Refuse collection arrangements are made locally and therefore vary widely, but services are usually efficient and even in rural areas there may be three collections per week: two for waste and one for recyclable material (see below). Collection times also vary.
In some areas every house or apartment block is given a wheelie bin, while in others black plastic bags are simply left by the side of the road. Refuse collectors (éboueurs) take domestic rubbish only and anything else (e.g. furniture or rubble) is left behind.
Non-collectable and non-recyclable rubbish can be disposed of free of charge at a tip (déchetterie), which are found in all but the smallest communes and clearly signposted. However, you may use only your local tip and must obtain a permit from your town hall or mairie. Check the opening times, which may be only two or three days a week.
Many communes arrange an occasional (e.g. quarterly) collection of encombrants, i.e. objects you want to get rid of but cannot (or cannot be bothered to) take to the tip such as old washing machines, refrigerators and armchairs. Certain items won’t be collected, however, including old cars and motorbikes (or their parts) and hazardous material.
France has recently introduced various recycling (recyclage) measures and facilities, although not all French people ‘bother’ to make use of them. As with rubbish disposal, arrangements vary from town to town but in many areas there are weekly collections of recyclable material, which must be left out in the containers supplied, e.g. yellow bags.
Not all recyclables are collected, however, and some such as glass, books and magazines must be taken to a recycling point (éco-point), which are plentiful and usually include blue bins (for paper, including newspapers, magazines and cardboard) and green bins (for glass). Out-of-date or unwanted medicines should be taken to a chemist’s.
Arrangements for the connection and supply of power and other services aren’t always straightforward. Here’s a summary of the main points to look out for.
The domestic electricity supply market hasn’t yet been liberalised, so you have no choice but to sign up with the state-owned monopoly Electricité de France (EDF). You do, however, have a choice of supply (depending on your consumption) and charging system, so it’s worth going to an EDF office and discussing your requirements with an adviser, which can save you a lot of money.
Power cuts are frequent in many areas of France, where power lines run overhead, although EDF is in the process of burying cables throughout the country. If your commune still has overhead cables, expect ‘micro-cuts’ (micro-coupures) whenever there’s strong wind as well as cuts of several hours (or days) when a tree falls on a line. If you live in an area where cuts are frequent and rely on electricity for your livelihood, e.g. for operating a computer, you may need to install a back-up generator (groupe électrogène).
Power surges occur occasionally and you may wish to install a power surge protector for appliances such as TVs, computers and fax machines, without which you risk having equipment damaged or destroyed. Electricity companies pay compensation for power surge damage, but it’s up to you to claim (and prove) it – and you still suffer the inconvenience of having equipment repaired or replaced.
If the power keeps tripping off when you attempt to use a number of high-power appliances simultaneously, e.g. an electric kettle and a heater, it means that the power rating (puissance) of your property is too low and needs upgrading. This is a common problem in old houses.
Mains gas (gaz de ville) is available only in some 80 cities and large towns and, as with electricity, there’s only one supplier nationwide: Gaz de France (which is part of Electricité de France). In rural areas, bottled gas is commonly used – 1,100kg tanks for heating and small bottles for cooking.
Almost a quarter of France is covered by forest (and the area is increasing), and some 7m homes rely solely on wood-burning stoves (chauffage au bois) for heating and hot water, particularly in rural areas, and millions more homes have wood fires for effect.
Wood for fuel is measured in stères (see box) and costs between around 20 and 40 per stère depending on the quality (e.g. oak is more expensive than poplar).
Water is supplied by a variety of private companies but the infrastructure is owned and managed by communes, so in fact you have no choice of supplier and prices vary widely across the country.
Most properties are metered, so you pay for what you use, but the price per cubic metre depends on whether you’re connected to mains drainage or have a septic tank (see Sewerage below) – the former costing around four times as much as the latter.
There are rarely water shortages, although recent ‘droughts’ have led to water restrictions in certain areas, particularly in the south.
Mains water is supposedly safe to drink throughout France, although it contains fluoride and other chemicals and can taste awful. Many people prefer to drink bottled water, though it’s recommended that you change brands regularly, as each contains a concentration of certain minerals.
Urban properties are usually connected to mains drainage (tout à l’égout), whereas most rural properties have a septic tank (fosse septique), which should be emptied every four years or so – though not completely, in order not to destroy the bacteria that enable the tank to function. You shouldn’t use flush bleach and other strong cleaning products or antibiotics down the sink, as these can have a detrimental effect, and it’s possible to buy various products that supposedly improve the efficiency of a tank (a dead rat is the traditional ingredient) and reduce unpleasant smells.
Telephone services are generally good and most of the country is served by landline and/or mobile phone infrastructure, with broadband (haut-débit) due to be available nationwide by the end of 2007.
France Télécom is currently the only company that can install a telephone line, which takes a few days in urban areas but up to a month (sometimes more) in rural areas and costs around €110.
There are currently around 20 telephone service providers and the choice of ‘call plans’ is mind-boggling.
All French telephone numbers have ten digits and you must dial all ten, even when phoning your next-door neighbour. Numbers beginning 06 are mobile numbers; those beginning 08 could be free or expensive.
There’s no longer a single number for directory enquiries, as the service has been privatised and you must choose your ‘provider’ and normally endure a barrage of advertising before you’re given the number you want. Quicker and cheaper to use the internet.
Excerpted from “Culture Wise France” which can be purchased from Survival Books