Je Suis une Public Servant

Parisot perched on its hill

Well, that’s not strictly accurate. I believe you have to be a French citizen to be a fonctionnaire – civil servant. But you don’t have to be French to become a bénévole – volunteer – and help deliver a service. I’m now part of a team of people who run the library at the village of Parisot.

Apparently, in France there’s a distinction between a bénévole and a volontaire – also a volunteer in English. The former give some of their free time to do something on a continuing basis, often for an association; the latter are taken on to do a job of limited duration, normally full-time under a contract. They might get pocket money and/or expenses. I’m one of the former. 

Team spirit

Parisot is not our commune but it has a good community spirit and the village always needs people to help with things. Feeling that I could spare a few hours a week, I volunteered to run the library – or médiathèque – every Saturday morning from December onwards.

If your vision of a library is a dark and dusty place run by a Gorgon with bottle glasses and a quadruple humour by-pass then think again. A dynamic English woman who speaks excellent French runs our team. Four French women – and me – are the foot soldiers. There’s a great team spirit, a lot of goodwill and we all tutoie each other. I run my own business and haven’t worked directly for any organisation for more than 14 years so I have sometimes missed the camaraderie.

A few years ago, there was no library at all. A lot of hard work later and our library is part of a grouping of médiathèques under the aegis of the Communauté des Communes. Volunteers run all the médiathèques. There should be a salaried person at the head of it all but the previous one left and has not yet been replaced.  

Not just books

The library itself is housed in a light, bright building in the centre of the village. The library’s services are all free. It has a good selection of English books, a lot of French novels and reference books and an excellent children’s section. The classes from the local primary school come in turns to choose their books. I haven’t borrowed any books yet because it’s all a bit hectic when you’re working there, especially when the classes are in (I have to say I’m rather glad to be doing Saturdays in that regard).

It’s not just books, though. You can borrow CDs and DVDs and also access the Internet via two computers. A French woman runs French courses for foreigners in a room upstairs; English people run English courses and conversation groups; and an association connected with the médiathèque organises talks, demonstrations, films and social events.

Getting to grips with the system

This month, I have had a series of training sessions in the procedures and routines, including how to deal with the computerised lending system without making a complete mess of it. Having to speak and deal with people’s problems in French is excellent for improving my grasp of the language. I’ve also been initiated into the mysteries of an AZERTY French standard keyboard. One day I’ll get the hang of it.

There are some irritations too, of course. Our photocopier won’t work because it’s run out of toner so we have to use the computer printer instead. Since the departure of the salaried person, no one knows whose responsibility it is to get it serviced. I was all for going out and buying new toner and claiming back the cost. This isn’t how it’s done, apparently. So sometimes I have to swallow my natural impatience with disorganisation and bureaucracy.

Once a volunteer, always a volunteer

Once you start volunteering for things you tend to get roped into other activities. We’re already volunteers at la chapelle de Teysserolles, which is good fun and restoring a sadly-neglected building is a worthy cause. I managed to avoid being drafted into the choir for the carol service since I sing like an owl. The SF, who has a rather better voice, is in it.

So if you happen to be in this area of southwest France at 17h00 on Sunday 18th December, come and join us at Parisot church. The commune is offering mulled wine, cakes, mince pies etc in the salle des fêtes afterwards.    

Was I allowed to escape entirely? Certainly not. I’ve got to read one of the lessons – in French.

P.S. I don’t want to sound all holier-than-thou about this. I do it because I enjoy it. But it’s also nice to think you can be helpful at the same time.

Copyright © 2011 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved


    • Sob! 19 years old – a good age even for a cat. It reminds me of the cat who lived in the public loos at Paddington Station for many years. But he was desperately fat and no doubt died from it. We have enough trouble with some of the customers at the library – including Mme H from the school, who is not my favourite person nor me hers I think – so don’t think we will get a resident cat to add to them.


  1. It does sound very worthwhile. We’re too tiny (52 persons) to have a library in our village, but I’m on the Conseil and did the census in 2006. Leaf did it this year. We both found it an excellent way to meet the villagers and they were all most hospitable. We’re also on the Comité des Fêtes which is fine but frustrating. If we suggest anything different, they either say ‘oui’ and ignore us, or tell us that’s not how they do things. There’s not much that bugs me about France, but this seeming inability reluctance to be the first to try anything new can be stifling and it makes us feel rather impotent. Never mind – c’est comme ça.


    • I agree, there’s sometimes a reluctance to go outside the tried and tested, which can be frustrating for those of us used to a different way of looking at things. I suppose we just have to accept it – after all, it’s their country. It can be annoying, though.


  2. Good for you Vanessa. Your library sounds wonderful. Our nearest one in Boussac has now shut, which is a disaster. There is a bibliobus but no-one seems to know when it runs or where! And thanks for pointing out the difference between bénévole and a volontaire – I had no idea. I’ve bénévoled as a swimming assistant for Rors’ school and will be helping with some school outings as the local school is short of assistants this year.


    • I think we’re very lucky to have such a good service in such a rural area. A few years ago it simply didn’t exist. Mind you, it continues only because of the goodwill of the volunteers. There was a bibliobus here which no longer runs since we have the médiathèques, but we can only hope that we can continue to run this service. The increasing frequentation figures show that it is greatly valued by people around here.


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