We moved into our house 14 years ago today, but we actually moved to France on 21st August 1997, bearing only a suitcase each. The rest of our possessions were in a huge removal van that – we hoped – would deliver them a week later. Fortunately, it did, although it had to force its way past the trees that overhang our lane.
The two beefy Brummie removal men were astonished that we might want to live in a place like this. They clearly thought we were barmy. ‘Do you know anybody here?’ they said and couldn’t get away fast enough once they had unloaded.
Battling with bureaucracy
We’ve had many adventures and much enjoyment living in France. Like everyone else, though, including the French, we have tussled with French public services. A survey published earlier this year showed that French people feel demoralised and powerless against faceless bureaucracy and inflexible regulations.
Sometimes, we have almost lost the will to live. Here are just a few examples. France Telecom failed to fix our phone line for more than a month despite repeated pleas. Mutuelle Santévie persistently reimbursed my health expenses to the SF’s bank account instead of mine. And RSI wildly miscalculated the SF’s pension contributions. All this took many phone calls, letters and personal visits in some cases to sort out.
Occasionally, however, there is a good tale to tell. I wonder how often public services get any praise when they do exceed your expectations? I’m happy to buck the trend with an anti-rant about EDF (Électricité de France).
Recently, we awoke in the Sunday small hours to a popping sound, flashes like lightning and a smell of singed rubber. It was raining but there was no thunder. For a while, we thought the fuse box was blowing up.
Eventually, the SF found the answer. There was a firework display at the top of the electricity pylon gracing our garden. Every few minutes, a shower of sparks fizzed and cascaded as the rain penetrated the cable. Although it didn’t cause a power cut, the lights kept dipping in the house. It could only get worse.
I hunted down the EDF bill with the ‘service client’ phone number on it. Naturally, the number took us to an automated response where we had to press 1-6 depending on what service we wanted. After several false starts, I got the right one. The call was answered at the first ring.
Now, my French is not at its most fluent at 3:00 a.m., but the man at the other end listened patiently to my halting description of the events.
‘It’s like a firework display!’ I finished breathlessly, just in case he hadn’t got the point.
‘Don’t worry, Madame,’ he said. ‘Let me take your details and we will have it sorted out in no time.’
We quickly dealt with the details. Then he said, ‘I’ll contact the team immediately and they will come and fix it tonight.’
Within an hour, up drove an EDF van with two jolly men inside. One of them shinned up the poteau in the pouring rain, singing jauntily as he went. Yes, an old cable had worn out and was letting in the damp. They fixed it in minutes.
We also had reason to praise EDF several years ago. The electricity supply wasn’t powerful enough to run all our appliances. It was delivering 180 volts instead of 240 and the overloaded system suffered frequent power cuts.
EDF responded by installing a powerful transformer nearer to the house, which also involved raising new pylons to carry the more substantial cables. This took a year from our initial request but it must have cost a fortune – just for us. And the team doing the work were operating in sub-zero temperatures. If I wore a hat I would take it off to the teams who turn out in sometimes atrocious conditions to keep our electricity going.
Not everyone is happy with the service they get from EDF, including some friends who have battled for years to get a noisy transformer just outside their windows replaced. They keep running into a brick wall. Normal service, then.
No doubt we will have to continue to do battle with the French authorities. But it will be in the knowledge that, sometimes, they get it right.
What’s your experience of French public services?
Copyright © 2011 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved
Just discovered your blog; I really love it. I have been reading the entries since the beginning over the past week! I am so France-sick!! We are new owners of a maison secondaire about 20 km north of you. Glad to hear that you also had troubles with phone repair. I am still fussing with Orange over my landline; it is fine for up to 2 minutes then one cannot hear a thing. It is a brand new installation; previous owners lived without phone service for 20 years. France Telecom has ‘fixed’ the problem many times.. The situation became complicated by my subscribing to the Livebox version with internet phone, after a while they said maybe the phone would work on the livebox, no sense in trying to fix it, but but then Orange never sent the Livebox… Back home now, will wait until next time to see if the latest ‘fix’ works…
Hi Maggie, Thanks for your nice comments about my blog. I must say you’re very brave reading it all from the beginning – almost two years’ worth. I like to think my blogging might have improved a bit since then!
