How do you cope with the French System?

The French stereotype.

With a baguette under arm, a beret on their head and a scarf stylishly wrapped around their neck. They smoke endlessly, are rude, and have bad hygiene. Have you seen this guy? I have not in any of our travels throughout France! Maybe we missed them. Nothing to detour people from visiting or moving here anyway.

Yes, that is Brad Cooper cut and pasted into a cheesy stereotypical photo of a Frenchman. I thought it was funny.

We read dozens of stories of what living in Southern France would be like. Bureaucracy is what we kept hearing, where the government is made up of appointed officials, and procedures are followed by more procedures making completing the simplest of tasks involving the government, a tiresome one.

Things do take longer to get done than we would expect them to in Canada. The system is a slow itemized process, handing paperwork from one person to the next. However, we have found very nice people to help us along the way.

Being only 4 months in to our new life in France, it is still too early for any rash judgment on the nation we plan to become a part of, but so far so good

I still hold on to my Mary Poppins attitude, that people are people and you usually get what you give. The loudest complainers, in my experience, are the ones that are the most negative! We try to stay positive, and see the silver lining on every cloud. For us the sliver lining would be to become a part of the system that takes good care of its people, with a good medical system in place, and free education fort he children. That seems like a pretty thick lining to me. So wading through a little paperwork seems a small price to pay.

Trying to keep this attitude while we deal with arising issues may prove difficult. Here are some ‘huh?’ moments for you.

#1 Shutters

Things go on in France that to an outsider seem quirky, and makes you go huh? For instance, every house must have shutters on the windows and doors. I thought it was to keep every house looking French, and sticking to tradition, a continuity through each village you visit.

It is actually mandatory, and you must close them when you leave the house, or your insurance policy regarding break-ins is null and void!

Not sure if the ruler at the time this law was created had a ‘shutter maker’ brother-in-law, but doesn’t closing your shutters tell the robbers you have gone out for the day? Leaving them open would let them know you are home, and for them not to bother stealing from your house. Just saying.

#2 Electricity

At first I thought there is no rhyme or reason to how they calculate the electricity bill and heard from Capestanese citizens, that you must wash your close and run your dishwasher in the middle of the night. What? I knew it was time to take a closer look at our electrical bill and try to decipher its code.

It works like this. If you heat your hot water tank during the night you get a cheaper rate. Most people program their dishwasher and laundry machine to run while they sleep. (For our family that means Angelina wakes up when it starts and stops, being directly below her room.)

The electrical company has allocated 40 days in the course of the year where moderate increases to your heating bill apply. These are days that a noticeable increase occurs when people use more electricity than usual. They have also decided on 20 days per year they charge a fortune for electricity, nearly double and these are the coldest days of the year. The funny thing is if you try really hard to follow these rules, it is still hit and miss. The days are determined at the end of the year, based on the year as a whole, and decided on by the usage of power.

It seems strange to me, when the temperatures in this region are very mild all year round. Sounds like a cash grab from the Langudoc citizens to me, or a diversion to keep people occupied with trivial things. Alfonz disagrees, and says that the electricity is based on France as a whole. Does that mean we need be watch when the coldest days throughout France are?

A foreign concept to us from Canada, with a country so large, to keep an eye on the other side of a nation, to guess if they will be using more power on a specific day. Huh?

#3 Switching Licence Plates To French

Alfonz’s bike was imported from Canada and our Westfalia Camper Van was purchased while we lived in Hungary. Transferring registration and plates over to French ones have been interesting to say the least.

He started off at the local Capestang Marie our city hall and their helpful staff filled out the paper work for Alfonz, took a payment and sent it off, only to have it returned incomplete a week later.

From there Alfonz went to the Centre Des Umpots in Beziere to get the Certicate d’Aquisition. They told him to contact a Mercedes dealer for our Camper Van and a BMW dealer to confirm each vehicle and ask for a Certificate of Conformite. He called the BMW Motorbike dealer in Narbonne to have them set up an appointment to get the paperwork filled out but was abruptly told that it cannot be done and hung up.

Alfonz then decided to call the Centre Des Umpot back and talk to them about what it was exactly they needed from him, told them the only dealer won’t do it, and asked if there was another way. They then said, just go to a local Motorbike dealer, to confirm the two items needed on the form that were missed.

The first was to verify that the bike speedometer was in kilometers and the second was to make sure the headlight was for a right hand drive road. Alfonz went to the local shop where the owner happily wrote down the information needed and stamped it with his date stamp. Alfonz found this particularly amusing, and said as much to the Import Centre, as Canada of course drives on the same side of the road as the French. They are so used to having Englishmen bringing their vehicles down, it must be a standard question.

