Things about France that surprised me: it’s bureaucratic, but it works

Those of us who have chosen to live in France often find it more bureaucratic than our home countries. It’s not really, it just works differently to what we’re used to, but it does work.

My experience is that if you are proactive, have all your documents in order, come prepared and be patient, I think it all works out pretty well. A visit in person is often much more fruitful than either endless letters or telephone calls, although more and more administrative stuff has gone online which certainly speeds up the process. An inability to understand French is often not an issue as much of that online is also in English.

I’m going to explain, using a very personal and recent example. You may recall that during this year’s two month delayed Tour de France, I worked as a volunteer. On the final day of my stint, my purse was stolen from my backpack while on the train home. I had used my credit card to pay for the ticket at Nice main station at 13:14 and had arrived home at 14:00 sans purse. Actually, it was worse than that because I was also without all my cards, checkbook, passport and driving licence.

I quickly cancelled everything, reported the loss to SNCF (French railways) and rang the local police who suggested I call in to report the loss early the following Monday morning. Knowing that the police would have to type up a report detailing everything I’d lost, I pre-prepared a list of what was in the purse and printed out photocopies of my passport and driving licence.

Nice has a bit of a reputation for gangs of pick-pockets, typically from Eastern Europe. The policeman I spoke with seemed to think I’d been targeted because with all my Tour gear I’d have looked like a tourist. I was less certain, believing it was more opportunistic. In any event he dutifully typed everything up, printed it out five times which we both signed and I got to keep one copy for my records. Important since I no longer had any official identity documents.

Two weeks later I received an email from a station in Lyon saying they had found my purse! The only things missing were the money (Euros 70) and my luncheon vouchers from volunteering (Euros 40) which kind of proved my point. Although I had already cancelled everything (credit cards, driving licence, passport, carte vitale [medical card]), I was delighted to get my things back, particularly all my store loyalty cards, including the supermarket one which had Euros 160 on it. I use the “savings” generated throughtout the year to purchase food for the Xmas charity collections.

Of course, with Covid, I have no idea when I’ll actually get my replacement UK driving licence and passport but the former is due to be swapped for the French version and I’m unlikely (sadly) to need the latter much before 2022.

How best to handle French bureaucracy

For those who are yet to experience French bureaucracy for themselves, the key to getting through it is to stay calm and be patient. If you don’t speak French, or don’t speak French well, find out as much as you can via online forums and seek out companies that can assist you.

My advice (unsurprisingly) is preparation, such as having translations of important documents ahead of the game. Obtain certified translations of your birth and marriage certificates done by a court approved translator. If all else fails, find an English-speaking accountancy firm geared to British citizens living and working in France.

Someone else best summed it all up:

That’s life here. Just keep chipping away at it and finish the day with a delicious (and affordable) high quality glass of French wine to remind you that there are positives to balance out the negatives.

Wise words!

32 thoughts on “Things about France that surprised me: it’s bureaucratic, but it works

  1. Another well-written post Sheree! Glad that you got your purse back and thanks for posting the info on the French bureaucracy. I’m a francophile and often dream of relocating to France, so this info is very helpful and interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My first experience with excessive bureaucracy was when we moved to Beijing. Making at bank deposit was normally a two hour exercise during which there was a lot of identification checking, identical signatures making and a whole heap of (literal) rubber stamping. My Parisian born husband observed that the Chinese must have learnt bureaucracy from the French 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Rang so many bells – When we first arrived it sometimes felt like a Catch 22 universe even with Janine being French we struggled with the Fontionnaires brusqueness.” J’Ecoute” was the usually greeting at the impot and set me off. Soon learned it was nothing personal and, as you say, preparation and lots of copies and patience get results. Renewal of CDS next – awaiting the summons to the Prefecture in Bordeaux – and file all ready.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes as frustrating as it is, it actually works. Only one bureaucracy that DOESN’T work but doesn’t work at all is the Polemploi one, this one should be eradicated absolutely. As for the others they all work and are actually accurate in the work or paperwork they deliver. The same cannot be said of the US which proved to be very bureaucratic in the end, way more than I imagined, way more than anybody would think before living here and having to deal with them. And they are not accurate, they make huge mistakes that you are left to deal with and it’s almost impossible. In 2006 I was almost made impossible to renew my NJ driving license for exemple (that they had given me with no problem 4 years before with the transfer from my French one) then there are huge loopholes and most of the time if they made a big mistake and you are stuck the only way to go through is the loophole if you are lucky enough to find it. Same thing with a lien placed on our house unknowingly to us because of a $25 fee for a state appointed lawyer for a court date that was absolutely not ours : it was not us called in court nor had we met let alone used that state lawyer. A mistake from the court administration on a social security number. Our lawyer even told us to just pay the fee as it was cheap to get rid of it and free the lien. But I refused because if I paid who knew it we were not going to be accused of the crime (what ever it may be, it could have been anything !) that was linked to that lawyer and the court date ! I could then lift the lien for a couple of hours by just answering the phone call from the money recovering company (a private one, hired by the government for 25$, that says a lot) time that we needed to sign to renegotiate our house financing, then at the end of the day the lien came back. Finally that was solved through a loophole over the phone again with the government this time but without proving nor showing our social security actual papers ! And this time it never came back but we never got any receipt of any kind. We never got a bill to our address by mail for that mistaken bill to begin with ! Just a wrong social security number and they looked up for a phone number and found my cell phone number, not even the house number ! So they are not accurate at all and it can have pretty serious consequences. So with all these bad experiences with the American bureaucracy and inefficient bureaucrats I came to appreciate at least the quality of the results of the French one. Though sometimes frustrating, at least it works and usually no hard damages are done. Oh and did I mention that every paperwork / document / procedure with the bureaucracy here costs money and a lot of money at that. Exemple : if you want a proof that you pay your Federal taxes in the US from the US treasury it can cost you 100 to 200 dollars just for the paper just for one year so if you need to cover several years you have to pay that for each year you asked, plus most of the time it’s so complicated to deal with them that you hire an accountant to ask for you and that’s another 200 dollars… (for all the years it’s a flat rate this time for the request as a whole). My sister told me that for the same paper in France you just connect to your online account for the French tax (on the government tax website), and your just print it yourself for free. And it goes on and on…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course I write these articles a wee bit tongue in cheek. The US sounds much as I imagined it while once you understand how France works, it’s pretty easy to navigate.

      Liked by 1 person

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