Keeping You Posted: A Tour Around La Poste

Big thanks to new readers and, as ever, to “old” ones for following. Which letter holds the record for the longest delivery time ever in France? How much should you tip the postman at Christmas? And which VIP has their own personal sorting office? Find out below.

During the lockdowns, our biggest daily excitement was the arrival of the distinctive yellow La Poste van. For days on end, this was our only connection to the outside world. We competed to walk the 50m to our letter box in rain, shine or snow to collect our mail. Since this consists of a daily newspaper, begging letters from charities and sporadic official missives, we realise just how isolated we felt.

One of La Poste’s main missions is to assure a postal delivery six days out of seven throughout France. Whatever the weather and the terrain, the nippy yellow vans with their stylised swallow logo are a familiar sight. During this summer’s heatwave, I talked to a woman whose husband is a facteur (postman). “His van doesn’t have air conditioning,” she said.

Distinctive yellow and blue La Poste livery. You can never find a post van when you need to photograph one, so this image is by Benoît Prieur, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Form of address

In France, front doors don’t have integral letter boxes. Instead, you install a regulation-sized letter box at a regulation height (1.5m maximum) in an accessible place. Every boîte aux lettres comes with a unique key, but le facteur has a master key. We feel that an improvement would be a little flag, like they have in the States, to show that the mail has arrived.

Not our letter box, but one that looks as if it has been installed on a specially mounted shelf to conform to height regulations.

Postal addresses in France are short: house number and street (or lieu-dit if it’s a hamlet or a single house), postal code and town/village. Certain communes are now required to assign a street name to every road, even tiny rural ones, and a number to every house. Communes of less than 2,000 inhabitants are exempt.

Our post rarely goes astray. Even a letter addressed to “maison à l’extremité d’une ruelle près de T…” (house at the end of an alley near T…) eventually arrived, although it was delivered to another house that fits the same description. You have to give La Poste high marks for initiative on that one.

They get nul points, though, for the embarrassing occasion when our neighbours’ invitation failed to arrive, so we didn’t turn up to their party. We discovered only later that we had been invited.

The expression “passer comme une lettre à la poste” means that something happens easily, without incident. Not in the case of our neighbour’s invitation, clearly. Needless to say, bills and other unwelcome missives find their way unerringly to our box.

Sometimes, letters take a very long time to arrive. The record for a delivery delay in France is held by a letter to an Ariège mairie in 2010. It was sent in 1790, 220 years earlier. The letter had been wrongly delivered (hardly surprising during the revolutionary period) to a mairie in the Tarn with a similar name. The missive had then languished in the municipal archives until someone rearranged them.

Long history

La Poste has a long history. Louis XI created relais de poste in 1477, where royal messengers could get fresh horses. From 1576, royal messengers could carry letters for private individuals, too.

By the early 17th century, a more systematic organisation was in place, directed by a superintendent general. The recipient paid the delivery cost. After the Revolution, a network of 1,400 relais postes was established throughout the country. The first postage stamps appeared in 1849. Henceforth the sender paid the postage.

Former post office in Najac

To start with, the postal service and the telegraph services were separate. They were merged in 1879 to create Les Postes et Télégraphes, with Téléphones added later. You still see the old PTT signs in places.

Branching out

With the advent of internet and email and intense competition from other carriers, the number of letters halved from 18 billion in 2008 to 9 billion in 2020. La Poste has had to diversify.

La Poste lost telecoms in 1990 but has become a bank, among other services. The post office is the only place in our village where you can get cash over the counter (provided you have a current or savings account) on days when the bank’s ATM is out of action, which usually coincides with market day. On one such day, the bank manager rushed out to tell me that, “It hasn’t run out of cash. It’s a technical fault.” The net result is the same, Monsieur. No cash.

Among La Poste’s services is a regular check and chat visit to elderly people. For those who live in outlying farms and hamlets, this can be a lifeline. However, it doesn’t come cheap at 22 euros per month (or 11 euros if you qualify for a tax credit).

La Poste has to provide a network of post offices within 20 minutes or 5 km of 90% of the population. As in the UK, the number of main post offices has declined, and many, like the one in our village, now have reduced opening hours. Many communes have opened sub-post offices, and some stores are pick-up relays.

Christmas box

Le facteur/la factrice is one of the groups of public employees you can tip at Christmas. The going rate is 5-10 euros. In return you get La Poste’s official calendar containing useful information such as when public and school holidays fall.

Finally, a global VIP has his own dedicated mail sorting office in Libourne, near Bordeaux. Simply write Père Noël on the envelope (no stamp is needed in France), write the sender’s name and address on the back and post it in a regular postbox, and it will get to his special La Poste bureau. If abroad, address it to him at 33500 Libourne, France (stamped). Every letter receives a reply from Santa’s team of elves.

I’m tempted to try it just to see the reply. How about you? You have until 21st December if you want to receive a reply.

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    • I saw that, and I should have bought some but didn’t. I always think the French envy the Brits for their monarchy, having got rid of their own. Our late neighbour was fascinated by the Royal Family.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. So now I feel even more guilty for telling our lovely postlady I didn’t want her calendar this year.. there are so many that arrive! I had thought a nice box of chocolates instead to thank her for driving so carefully up our ‘chemin’ to avoid our very elderly cat who couldn’t hear her arrival. I hadn’t realised you could pay la poste to have a chat, I thought it was a kind service! An excellent idea, nonetheless.
    We thought when our commune named our little chemin plus gave our house a number delivery drivers would find us. Mais non, we still get phone calls asking where we are but la poste always gets it right. Interesting that you say under 2000 inhabitant villages didn’t need to name and number, ours of just under 700 did! I love that we are only two houses mitoyen here but glory in numbers 2 and 4. Lots of information once more, Vanessa, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You could always leave a tip anyway, even if you don’t want the calendar. But she might appreciate a box of chocs instead. It is a nice idea to check on elderly people. The payment seems to be aimed more at families who live far away but want to make sure their relatives are okay.

      I think the idea behind the house numbers was to aid delivery drivers, but it’s not infallible, clearly. Communes under 2,000 people aren’t obliged to number every house, but they can if they want. Ours obviously doesn’t want to. I don’t think it would help people to find us any more easily anyway!

      Liked by 1 person

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