Mercedes France in Paris has our paperwork for the Camper and we are waiting for a reply. The Westfalia is a wee bit more straightforward being that Hungary, where we purchased the vehicle from, is a part of the EU.

Once the forms are sent back to our house, Alfonz still needs to head to the ‘Profecture’ in Beziere with the 2 sets of paperwork to acquire his ‘Carte Grise’. We hope, at that point, we can put the new plates on.

It has been over a month so far, and it has been a little taste of the system. Surprisingly, Alfonz keeps his chin up, and takes it in stride. Good for you!


How do you cope with the French system? Attitude determines altitude. We can only hope things keep falling into place for us. We stay positive. We drink wine. And remember, we picked the South of France to live, they didn’t send us an invite.

That’s Hamori!

Hi Suzy it will be almost all photographs, plus old postcard memories, and of course many of my own old and faded memories. As I am a mad magpie for collecting stuff I won't have to look too far. My wife's twin sister - also Parisienne, is helping out with some photos when she spots something, so it is fun for us both. Anyothers who want to get involved with pics. please let me know, but remember not buildings (although often foundation blocks or as mentioned Architect panels are exempt), but small things that make up a memory of Paris.

Elsewhere I mentioned the classic Spike Milligan description of a Paris taxi that 'swept up in a cloud of Gauloise and garlic', which was the best summary of 50's Paris I ever heard.

Re wife's pension. Didn't take five years to get it, just an extra five years to qualify for it. This way she gets her full (but adjusted against the part UK pension she already gets) next year. She could have opted to take what was available at 60 but it was a total pittance, so she went for the extra 5 years. Not really sure it was the best choice but it seemed so at the time.

I'm afraid that as everywhere now as far as I can see, Governments are viewing Pensions as the latest 'cash-cow', and the security many if not most of us, thought we were paying into, could start to be more elusive.

Your book sounds very interesting Norman,will there be photos? You must also remember the smells,Gitanes cigarettes,coffee and toilets......all gone now.

5 years for your wife to get her pension? Doesnt give me much hope,I've been trying to get some response from various places since last year.I paid into a small fortune to URSSAF,have proof that I paid,but as I'm freelance they cant sort it out.

Not sure about the shutters bit re. insurance, but positive about the yearly need to do the 'ramonage' on your log fires, and get the certification done to prove it.Usually the invoice is enough I believe. This does DEFINITELY affect your insurance as it becomes nul and void in cases of fire where the ramonage (chimney sweeping) hasn't been done.

RE; photocopying everything , yes, yes and triple times yes! Plus NEVER throw a piece of paper away even if you think the issue is done and dusted. Remember this is the country where workers have to keep every scrap of paper related to their employment for FORTY YEARS, to ensure they get their pension rights. If anything is missing or any period not covered by a piece of paper that period is deducted from the total payable. My French wife has had to wait for a further five years to receive her pension due when she turned 60 owing to time spent away from France, especially where those countries have no 'protocol' with France. We both lost our Australian pension rights in the same way through living here. It is also a very good idea to keep all old bank accounts and statements even if they are old and closed - and even in foreign countries. You just never know when someone will try to fob you of with a request for 'evidence'.

On a more cheeful subject - shutters. Last year a mate from Oz came for a break and I was fascinated by him taking photgraphs of shutters all the time. It turned out he was absorbed in the mass of differences. I had honestly never really noticed more than two or three variants, so it was a true eye-opener to realise the liyterally hundreds of different types there are. Not so much in the shutters themselves but in the hinges and locks.

Another friend is totally absorbed in the chimneys of this country, and that IS something I have noted also. Paris is a place where one should always look up, as much of the fascination is on the roofs. We all know the country chimneys, but I wonder how much notice we really take of the myriad of differences?

I am putting togethr yet another of my books which is called 'Pot-Pourri de Paris' and it concentrates on the little things that make a city, not the big ones like the Eiffel Tower etc. If you remember yourfirst visit to Paris I am sure there will be dozens of little things that made memories? I know Paris has changed but much remains the same. I first came to Paris 50 years ago, and still recall such things. The different wraps on the sugar cubes in cafes, the book matches, the strikers for matches on each table, doors, street plates in the ground, out-door drainage pipes with decorative brackets, art deco signatures by architects on buildings, door knockers, metal plates around trees, and so on.

Although bordering on ancient it is surprising how such things take one back?

Shirley, we have now been here 1 year. The post was from my blog, an account of all our fun experiences over the last 1 1/2 years since we decided to move. You are right, mild is not the word for the temperature here.-10-42 has been our experience thus far.