Sorry to hear about your problems – this seems to be par for the course, I’m afraid. I hope things are sorted out by the time of your next visit.
Your house must be somwhere in the Lot or maybe Aveyron? Enjoy, anyway.
Not teally an EDF comment – though chapeaux off to them for a 4am call out arrival! More to say happy anniversary and hope you have many more of them. That photo of your house in early summer is just stunning.
Thanks, Deborah, we hope to have many more too! The roses were particularly good the year we took this photo – they don’t normally do so well here.
Happy anniversary in France! Your tangles with bureaucracy sound sadly familiar. Glad to hear EDF have been co-operative. They haven’t been brilliant in Creuse, but by no means the worse. I do hope we never have fireworks coming off any pylons near us!
Everyone has their tales to tell and it seems that the same organisation can vary wildly in efficiency and effectiveness depending on where you are – or even in the same place. EDF are probably at their best when dealing with crises like snow or erupting pylons. I suspect they are less effective at the day to day stuff.
Good for you for mentioning the times when the service has been efficient and even beyond expectations! I’ve lived in several countries and find that it’s about the same everywhere – sometimes the service is great, generally it’s okay and occasionally it’s nonexistent. Being human, we tend to remember the bad experiences much longer.
As you will see, some others have had less than happy experiences with EDF – which made it all the more worth mentioning when they did do something (or two things, actually) right. Yes, we do tend to focus on the bad rather than the good.
I have only just started subscribing to your blog and I have to say I am already addicted to all of your wonderful stories and adventures. It is teaching me so much about living in France, something I aspire to do in the future. I’m currently learning French and all of your language tips (and other tips!) are very helpful! Thank you! And best of luck with the PS, thankfully here in Australia we don’t have so many problems.
Thank you for your nice comments. I’m pleased to hear that you enjoy my blog and hope you find it helpful for your potential move to France. Good luck with learning the language. It’s not easy, but persevere and you’ll find it’s worth it!
Generally our experiences with EDF are appalling. For example we have sent them three (3) direct debit mandate forms recently (including by registered post) and they claim no knowledge!
Utility companies in Ireland where we live would no longer get away with such bureaucracy and incompetence!
Well, it just goes to show that it’s all relative. As I said in the post, while our experience with EDF is quite good, others’ isn’t. When we have had major problems they have pulled out all the stops and done more than we expected. On a day-to-day basis they might be less efficient. In the end, it’s all a lottery, isn’t it?
From my viewpoint here in Italy, taking more than a month to fix your phone is pretty fast. Our telephone line was torn apart in many places after a freak March snowstorm in 2009 and after waiting for over two weeks for something to happen, our neighbour Mauro and my husband repaired the line (illegally) as best they could. Both men have repeatedly phoned during this time to get the line repaired. Mauro phoned yet again, two weeks ago, because he can’t get into his vineyard with his tractor (the line is still draped over the vines) and despite our frequent phone calls, nothing happens. France for me is a wonderful relief in that, so far, I’ve been amazed by the efficiency and pleasantness I have found in public offices and i can hardly wait to live there full time.
I’m glad I don’t live in Italy, then! I have to say that, over 14 years, our experience has been very variable. Sometimes you come across pleasant and friendly service, sometimes not. On occasions, I get the impression that fonctionnaires are just as hamstrung by daft regulations as we are. However, I thought the EDF examples were worth mentioning, since they stood out as occasions when my expectations were exceeded. That hasn’t often happened here. It’s only fair to say that it doesn’t happen very often in the UK, either, although I think the attitude to customer service is better-developed in the UK.