from this Post Office?
– What do you want?
– I would like to make a phone call. I would like Asnieres 22.

Today, the Post Office is a business which is really is in a time of change. When Norbert Bertrand talks with his former colleagues those who still work in the Post Office, he no longer really recognises his employer.

– That’s clear less and less. First of all there are no longer these stories. We were civil servants: selected by examinations. Well there were enormous advantages, for example we had security of employment, but that meant for example going to Paris etc. Now, someone (that, that’s certainly not a penance by the way) some can have a career in the Post Office and stay at home. If he lives in La Rochelle he goes to sign up in La Rochelle. He can come back there’s a job. That starts with a short term contract by later a permanent job, but for us we had passed the selection procedures, we were civil servants; they could not show us the door. It was however a funny advantage. From the fact that the people are much less fixed, I would say, much less stable, there is no longer the team spirit that there was once. Because before, well we know one another, we worked together. There are postmen who could work with another postman for 15 years, 20 years, with the… It was always the same neighbour at your side, etc. that created bonds however! So in my opinion, that’s on it way to extinction.

More machines, few counters. For some, it is less waiting; for others, less personal. The managers of the post Office have only one thought in their heads: the start of European competition in 2011. That the Post Office keeps it public regulations; that it gets through in part under private funding; that it must face the arrival of big competitors like Deutsche Telekom in the French market.


[1] Ch’tiot means small in the north of France where they made “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis”.

[2] Points on the driving licence for each traffic offence.

[3] Petit Travail Tranquille – that’s PTT – Portes Télégraphes et Télécommunications, the former name of La Poste.

[4] Famous sketch by Fernand Raynaud about the post office from the 1960s: Asnieres 22.

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