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Numéro verts: Why does France create so many telephone helplines?

Numéro verts: Why does France create so many telephone helplines?
French President Emmanuel Macron's government has launched more than 15 'green numbers' on everything from the vaccination campaign to the summer heat wave. Photo: Geoffroy VAN DER HASSELT / AFP
The current French government has often resorted to creating so-called "numéro verts" or special telephone helplines to try solve multiple problems during the pandemic. But what is a "green number" and are they really useful?

What is a numéro vert?

A numéro vert or green number is essentially a free telephone helpline, the costs of which are covered by the state or the company receiving the call. Green numbers tend to begin with 08 and have 10 digits.

What’s it for?

Numéro verts are usually used by companies for advertising or marketing campaigns, for customers to place orders or request information about a product. 

However the government can also launch these numbers to provide citizens with information and guidance on a particular issue.

Throughout the pandemic, the French government has introduced several numéros verts for different services.

When France went into its first lockdown in March last year, a green number was made available 24/7 for questions relating to Covid-19.

When restaurants and shops closed in the second lockdown in October, the government launched another helpline managed by the Finance Ministry for business owners to request information about the financial support they would receive from the government.

After French President Emmanuel Macron announced new lockdown measures earlier this week, the Labour Ministry launched a green number to give advice to télétravailleurs (remote workers).

The number was especially directed towards small business owners who felt isolated or struggled with the realities of working from home. In other words, it’s really a helpline more than practical advice about the rules on remote working.

While green numbers predate Macron, they have proliferated since he came to power in 2017.

Macron’s government has launched more than 15 different green numbers for various issues such as the vaccination campaign, youth unemployment and mental health support. Even the summer heat wave and bed bugs have their own dedicated helplines.

And the strategy hasn’t gone unnoticed on the unforgiving web.

The proliferation of green numbers has become the subject of constant jokes on social media, where users like to note that helplines seem to have become the current government’s preferred response to every new problem that arises.

“I don’t understand all this fuss about the cargo stuck in the Suez Canal,” one person tweeted, “when all we need to do is appoint a commission to give an opinion, not listen to that opinion and then launch a helpline, and then in theory that’s problem solved. At least that’s how we deal with things over here.”

“When we will have a green number to summarise all the green numbers put in place by the government,” reads the tweet below.

“At each term, the government seems to take on a new craze,” a France Info article from September 2020 stated. “Under Nicolas Sarkozy, the reflex was “a crime story, then a new law”. Then came François Hollande with his tendency to multiply commissions, committees and other observatories.”

“And here is Emmanuel Macron,” the article continued, “accused of having become president of telephone helplines.”

Another article on France Inter titled “The presidency of green numbers” argued that government set up the numbers because it showed the public they were reacting swiftly to a crisis.

“It reassures people,” a source close to Macron told France Inter adding that people do call the numbers.

So do they work?

It depends on how you measure it. The green numbers do seem to be receiving quite a few calls, according to French radio station France Inter.

During the pandemic, it seems to be a way for the government to provide specific answers to specific issues in what Emmanuel Macron’s says has become a “victimised and emotional society”.  

In the first wave of the coronavirus back in the spring of 2020, the virus was unknown and people who worried they had caught it flooded emergency services with calls.

The green number helped alleviate some of the pressure put on the emergency lines and prevent that those needing critical aid were blocked out by the high number of callers.

However the helpline workers were unqualified to give actual medical advice, and would refer a caller to health services if they thought the person was in need of medical assistance.

“Very often, you come across a call center agent, who works in a private call center, under contract with a government ministry. The main problem is that the agent has limited power.

“I called the vaccination green number to test it. A very nice person just referred me to the Doctolib site, while telling me that the lines were all occupied,” read France Inter.

Why is it called a ‘green number’?

Green numbers exist alongside different types of numbers that are also named after colours according to the price of the call.

A numéro gris or grey number costs the same as a standard local call to a landline, depending on your operator. These are also free, whether they are used from a landline or a mobile phone.

numéro violet or numéro magenta, is a service that costs 0.15€ per minute on top of the standard price of the call. You will be notified of cost will be announced at the beginning of the call.


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