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PROPERTY

Living in France: ‘Beware the offers of new heating system installation – they are not all they seem’

When British resident in France Joy Brodier heard that the government was offering subsidies to upgrade her heating system, it sounded like the perfect solution. But what happened next rapidly developed into a nightmare.

Living in France: 'Beware the offers of new heating system installation - they are not all they seem'
The idea of saving money on heating bills is a tempting one. Photo: AFP

If you live in France and you possess a telephone you will soon be familiar with the evening phone calls. “Hello, are you the householder and are you between the ages of 40-50? We are in your area next Tuesday and can do an energy survey of your home.  We are partners of EDF and because of government grants the heat exchanger/solar panels/insulation will cost you absolutely nothing”.

Being new to France in 2006 these phone calls were both frightening and compelling.

It was as much as we could do to reply to these insistent people, to understand the nature of the call and to be able to respond to all their questions. But their proposals were tempting.

The basic idea at that time was that they would come along fit a heat exchanger, you would pay something, but with the generous government subsidy you would be reimbursed and after five or so years the decrease in your electricity bills would have paid for the initial installation.


The heating unit eventually had to be installed outside as it was too big for the utility room. Photo: Joy Brodier

After receiving many such calls, we agreed to an appointment when an energy survey would be done on our home.

They could not be cowboys because they always mentioned that they were partners with the French state energy supplier EDF – which now supplies electricity to most of the UK as well.

The evening arrived and two very well turned-out young men appeared on the doorstep wearing overalls with EDF logos.

Their energy survey of our home was brief, almost cursory, but the result was that our home was perfectly suitable for a pompe à chaleur (an air source heat pump).

The principle being that there is latent heat in the air around your house which when extracted by the pump can be used to heat your water and will reduce the need for fossil fuels. 

We were assured that it would be small, that every part would fit in our buanderie (utility room). We signed on the dotted line.

A surveyor came. He said that the water tank could ‘just’ fit in the space making it impractical to use the washing machine, sink or toilet. The PAC was also too big to go where first indicated and would have to go in the back garden and pipes would traverse the entire width of the house.

The box with the PAC arrived. It was enormous, a homeless person would be happy to inhabit it!  Was it just for us or to power the whole street?

The workmen arrived. They were Russian, aimable and amenable and could hide the huge water tank behind our coat rail. To everything they answered, “No problem!” 


The hot water tank had to go under the stairs instead of in the utility room. Photo: Joy Brodier

That winter the temperature fell to minus 15C. The PAC  was working fit to burst.

I began to doubt that it was possible to extract heat from such cold air. Programmes started being shown on the TV of people whose winter electricity bills shot up with a PAC because of the work it had to do. I watched the clouds of steam billowing out of the unit and heard the noise it was making and became convinced that it was about to blow up! I persuaded my husband to turn it off and we reverted to our original system which was fortunately still in place.

 The next spring, we tried to get it working again, unsuccessfully. We tried to contact the installers – they no longer existed. 

Eventually we learned that the workmen had failed to put antifreeze into the machine. It had frozen solid and would never work again.`

My husband was having difficulty sleeping as he had realised that the loan we had signed up for to pay for the PAC was costing a fortune. He cashed in an insurance policy so we could pay it off. Our future retirement income had diminished.

But, the company we had signed up with were partners with EDF – name was printed on all the papers so we thought they could help us. They denied all liability. 

Everyone gave different advice. We pursued all avenues.

Consumer rights organisations, the law courts and we became one of many in a class action against the installation company.

Now 10 years on from the original installation we are still no further forward despite pursuing multiple avenues including the Energy Mediator, EDF shareholder meetings and writing to the French President.

British writer Joy Brodier has lived with her husband in France for 13 years. She has written three books on the subject of the Anglo-French culture clash including What's French for Baguette? You can find them on Amazon or more of her writing on french-windows.blog.

The French government does offer financial help – ether in the form of tax credits, zero interest loans or grants – for people who want to do works to make their homes more energy efficient. Find out more about the state aid available here.