When we arrived last year to torrential down pours and then minus 10 in February, we thought we had made a big mistake. What we like, however, is that cold does not always mean rain like it does in Vancouver BC where it rain 50% of the time, although feels like more. Last year we used the wood fireplace and were lucky to only turn on the electric heaters once as the fire kept us quite cozy through the worst cold. Although cold, however, the skies were blue and clear, and for me that means long walks, bike rides even in the cold. Love it!

Our pool kept us cool in the heat of the summer, and I love the river beds and shaded shores that go along side them.

I had my licence exchanged in under 3 weeks, which I thought was a small miracle.

Dogs ? We learn something new each day!

The health system we take more documents in to tomorrow! Thanks! Luck we need :)

Jane, Canadians are good at making the most of the system too. We do not get a reward for not using the money allotted, so why not get your massages, your treatments, and your preventative care. In Canada we also have dental care that included preventative cleanings twice a year, plus we seal our kids teeth to stop cavities before they happen. Which reminds me, anyone know of a good dentist around Beziers??

Eva, I have just been talking to our Mutuelle brokers and they tell me that the English are way behind their French counterparts when it comes to making a claim. With their crises de foies and spa treatments, they are costing us a great deal of money, hence the recent hike in social charges for AE’s.

Welcome to France and all its idiosyncrasies! I, too, am a transplanted Canadian living in the south east of France. Overall I like my life here. I have learned to adapt to the French way of life, but I must say that I do still miss good customer service. However, don’t feel to much comfort in the no to GMO and hormones. Of course it’s not at the same level as in North America, but there is a black market for prohibited pesticides, hormones…etc, and GMO is not prohibited to livestock feed.
It’s funny what you said about the shutters. I thought the same thing. Also, that the houses are all closed in with a fence, hedges and a gate. I’ve noticed that the French are preoccupied with the idea of the possibility of being robbed. You would think it was a big problem here, but statistically it’s no different to Canada.
Enjoy your new French life!

Ah, you have the luck to be able to live in a little village. I need to be in a metropolitain area for work. There are, I think, two France's at work (pun intended)

Doreen, photocopying everything is a good idea!

France as a whole still makes break throughs in many fields: science, medicine, business etc. yet is completely able to hold true to their distinct culture and traditions. Maybe light years ahead was an exaggeration...

It is funny when being 'French' is so important to the French people that live here when 1 out 3 of them have a grandparent from a different country. Meaning the people come here and assimilate to the French culture, and feel French, not put up their own flag and start waving. That to me says, France still has something very appealing to offer.

I love how the food is still healthy and not GMO or hormone grown. Fresh ingredients are everywhere and cheap, keeping the French people healthy. Either they have held on to their traditions so tightly that it has always been the case or they recognize the value of healthy nutrition. Looking at their health care budget would have me believe they might be on to something close to preventative care and asking our neighbours what their plans are for the week, someone is always off to the doctors, and why not, its paid for.

Also these little villages we live in are very safe, micro bubbles of life, where your child can ride his or her bike across town and us not worry too much about them. Where the community knows your name and recognizes your face. Come back in 20 years, and the likeliness of them still being here is pretty good as people tent to stay put in France, with generations of families in the same houses. Where I am from people change each year: next door, at school and even at work.

I haven't lived all over the world, but if someone can tell me a better place that has good weather, great health care, strong traditions and values plus free education, let me know. I would love to hear it.

Personally I find many reasons worth dealing with the system.

We've found that has been able to deal with all our problems no matter how large or small! I think that in their 10 years of living in France there's not a single hiccup or catastrophe they've not encountered and overcome! They helped us purchase our house, and organise changing our immatriculation, and plenty of minor bureaucracies in-between. I wholeheartedly recommend them! Good luck and keep focused on your silver linings, I'm fairly certain that it's NOT that much easier in our respective, other countries, it's just in our maternal tongue.

When I looked through the small pringt on our house policy, I called Britline and they said that closing the shutters only applied if you were away for a week or more. I couldn't have faced going round the house every timne I went shopping.

However, if the advice that Britline matched that for the car policy, I wouldn't place a grreat deal of certainty on it.

I agree with you Eva,the shutter law doesnt make sense.Someone can just look at a block of flats,see who's away by the shutters being closed and come in and break in through the door.This used to happen in the flats I lived in. When I brought it up with the insurance company they agreed that it didnt make sense but thats the way it is!

I only ever close my shutters when it gets cold,and even then I dont like it. I hate the way the shutters are firmly closed as soon as the light fades.With that and the gardens fenced in.Here in the suburbs they put that awful green meshing over the railings so noone can even see into the gardens. Needless to say mine is not covered and people love looking at my garden. Compare that to the Dutch who have huge windows open for all to see in.

