The Good Life France

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Dealing with administrative offices in France

Life isn’t all sitting around eating cheese and quaffing wine for expats in France. There’s the tricky issue of everyday life and administration to deal with too!

Never annoy a Fonctionaire…

I read somewhere that 20% of the French population work for the government.

If you buy a home in France, you will eventually come across at least one of these 9,000,000 fonctionaires, as we did when we wanted a telephone installed. When we bought our house, it came with water and electricity connected, but no telephone landline. We had to visit the nearest office of France Telecom, an hour’s drive on empty roads with pleasant views through a department as big as Devon in southern England, but with only a fifth of its population.

France Telecom has been privatised but its workers are all ex-fonctionaires – which is quite obvious once you are at their mercy. It started pleasantly enough. Our details were fed into the computer and the invoice of the electricity company was accepted as proof that the premises were ours. Then came the question as to whether our neighbours had a telephone connection.

‘Bien sûr’, of course, we said and showed Monsieur photographs of the electricity poles that went from our neighbour’s house to ours. This is where our new telephone cable could be hung, a distance of five hundred meters. We thought we were clever to have this to hand.

So, that was that. All we had to do was lay an underground plastic pipe between the nearest electricity pole and our house, and they would take care of the rest.

‘When?’ we asked and got the standard answer.

‘Quinze jours’, which translates as a fortnight but means ‘I have absolutely no idea. Wait and see’.

Four weeks later a van arrived with two technicians ready to connect us. They wanted to know where the line was.

‘There is no line’ we answered, ‘that has to come from the neighbours, via those poles’.  They did not have enough cable and took off.

Two weeks later their superior arrived. Cleverly he noticed immediately that there was no cable. Again we explained how the cable had to come from the neighbours.

‘Impossible!’ was his verdict. The poles were the property of Electricité de France and they would never give permission to use their poles.

We told him we could show him several houses in the area where the poles were shared by electricity and telephone cables, but he looked at us as if we were the village idiots and instructed us to lay a new pipe, this time from our house towards the road. A further ten days went by. A lorry arrived, loaded with twenty wooden poles, five hundred meters of cable and three men. They were determined. The meant business. They would get us connected to a telephone line.

All this work cost us just €40, though the original pipe we laid to the nearest telephone pole remains to this day unused.

In those days our ‘road’ was just gravel on sand, very bad for our tyres, and the mayor promised us asphalt. We had to wait two years for it but eventually one kilometre of new road was laid. Five hundred metres went to our only neighbour up the hill and another five hundred metres to our only neighbour down the hill. A total cost for the community of about €70,000.

These days we invite the mayor to all our parties.

When the postman and the captain of the fire brigade personally call to wish us a bonne année at the beginning of January we not only shake their hand (as most foreigners do) but give them €20 as well.

Always try to keep a fonctionaire on your side; you never know when you may need them.

Peter Schoenmaker is the author of Breakfast in Gascony.  ‘A Year in Provence meets Hotel Babylon’ – the tale of a hotelier from Holland who moves to France. His observations and anecdotes of life in France are witty, warm and often whimsical.

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