DON’T GET MAD – GET CONTACTS
Dealing with French Administration and Utility Companies
Like the Garden of Eden France has its serpent. The British may have invented red tape, but French bureaucracy has developed it into a frustratingly fine art. The country of reason seems to lose it when it comes to administrative matters. One of the many advantages of buying through Papillon Properties is that all our staff have bought in France and all of us have necessarily had dealings with French authorities, so here are a few pointers from personal experience which may save you a lot of tearing of hair and high blood pressure.
1. DO NOT ARGUE
What seems to you to be a completely illogical decision or procedure is laid down in the rules and it is pointless trying to debate with the tax clerk, official of the Préfecture, bank clerk or any other minor official, who will see no further than his/her instructions written in stone. This does not mean you give up; put your grievance in a polite letter, keep a copy, then proceed to step 2.
Ideally this should be step 1, but it is hard to resist picking up the phone immediately you receive that incomprehensible bill or demand for something you sent months ago. In tax matters this may be a fruitless task because nobody in France understands the regulations, including the officials administering them. This is not to denigrate any of the companies advertising advice in this field, and that advice can be invaluable in saving you money legally, but if at the end of the day you disagree with the taxman’s decision it may be advisable to cut your losses.
In other fields research can be fruitful. Other expats may be able to help especially if they have had similar experiences but be wary that they may not have been given the right advice, or have misinterpreted such advice. It is always best to double or even treble check with a French authority and I have found that locally most Mairies are very helpful and many Notaires will give a free initial consultation.
Utility companies are a law unto themselves and here the expat community can be useful in establishing the right contact. My own experience is an excellent example. After three months of fruitless attempts to convince AOL France and France Telecom that my telephone line was faulty and would not support Broadband (breaking rule 1 on several occasions), I was told that the husband of a friend of a friend was a very helpful France Telecom engineer and he came out within a few days to establish that indeed the line was faulty. Unfortunately he could not fix it because he worked in a different region to the one in which I live, albeit only five miles away, but within a few hours he had arranged for another engineer to call. The story has a happy ending, because the engineer called this morning, verified that there was an external fault, and I have finally reached the promised land. I have made more progress in a few days through this procedure than in three months through official channels.
3. IF ALL ELSE FAILS
There is a system of Ombudsmen in France, called “médiateurs”, and it is a free service. Whilst I have had no direct dealings I have found in one instance with a bank who were being less than co-operative that the threat was greater than its execution and obtained a refund of overcharges within 48 hours of indicating my intention to consult the médiateur. I also know of Papillon clients who have used the procedure with success. If however your grievance is still not resolved, you will have to resort legal proceedings, which is not the scope of this article, and for which specialist advice is essential.
4. PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
Finally I know it seems obvious but losing patience or your temper gets you nowhere unless you are a French farmer who can bring down the Government if he and enough colleagues decide to oppose an official decree. It may however be inadvisable to organise demonstrations or protests as an “étranger”, even if your grievance has every justification. There are some things in French life up with which you shall put in order to enjoy the many compensating benefits.