Getting social: tales from French bureaucratic hell

TaxesVoiceMail - Ranting Frenchologist - My French LifeIn which I brave the treacherous quagmire of the French fiscal system, and emerge sadder but wiser. Or do I mean sadder but more of a wiseass?

I work as a freelancer. In the United States, where I grew up, this announcement is likely to be met with a polite expression of mild interest, like “Oh, I see.” But in France when you tell someone that you freelance you’re likely to get a heartfelt expression of keen sympathy, like “Oh, you poor sap!” accompanied by a pat on the forearm. It’s like admitting that you’re a Barry Manilow fan.

This is due to one particular aspect of France’s legendary, labyrinthine, tentacular bureaucracy, namely the…

[WARNING: rather than expressions of interest or sympathy, the two words after this parenthesis have been known to elicit shrieks of terror. My French Life™ cannot be held responsible for any fainting spells, palpitations or upholstery stains that may result from continuing to read this sentence:]

… Social charges.

In part one of this two-part series, I talked about France’s Post Office and the admirable progress it has made, more or less despite itself, since I’ve lived here. The social charges system has also made some progress, but, as with computer hard drive capacity, congressional budget negotiations and everyone’s perception of their own sex life, there’s always room for improvement. Read on…

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Illustration by Charles Giai-Gischia.

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David Jaggard

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  1. Catherine Broughton Nov 16, 2013 at 12:08 AM - Reply

    I read Part One with great interest and related to it absolutely! I remember telling the post-office man, when he objected to getting off the phone to serve me, that he was PAID precisely to do that. It was a novel idea to him. Things have improved greatly – or have we just got used to them ? I have been here 23 years. I have written great reams about French bureaucracy – I think I will never get over it. Check out my web site of of interest!

    • David Jaggard Nov 16, 2013 at 7:01 PM - Reply

      Post office employees (and Métro or SNCF employees or anyone who works for any large public organization) can essentially never be fired, short of committing a “faute grave” – like blowing up the Eiffel Tower. So in that sense they’re NOT paid to do their jobs, they’re paid to HAVE their jobs.

