Dealing with French bureaucracy

French bureaucracy (euphemistically called l’administration) is legendary – and most foreigners have an ‘epic’ tale to tell of their dealings with it. You should be prepared for frustration caused by time-wasting and blatant obstruction on the part of officials. Often you may wonder whether the right hand knows what any other part of the body is up to (it usually doesn’t) and you should expect to receive conflicting information from consulates, government departments, préfectures and town halls.

Red tape (paperasse) is a way of life in France, where every third person is a civil servant (see below). In order to obtain any sort of permit, you must complete numerous forms, answer dozens of irrelevant questions and provide mountains of documents with official translations to produce an impressive-looking dossier.

When dealing with officialdom, you must persevere, as the first answer is always ‘Non.’. You can sometimes speed up proceedings by employing a lawyer, although this is unusual in France and may be counterproductive.

Top tips for dealing with French red tape: 1 Always find out from an official source exactly what you need before making an application. 2 Double-check the opening hours of the office and ensure it isn’t a public holiday. 3 Always take a duplicate of everything. 4 Expect not to have the right paperwork the first time. 5 Allow plenty of time to make an application (and take a good book).//

Accept bureaucratic hurdles as part of life in France and remember that the French have to go through the same process. If French bureaucracy ever threatens to get the better of you, treat yourself to a leisurely French meal and a bottle of wine and your trials and tribulations will pale into insignificance.

Civil Servants

France has the world’s highest civil servant/population ratio – estimates range from 28 per cent to an incredible 35 per cent of its working population, or some 5m civil servants (fonctionnaires) – also known, less complimentarily, as cravattés (‘tie-wearers’) and chieurs d’encre (‘ink-shitters’).

The civil service has traditionally been seen as a cushy number in France, where government workers are more or less guaranteed a job for life and enjoy privileged employment conditions and early retirement (sometimes at 50). As a result, civil servants have a reputation for being complacent and having no interest in their jobs – let alone in the lives of the people they deal with.

Nevertheless, not all civil servants are aloof and unhelpful, and pleasant surprises are in store for those used to faceless functionaries in other countries. It’s possible, for example, not only to know the name of the person dealing with your tax affairs but also to dial his number directly and discuss it with him. Even better, you can make an appointment to see him and sort things out face to face (always the best way in France).

When dealing with civil servants (and indeed any French person), be as polite and calm as possible – you’ll achieve nothing by getting angry or frustrated. He may remember your politeness and treat you well the next time – but don’t bank on it.