French red tape

Welcome to France!

In France when you deal with taxes, social security, or adoption agencies, or want a building permit, or many (indeed any) other administrative tasks, you’ll find that the French system is designed so that people get lost in paperwork, red tape and laws beyond comprehension. You’ll often start an the mayor’s office, to be told to go to the sub prefecture, to be told to go to the prefecture, to be told to go to the embassy, then the police station, to be told to go to the crown court, to be told to come back another day; then, you’ll have to come back yet another day, but you won’t have the correct paperwork or they haven’t received it yet, or its lost, and you’ll have to start again. Book three week’s vacation. You’ll need it.

Be prepared. Even if you think you have the correct paperwork, you won’t, and very often you’ll be filling in forms for no discernible purpose in the office of a civil servant who has no discernible function. Or new forms will magically appear, and you’ll have to fill them in too. Even Hercules finished his 12 tasks, but you have only just started!

Then when you finally have everything,(months later) and the “greffier” or the administrator or the state representative stamps his or her stamp on your paperwork be sure you photocopy it 100 times, and take a photo. You’ll remember the day for years after, etched in your memory as an achievement. Have a party! But afterwards, be careful, as there will always be a lingering doubt, like for when we adopted our little boy, and wanted “full adoption”, but in the end had to settle for “adoption simple”, and then fight to get our boy official recognized in the “livret de famille”.

Yes, you’ll be faced with petty people who want to show they are somehow superior to you because they knew you needed the paperwork and you didn’t, or because you aren’t French, (even if you took French nationality, and if you decide to do that, good luck with the paperwork!) or that you dare adopt a black child, or you are even gay and want to get married. France is not the most tolerant or cultures, with people in offices whose ambition in life is to recreate Vichy France, or Nazi Germany.

There is no point screaming or shouting, or insisting, the French administrator doesn’t care. With a Gallic shrug, he’ll ping pong you somewhere else, or tell you the paperwork hasn’t arrived or isn’t in order, and to do it again. You can accuse him or her of being incompetent, or lying, or just stubborn. Then your file will get “lost” or a part of the file which was fine until now will suddenly disappear, never to be found again, and you’ll have no choice but to submit to the official superiority of the administrator, who is, by now, laughing at you and enjoying their petty revenge and the little control they have over your life.You want to speak to a superior person, no problem, you’ll be put on hold on the telephone, and half an hour later, they’ll tell you he or she isn’t available. You’re in the office face to face, no problem,their superior is “on holiday/at lunch/in a meeting” and wont be available “until the 30th February”. You will have to write a very polite letter  of “complaint” to tell them how good they all are, and what a wonderful service it’s been until now, but that if they could help you in your quest, you’d be very grateful.

But never, never criticize their service, or you are lost! Any accusation of deliberate obstruction, incompetence or other suggestions are met with petty revenge tactics and deliberate stubbornness. You shall not pass until the correct paperwork is in their hands.

Then, they’ll shred any evidence and tell you to start the dossier again, and even pretend you didn’t shout and swear at them on the phone ( or not, as the case maybe). If you do shout, they’ll just put the phone down on you, customer service is a foreign concept in France.

And when the government try to change anything, from gay marriage to freeing up jobs which are controlled, you get demonstrators in the streets waving placards; take the lawyers. The government wants to free this job from being so strictly controlled; people were buying houses with a lawyer who acted for the buyer and the seller, a big conflict of interests! So the government tried to change the profession. Result, all the employees in every cabinet in France went on strike (even those who worked inside, even if they didn’t want to go on strike) and the legal profession spends millions on adverts, and made sure the message was on TV.

Farmers dump food and manure, taxis block the roads, Air France block the skies, anti gay marriage demonstrators lock the streets, anti airport/ dam construction activists burn Nantes, anti eco-tax put on red woolly hats and burn the cameras and galleys, basically breaking every civil law and a few criminal ones in the process.  Ministers make U turns and waste millions and millions of tax payers money making half-decisions and France sticks in the mud. (all things that happened just this year!) People lose jobs, opportunities and other international companies move in. People use lawyers based in India or Pakistan, who speak English and are cheaper, or buy food from other countries, or use other transport than taxis, or just ignore the intolerance of the anti gay protesters.

French people of course don’t get flustered by any of this and just mutter the word of doom  “l’administration”, as if there is no way to improve a corrupted system. France has an enormous amount of civil servants, and many jokes that go with this.

Time wasting and blatant obstruction are just part of administrative life, but sometimes it is possible to know the name of the person dealing with your problem and deal with them directly.Always the best way.The only way indeed.

France has around 28% to 35% of its working population in the civil service. These are often jobs for life with retirement at 50, and so the people who do them often aren’t motivated and don’t think about the people they are supposed to help, rather, they have to get involved in the office politics and shenanigans therein.

Sometimes you’ll find someone who is nice and can help you, but its rare.

Be polite, and grit your teeth, swear into your hat and keep calm, take a book, eat a long lunch (as they are closed between 12 and 2) , and sit in the waiting room until its sorted. Never go Friday afternoon (they are already on weekend) always check from an official source what documents are needed beforehand as they will take weeks or months to come in the post. One day, you’ll get what you needed or wanted (if the paperwork is good and hasn’t changed) in the French bureaucracy, just not today!


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