You can bank on bureaucracy in France

It’s a while since I had a little rant on these pages, so thought I would indulge myself in a topic close to the hearts of most expats – bureaucracy.

We have lived here long enough to know that French bureaucracy really does live up to its reputation with flying colours. It is labyrinthine, illogical and totally lacking in any sense of customer service. You exist for the bureaucrats, not them for you – never mind if they are public or private sector bureaucrats.

We also know that engaging in a one-person struggle against it is unlikely to change anything. So we dutifully make our twenty copies of birth certificates, keep a large stock of passport-sized photos and carefully preserve the information about grandfather’s inside leg measurement in case it is needed.

Easy money

Sometimes, though, it goes a little too far. The Statistics Freak and I have separate bank accounts at the same bank branch. For some time, he has had the ability to transfer money to my account via the Internet, but I couldn’t do the same. Instead, I had to write him a cheque, he had to complete a credit slip, take it all to the bank, drop it in the box provided and wait for it to clear. I decided it was time to change this.

I explained to the personable young man behind the bank counter what I wanted. This would be no problem, I was assured, but Monsieur would have to come in and we would both have to sign a paper to allow this to take place. This seemed a little complicated since Monsieur, several years before, had only had to ask and it was done. I assumed this was further evidence of the sexist behaviour that I frequently have to put up with. Actually, I was wrong.

Incapable in charge of a bank account

We dutifully signed a paper consisting of about 10 sheets of small print. A few days later, I was given Internet access to all the SF’s current and savings accounts. This seemed odd, since he didn’t have the same access to mine. Further suspicions were raised when I received all his bank statements, in addition to mine, last week but he didn’t receive any. We realised that I now had power of attorney over his bank accounts. It was as if he were unable to manage his own financial affairs. I would have been happy to retain this advantage, but the SF pointed out that he hadn’t quite lost possession of all his marbles yet.

Off we went to the bank again. The same personable young man assured us that it was not possible simply to have the ability to transfer money via the Internet. We assured him that it was. The matter was referred to a higher authority, the manager, for adjudication.

He eventually sorted it out, but not without recourse to a number of additional documents, all requiring our signature. First, we had to revoke the power of attorney. Then I had to sign a document giving me the right to transfer money to the SF’s account. Then the SF had to sign a document indicating that he agreed to this.

Now I am the last person to extol the praises of UK banks, whose idiocy takes some beating. However, to get a similar service from a UK bank, you can do it all via the Internet without signing any papers, although they do phone up these days to make sure it is all bona fide

Environmentally friendly?

Finally, the manager asked us if we would both prefer to receive bank statements via email in future. This would, of course, be much more environmentally friendly (not to mention cheaper for the bank: naturally, he didn’t mention that). Yes, we thought this would be better.

A further 40 sheets were reeled out of his printer for us to sign to authorise the receipt of emailed statements instead of paper ones. How daft is that? In one fell swoop, he completely negated his argument for environmental friendliness. Again, you can carry out this procedure with a simple click of the mouse on a UK bank Internet site.

Did we point out the internal contradiction? No. I even apologised for our being so complicated. You see how indoctrinated I’ve become. Before long, I will be overtaking on blind corners, blaming the government for everything and worshipping Johnny Hallyday. I’m on my way to becoming a true Frenchwoman. 

Copyright © 2011 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved


  1. Ha! I lived in Belgium for a time and you’ll be gratified that it is exactly the same there. And on top of that, in the entire town there was one cash point. Since coming back to Blighty I have to admit I’ve appreciated the banks a lot more…


    • Very good! I must remember that one. Unfortunately, it will be lost on the personable young man at the bank. However, it does remind me that there are a number of French acronyms that are rather good in English. I can feel a blog post coming on…


  2. Don’t we have fun with foreign bureaucracy – I would love to have the foreigners take on the UK equivalent. The Spanish to are masters at paperwork and photocopiers. But in all fairness some of the government web sites are very good.


    • Yes, hours of endless fun. I would be very interested to know what the legions of French in London think about UK bureaucracy. I suppose you just have to search for their blogs. Not enough hours in the day, though.


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