All in all it took Alfonz 3 moths to change the plates over on the bike and the van. The lady at the Prefecture said, 'Does France have no Westfalia camper vans?' Alfonz said I think so. 'They why do you keep bringing them in from Hungary?' Alfonz replied, 'It is the same van!" She promptly gave him the 'card grise' that minute.

Bob, just a common question as where the lights point on all vehicles outside the EU perhaps, or the lenses are configured differently for different lane usage? When I looked in to it, they said the lights point slightly away from the centre line, so from UK it would point in the wrong direction, onto oncoming traffic. True or false? No idea. If true, this is new information for us too.

Doreen, my heart goes out to you. We have been here 1 year next week, and have been trying to get on the healthcare system for months. They lost a difficult to replace Hungarian document that they demanded. Now it starts again, but I still remain optimistic.

I feel more at home here than anywhere as well Celia. It is time travel, where somethings are 25-50 years behind in terms of speed, paperwork, IT, yet in some ways they are light years ahead- a true paradox.

Brian, I love your story.

Peter, we have a rental and the pages of paperwork to submit the 40centimes per person per night, surely costs more to process than the 20€ bill they receive from us. It is laughable. On the same note the formality to elect our Parent Teacher Committee and the legality of the vote so formal, you would think we were CIA. The best part was there was only one set of people to vote for!

Frances, I will keep my eyes peeled for the Stereotype. I have witnessed one or two of the traits but never all in one.

The motorbikeissue is real asit just cost me to sort this.
I have almost given up being worried about it, my 14 year old son has just supplied more paperwork to be able to play football in the local team (. 4 times additional info was needed) than in New Zealand he would supply to run for a seat in Government, and still we are not at the end of the road on that one.
On the other hand I have been waiting on a meeting with a local contractor to remove an old building and create a car park opposite our home on some land we own. We thought today at 13.30 he was coming to go over the project and agree some slight changes, instead at 13.25 a village traffic jam of 3 large trucks and suitable earth moving equipment turned up and in one afternoon removed 200 years of village pig-stye history and in addition as a quick add on guesture dug a channel for electrical cable between the main house and the barn. So just when I think I can,t cope with it, it falls into place!

Actually it is easy. We're kinda half way. With my Scots origins and Anglais upbringing and my wife from Italian Switzerland we are roughly 10 hours drive from either closest point. The UK is an annoying place for many reasons, especially if one does not identify oneself as English although the English often think every person on the island called Great Britain is English. Switzerland makes French bureaucracy look like beginner's stuff, so no thank you. My wife does the incessant smoking, I do not smoke. She eats baguette, I spent my early years in Germany and really only like black breads, we both drink red wine and speak French. When we met, and she having been in French Switzerland for more than half her life and not that confident in English and my Italian ordering an Italian meal level... we spoke French. So it is a good place for us linguistically, culturally, and after all, like others, we chose to live here. We are not hostages.

"How do you cope with the French system? Attitude determines altitude. We can only hope things keep falling into place for us. We stay positive. We drink wine. And remember, we picked the South of France to live, they didn’t send us an invite."

Thank you Eva -Unfortunately many immigrants - us here, and many in our own homelands - tend to forget this.

I love it here, have never really felt 'at home' in UK or in USA which I also tried. It can indeed be very tough here. The French themselves find the system difficult (my bank manager for example) but it's their home, and our chosen home. I'll carry on trying, although if the taxes go up for auto entrepreneurs then I fear I may have to return to a place where at least I can read the small print.

I dearly hope not, I feel I belong here. I've buried 4 animals in my garden and will put chrysanthemums on their graves on 1st November, also for my and my husband's parents. I hear Doreen's comment, and remember how hard it was for my own ageing parents being sidelined in the UK even back in the 80's and 90's. I think I prefer this system, all in all.

Umm, Right hand drive headlight on a motorcycle? Surely they are having a laugh as all bike lights point straight ahead whether dipped or main beam ...

I'm reluctant to get started on this one. Yes, the stereotype DOES exist, I saw him recently. The smoking is appalling, the baguettes are ubiquitous but yummy, the beret isn't worn much but there are those who do. I was at an outdoor community concert recently and there were several in the audience. I've got a few myself lol.

The French system is a nightmare. For me a complete horror. There's no logic, no porductivity, and absolutely NO CUSTOMER SERVICE ETHIC. I'm lumped in with all the 'undesirables' from certain other countries. The fonctionaires are one of the reasons this country's stagnating. I'm happy for you down South. The gods are smiling on you but even the French admit the system sucks.