Member comments

  1. YES, be very careful. We were had on ceiling insulation. Very expensive for what was done even with money back from government. Then had the 1€ insulation upgrades. This work was well done so are evened out. Have heard from others the 1€work is not always good. After a month on both jobs being done we started getting calls to inspect the work. ALL SCAMS!
    One outfit came to inspect the insulation work; Bull SH .T–They actually were trying to sell us the new extraction heating system. This at great cost but, hay, we will get money back from the government. On investigation found out they not so good.
    All these people claimed were working with the gov. & EDF. still get the phone calls. Most will not say who they really are, or the company. One even told my wife “to go f—k herself when asked. SO BE VERY, VERY CAREFUL.

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EDUCATION

Fees to class sizes – what you need to know about private schools in France

In many countries, private schools are the preserve of the wealthy elite, but France has a wide network of private schools that are well within the financial reach of ordinary families - James Harrington explains more.

Fees to class sizes - what you need to know about private schools in France

The education system in France has its problems – at the start of the new school year some 4,000 teaching posts were unfilled and the government has launched an ‘emergency plan’ for English language lessons – but there’s no doubting there are wonderful schools and wonderful teachers making every effort to ensure children from aged three to 18 get the education they deserve.

However the country also has a sizeable network of private schools and around 15 percent of French children go to a private school. While some are undoubtedly expensive and elite, others are surprisingly affordable and provide an extra option for parents when deciding on  a school for their children.

Here’s what you need to know; 

Different types

There are two types of private school – sous contrat and hors contrat.

Sous contrat schools, of which there are about 7,500 in France, are part-funded by the state – teachers are paid by the Department of Education, for example – but also charge fees. France’s numerous Catholic schools, or regional language schools are usually sous contrat.

Hors contrat schools – which number about 2,500 – must still meet general education requirements but can choose their teaching methods and have no state funding. Private international schools found in most big cities, such as the American School of Paris, are hors contrat, but still follow mainstream teaching methods.

For comparison, there are around 60,000 state schools in France.

Prices

Yes, there are expensive private schools in France. Sending your child to the exclusive Ecole des Roches Private Boarding School, for example, will set you back more than €12,000 a term – not quite Eton or Winchester-level fees, but still well out of the reach of a large portion of the population. But, like Eton and Winchester, they’re not the norm. 

On average, fees for a day pupil – one who goes home at the end of the school day, rather than one who boards at the school – are in the region of around €2,250 a year. Meals are not included, and are generally charged at a slightly higher daily price than at state schools.

Financial aid, including scholarships, may be available for less well-off families.

READ ALSO French school canteens to cut cheese course as inflation bites

Boarding and hours

A large number of state and private schools offer Monday-Thursday boarding. It is not uncommon for pupils who excel at certain subjects or sports to attend collèges or lycées some distance from home, and board during the week.

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Daily school hours, meanwhile, are broadly similar, with children generally starting their school day at around 8am and finishing soon after 4pm on school days. Collège and lycée pupils also go into school on Wednesday mornings, and some may have classes on a Saturday, too.

Popularity

Smaller class sizes and a reputation for “better” results means that private schools are increasingly popular. The number of French private schools has increased steadily over the last decade, and now 15-20 percent of pupils go to a private establishment of some form. 

On the whole, private schools tend to do better in results league tables – perhaps in part because of the additional investment from parents, but also because class sizes tend to be smaller, which allows for more one-to-one education. Smaller class sizes and more individual attention mean they may also be a better option for children who struggle in big schools.

READ ALSO What kind of school in France is best for my kids?

Qualifications

State schools and sous contrat schools teach to the national curriculum, which leads, in turn, to brevet and baccalaureate qualifications.

In contrast, some hors contrat private schools offer different qualifications, including American High School Diplomas and SATs, British GCSEs and A-Levels, or the international baccalaureate.

Religion

Although many sous contrat schools are Catholic, most readily accept non-Catholic children and are not allowed to indoctrinate the Catholic faith. Hors contrat schools, on the other hand, may include a religious element to their teaching.

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