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BUREAUCRACY

OPINION: The terror of French bureaucracy and why it’s good to have a friend at the local Mairie

I used to do a joke on stage and it went like this, writes Ian Moore. “As far as I can tell the aim of Brexit is to end the freedom of movement for British people but continue the freedom of movement for British goods and services.

OPINION: The terror of French bureaucracy and why it's good to have a friend at the local Mairie
A standard-sized French dossier for any application. Photo: Unsplash

“So, after Brexit a Brit can turn up at the French border with a cheddar cheese sandwich, the sandwich will be allowed in and the Brit will have to clear off home again. Brexit: Fewer rights than cheese.”

How wrong I was. It turns out cheese can’t travel either.

Some people have suggested that this may be due to negotiating incompetence and or wilful self-destruction on the part of the British government. But those that live in France know different. The British were up against Michel Barnier, a French bureaucrat, they never stood a chance.

READ ALSO Tea, Bovril and ham sandwiches – what can you bring into France from the UK?

Michel Barnier, aka the French bureaucrat. Photo: AFP

The words French Bureaucracy have a similar effect on the well-being of this household as the words Spanish Inquisition had on Catholic sceptics in the 16th century; they strike terror.

It’s not just the tentacle-like ubiquity or its vice-like governance over every single aspect of life here, it’s worse than that. It’s that it’s dressed up as being in your interest.

The Mairie is the local centre of the web, and I can highly recommend always having a friend on the inside, though even then be prepared.

We set up a chambres d’hôtes a few years ago and a courtesy call to your local Mairie is a recommended starting point. It turns out our chambres d’hôtes would be one square metre bigger than just your basic so legally we had to employ an architect. Our courtesy call cost us €5,000.

Another example. I had mislaid my son’s carte d’identitie and so had an appointment at the Mairie to arrange a replacement.

As usual French bureaucracy demanded a wealth of accompanying documentation, one of which was proof of our address. I had just been granted citizenship by France and therefore, I thought, what could be more proof than a letter addressed to me from the Ministère de l’Intérieur?

After all, that’s precisely where my son’s application would be sent?

A letter from the Ministère de l’Intérieur is apparently insufficient proof for the, er, Ministère de l’Intérieur.

READ ALSO The A-Z of French bureaucracy

Fortunately, I’d brought a water bill as back up. Unfortunately, a water bill cuts no ice either. An electricity bill? The helpful receptionist asked. No, we hadn’t brought one. A taxe d’habitation letter? She tried. Not for this year, my wife said, pointing to the list of documents which stipulated that proof of address must be less than three months old. Oh, it doesn’t matter for taxe d’habitation, said the nice lady and my wife drove home to root one out.

Twenty minutes later she was back, producing the document with a flourish. ‘Ah,’ said the receptionist nervously. ‘The birth certificate. It’s not less than three months old.’

This time I pointed to the list of required documents, ‘It says original birth certificate’, this is the original.’

‘This isn’t less three months old,’ she repeated icily, her mask slipping.

‘Your document list doesn’t say it has to be,’ my wife countered, a fonctionnaire herself, and well equipped to deal with these things.

‘But it has to be less than three months old.’

‘Why?’

‘It’s the rules.’

‘Why?’

‘Because… because… circumstances change. He may have got married!’

‘He’s 8,’ my wife said calmly, landing what you might think would be a fatal blow, but no, we left to go to the Préfecture in a town 30km away to get an up-to-date photocopy of the original document we already had.

French bureaucracy knows how to make you squirm with fiendish efficiency. All official post, bills, final demands, forms etc. are, it seems, posted on a Friday.

The recipients then get them on a Saturday when there is no-one to complain or talk to, no-one to address your ire towards, it’s like a state sponsored bout of ginger-knocking and you’re left to stew for the whole weekend.

READ ALSO French bureaucracy – the essential documents you will always need

Inevitably the Taxe Foncière bill arrived on a Saturday morning. Now, I’ll admit that it was partly my fault as I had initially filled in the wrong form, but then they said they’d lost my wrong form, so I filled in the right form, wrongly, which they then added to the wrong form that I’d filled in correctly and which they had magically found. Anyway our bill was out, by at least €1,500.

On the Sunday I took my son to a Fun Run to try to calm down.

‘Right,’ said the starter, ‘here are the rules! When I fire the starting pistol, you start… but…’ of course, there’s a but, ‘you must not run past my colleague on the bicycle there. This is for your own safety. Do not, and I want to make this clear, overtake my colleague on the bicycle or you will be disqualified! On your marks, get set, GO!’

The kids set off at a pace, unfortunately the man on the bicycle wasn’t ready and only twenty metres down the track he was gripped with panic.

He wasn’t even on his bicycle. He jumped on wobbling terribly and tried to get going but it was too late. All of a sudden he was engulfed by 40 odd youths who were terrified to pass him but had nowhere to go.

It was a debacle, an over-organised, rule-heavy fiasco which summed up perfectly the stifling red tape intrusion and utter po-faced intransigence of bureaucrats.

Like I say, the British negotiators never stood a chance against these Ninja administrators; at least, now I’m French, they’re on my side. At least I think they are.
 

Ian Moore is a best-selling author and comedian. He's also the owner of a Chambres d'hôtes in the Loire Valley where he lives with his Franco-Anglais wife, three children and a petting zoo whose creation he has yet to be consulted on. He writes regularly on life in rural France and you can find him at www.ianmoore.info or on Twitter @MonsieurleMoore

Member comments

  1. Well, it is refreshing to read this and know I am not alone in my experience. Imagine trying to get anywhere here WITHOUT a birth certificate, something we cannot get. Three years in and, for the most part, we do not exist officially as none of the departments we have contacted seem to have a solution for people who cannot get copies of their birth certificates.