  2. Charles Mercier Jun 16, 2017 at 11:00 AM - Reply

    One Wednesday morning, I checked my e-mail. My brother says that he received my check that I sent him because he mailed a box of my things. I told him to value it at zero or five dollars to avoid custom charges since it was my used stuff anyway. My thought was “I am glad you got it. Now only if my stuff was here.”
    In the afternoon at five o’clock, I go out for a couple of hours to see a friend. I return to hear a message from Lorenzo “douane” – customs. We have a package for you from the U.S. You owe €43.30. He leaves a phone number and a reference number. The message is pretty difficult to listen to because Lorenzo talks pretty fast, so I get my French neighbor to listen to it after I have listened to it three times myself. We listen to it together about five or six times, Thierry taking down the phone number 01 41 11 47 47. He clearly says “quarante-sept” two times. He says the reference number which is more difficult to hear; 09 70 40 577 53. He repeats his phone number very fast at the end. I try the number. It doesn’t work. “Please check information”, the phone company’s recorded message says. I try again in the morning just in case it is a temporary problem. Still not working.
    I try the number again after two the next day. Not working. I call my brother in the States to find out if he can get the people who sent it to “follow” the package to tell whoever has it, that I don’t have the correct phone number. He can’t find the tracking number on his receipt and he gives me the number of the place that sent it. He said that he would call them later around one thirty – 7:30 in the evening, my time. So call I them at their eight – my two in the afternoon. The guy starts to look for the number. Can’t find it. “Can I call you back?” Sure. After a hour and a half, I call back. He couldn’t reach me. He says that it was sent via the Post Office and that to place a “missing” order would take months.
    So, I call my friend Paul to look up the “douane” number. He can’t find one and suggests that I go to my local Poste and see if it is there and to find out where it is. I go down there and a guy looks for my package and can’t find it. What do I do? He says that there is nothing he can do. I go to Paul’s office to look up a number myself – 01 55 04 65 10. I call it and get voice mail which tells me to press 1 for information. It says that I need to call another number. The douane office in the 18th arrondissement is on one end of a very long street which is fairly close to his place so I quickly walk to it as it is getting close to 5 in the afternoon. When I get home, I look at my map and see the office is at la Poste. Good sign. Though tomorrow is Friday and that is worrisome.
    The next day, I go to the post office and, after waiting ten minutes in line, the lady says that there is no douane here. It is just down the block near the Sernam (SCNF) delivery station. I ask the guy at the guard office. “This is Sernam?” I ask a couple of guys walking by, “Yes, it should be around the corner.” I take a closer look and no, it isn’t there. I call Paul and get the number again as I stupidly did not write it down. I call again. Taking down a couple of other numbers that are referred. I call them both and still haven’t talked with anyone – all recorded messages, other phone numbers or dead ends.
    There is a building before the entrance of Sernam and go into ask. I look around and see some fairly worn mailboxes, one of which is marked “douane française.” The building is fairly worn down on the inside. I go upstairs unable to find a douane office. I ask two guys downstairs, one of who says that it is across the courtyard. It is not. I ride my bicycle around the large Sernam complex not finding it. On my way out, I ask an older couple. They say to try the police station across the street for information. In a book, they look up the douane address and the “08” phone number. It is now getting close to 11 and I need to get to an appointment. Later, I try the 08 number. The voice mail gives me a choice of one or two and I choose one. It tells me that the phone number has changed for general information. I call that number and don’t get any response. I think that it would be better to go down to rue de l’Université instead which is located across the Seine.
    After lunch, I go down there and talk to some men standing outside. Finally, I talk to someone official! One man takes me inside and looks in an internal directory and looks for a Lorenzo. He writes down a number. I ask him if it was possible for me to use the phone to call this Lorenzo. He picks up the phone and calls himself. He calls a couple of places and one of them says that they don’t know anything about this but will look into something and will call back. One of the guys at the desk says to me that when one tries to call these people, one always gets a machine or no response! Finally, the guy says that I should go down to my local post office and insist that they have it and don’t leave.
    Then I go back to my local Poste and speak to a manager. He says that they don’t have it but to call this number. I ask him if he knows anything about the reference number for the package that I have. He goes away and comes back with a second phone number. I decide to call the second number first. It is now close to five o’clock and I am getting worried that I may have to continue this on Monday! A woman answers and says that they don’t do this anymore and gives me another number! (The eleventh!) I call the number and a guy answers. He is not very responsive. I give him the reference number. He says that it’s only 11 numbers and that I need twelve! “What do I do?” I play back the message for him. He tells me to call 01 41 11 11 47 or if that doesn’t work another number. Since the first number is so close to the original, I call it first. I instantly recognize that voice! It’s Lorenzo! He says that the package will be delivered Monday morning.
    Listening to the message again, one can clearly hear him say 47 twice the first time and says 11 twice when he repeats it! Oh, how important is clear communication!
    One person said it must feel good to be persistent and to achieve my goal. No, it just showed what a waste it is that we go through because one is not clear in one’s communication – all those phone calls to nowhere and approximately seven and a half hours of my time. In addition, if my brother had listened to me, it would also have saved me forty-three euros for my own used possessions!

    • Judy MacMahon Jun 19, 2017 at 11:46 AM - Reply

      Wooha what a story Charles!

      • Charles Mercier Jun 20, 2017 at 10:00 AM - Reply

        Ha! Thanks. This was quite a while ago. I just signed up to this site.

        • Judy MacMahon Jun 20, 2017 at 2:52 PM - Reply

          Welcome Charles, your comment only came to our attention as you are now a member 🙂 Please to have you here.

          • Charles Mercier Jun 21, 2017 at 2:54 AM

            Well no, I literally just posted this a few days ago because just David referenced this post on FB. I meant the story happened a while ago! I ought to do one myself. The mess I had with Societe Generale was much more of mess and mucher longer!

        • Judy MacMahon Jun 21, 2017 at 1:00 PM - Reply

          Well, we’re always open to discussing this with you Charles
          Best, Judy

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