Seldom does anyone have a good thing to say about war. But get this: thanks to WWI , I’m going to Paris next month.
It’s a bit complicated, but stay with me here: The First World War pretty much decimated the population of France. Before the war, there were over 39 million people living here. Afterwards, there were 1,700, 000 fewer.
In response, the government instituted many pro-natalist policies. One of these was the « Carte Famille Nombreuse » . (The Big Family Card. Very descriptive, if not creative. ). It was a card issued by the national rail service giving families with three or more children a discount on train fares.
This was a huge deal back in 1921. It allowed working class families in an increasingly urbanized and industrial environment to get out of the cities and enjoy fresh country air.
And here’s the thing: the card is still a pretty big deal, over eighty years later. When our cher President Sarkozy started scheming recently to do away with this beloved institution, he was quickly confronted with so much opposition that he was forced to back down. While it’s true that fewer and fewer people are having big families, the French are nothing if not « solidaire » . They know that once the government gets started eliminating public benefits, it won’t stop…and meantime the bigwigs keep their huge salaries and benefits such as beautiful government-owned apartments in the heart of Paris.
So, the government was forced to keep the card, but that’s not to say they made it easy to get one…
When we arrived back in France this summer, one of the first things I did was try to apply for our cards. On the official website, I learned that you could get application forms at your village mayor’s office. So, I went down to see the secretary there. R. is a nice lady and I know her pretty well. She’s very kind and always willing to help if she can. But she had NO clue what I was talking about. Nobody in the village had ever applied for a CFN and she had no idea how to get the forms. I didn’t want to pester her, so I decided to go to Plan B: The website had also said that you could get applications at any railway station.
So, the next day I drove to one and asked for a CFN application The woman at the ticket counter looked at me like I was mad. « We don’t deal with that kind of thing » she said disdainfully, as though I’d asked her to participate in some unspeakable rite. « Check the website. You can order them online. I think. »
That wasn’t very reassuring, but I figured I’d give it a go.
You may not believe this, but I swear it is the truth: I tried many, many times over a period of several days to order the applications online. It NEVER worked. The site somehow always managed to NOT function.
Is it a government plot? I wondered.
Or maybe I’m an idiot and just doing it wrong? That's always a possibility.
So, I eventually went back to the kindly secretary at the village town hall and told her my sad story. She shook her head sympathetically and turned towards her computer. She called up the railway service website and tried to get the applications.
It didn’t work. Of course.
« Maybe you should write them a letter. » she suggested.
« I ‘m afraid they’d just throw it in the trash and claim they never got it. » I said sadly.
« I suppose you‘re right » she agreed.
« But maybe if you were to write them a request …» I said, an idea slowly taking form « and we sent it registered mail, I bet they’d HAVE to send me the applications. Wouldn’t they? »
She agreed to help me out and sent the letter the next day.
The forms came four weeks later. We quickly filled them in, gathered all the documents and photos needed and sent it all off.
Then we waited. And we waited.
Then we waited some more.
Finally, about five weeks later, our cards arrived.
Much rejoicing ensued.
Three children is considered a « large family » and each member is entitled to 30% off train fares. Any more children than that is considered a « very large family » and gets more off. With our four children, for example, we get 40% reduction. And it’s this discount that makes it realistic for me to take our four kids on the train next month and go visit Paris.
Once there, expenses will still be reasonable. Our CFN cards also get a special rate on Metro and bus fares. Even museum entrance fees are reduced for CFN holders. And as for lodging, which can be so costly, we’ll stay at the house of friends and do most of our own cooking. Most meals while we’re out and about will be picnics packed at home.
A week in Paris for five can be done on a low budget…as long as the government lets us keep our nifty cards.
So, don’t be mean, Sarko. I want my kids (and other not incredibly wealthy kids) to wander around the Louvre and go to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
Is that too much to ask?