  2. Absolutely hilarious laugh out loud – thank you so much. All I want is a carte de sejour britannique. I am ready for last step early March: meeting at prefecture with required mask, documents already submitted online, and blue or black pen and ID photo. Hmmm – can it be this simple?

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LIVING IN FRANCE

What changes in France in July 2022

Summer's here and the time is right for national celebrations, traffic jams, strikes, Paris beaches, and ... changing the rules for new boilers.

What changes in France in July 2022

Summer holidays

The holiday season in France officially begins on Thursday, July 7th, as this is the date when school’s out for the summer. The weekend immediately after the end of the school year is expected to be a busy one on the roads and the railways as families start heading off on vacation.

READ ALSO 8 things to know about driving in France this summer

Strikes

But it wouldn’t really be summer in France without a few strikes – airport employees at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports will walk out on July 1st, while SNCF rail staff will strike on July 6th. Meanwhile Ryanair employees at Paris, Marseille and Toulouse airports will strike on yet-to-be-confirmed dates in July.

READ ALSO How strikes and staff shortages will affect summer in France

Parliamentary fireworks?

Prime minister Elisabeth Borne will present the government’s new programme in parliament on July 5th – this is expected to be a tricky day for the Macron government, not only does it not have the parliamentary majority that it needs to pass legislation like the new package of financial aid to help householders deal with the cost-of-living crisis, but opposition parties have indicated that they will table a motion of no confidence against Borne.

Parliament usually breaks for the summer at the end of July, but a special extended session to allow legislation to be passed means that MPs won’t get to go on holiday until at least August 9th. 

Fête nationale

July 14th is a public holiday in France, commemorating the storming of the Bastille which was the symbolic start of the French Revolution. As usual, towns and cities will host parades and fireworks – with the biggest military parade taking place on the Champs-Elysées in Paris – and many stores will remain closed.

As the national holiday falls on a Thursday this year, many French workers will take the opportunity to faire le pont.

Festival season really kicks in

You know summer’s here when France gets festival fever, with events in towns and cities across the country. You can find our pick of the summer celebrations here.

Paris Plages

The capital’s popular urban beaches return on July 9th on the banks of the Seine and beside the Bassin de la Villette in northern Paris, bringing taste of the seaside to the capital with swimming spots, desk chairs, beach games and entertainment.  

Summer sales end 

Summer sales across most of the country end on July 19th – unless you live in Alpes-Maritimes, when they run from July 6th to August 2nd, or the island of Corsica (July 13th to August 9th).

Tour de France

The Tour de France cycle race sets off on July 1st from Copenhagen and finishes up on the Champs-Elysée in Paris on July 24th.

New boilers

From July 1st, 2022, new equipment installed for heating or hot water in residential or professional buildings, must comply with a greenhouse gas emissions ceiling of 300 gCO2eq/KWh PCI. 

That’s a technical way of saying oil or coal-fired boilers can no longer be installed. Nor can any other type of boiler that exceeds the ceiling.

As per a decree published in the Journal Officiel in January, existing appliances can continue to be used, maintained and repaired, but financial aid of up to €11,000 is planned to encourage their replacement. 

Bike helmets

New standards for motorbike helmets come into effect from July 1st. Riders do not need to change their current helmets, but the “ECE 22.05” standard can no longer be issued – and all helmets sold must adhere to a new, more stringent “ECE 22.06” standards from July 2024

New cars

From July 6th new car models must be equipped with a black box that record driving parameters such as speed, acceleration or braking phases, wearing (or not) of a seat belt, indicator use, the force of the collision or engine speed, in case of accidents.

New cars II

From July 1st, the ecological bonus for anyone who buys an electric vehicle drops by €1,000, while rechargeable hybrids will be excluded from the aid system, “which will be reserved for electric vehicles whose CO2 emission rate is less than or equal to 20g/km”.

What’s in a name?

Historically, the French have been quite restrictive on the use of family names – remember the concern over the use of birth names on Covid vaccine documents? – but it becomes easier for an adult to choose to bear the name of his mother, his father, or both by a simple declaration to the civil status. All you have to do is declare your choice by form at the town hall of your home or place of birth.

Eco loans

In concert with the new boiler rules, a zero-interest loan of up to €30,000 to finance energy-saving renovations can be combined with MaPrimeRénov’, a subsidy for financing the same work, under certain conditions, from July 1st.

Rent rules

Non-professional private landlords advertising properties for rent must, from July 1st, include specific information about the property on the ad, including the size of the property in square metres, the area of town in which the property is in, the monthly rent and any supplements, whether the property is in a rent-control area, and the security deposit required. Further information, including the full list of requirements for any ad, is available here.

Perfume ban

More perfumes are to be added to a banned list for products used by children, such as soap-making kits, cosmetic sets, shampoos, or sweet-making games, or toys that have an aroma.

Atranol, chloroatranol (extracts of oak moss containing tannins), and methyl carbonate heptin, which smells like violets, will be banned from July 5th, because of their possible allergenic effects.

Furthermore, 71 new allergenic fragrances – including camphor, menthol, vanilin, eucalyptus spp. leaf oil, rose flower oil, lavendula officinalis, turpentine – will be added to the list of ingredients that must be clearly indicated on a toy or on an attached label.

Ticket resto limits

The increased ticket resto limit ended on June 30th, so from July 1st employees who receive the restaurant vouchers will once again be limited to spending €19 per day in restaurants, cafés and bars. The limit was increased to €38 during the pandemic, when workers were working from home.

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