Think literally

Over the years we have spent in Lyon we have tested every means of travelling to the UK: plane, Eurostar, Eurotunnel, and ferry. When leaving France, they each have their particular advantages and disadvantages, but upon coming home, the plane wins hands down. Why? Well, all three other modes of transport require us to have some degree of interaction with French customer services during the return journey, and after a few days abroad, the shock is usually more than we can bear.

Take the start of this year. Our ten-day sojourn in the land of our birth had been no idyll (a particular highlight was getting into an altercation with a woman on a bus, which resulted in her intoning loudly, “it’s the children I feel sorry for”… don’t ask). However, one thing that we could be certain of was that, upon walking into some emporium or other, the rules of the transaction would be readily apparent (there is a menu, you select something from it, the food arrives, you pay, you leave).

As we drove off the ferry and steamed southwards, we applied as much acceleration as was consistent with the law in a desperate attempt to make it home without stopping. Finally, though, we reluctantly turned into the Langres-Perrogney service station on the A31 near Dijon. It was past 19h, and, this being France, only a small window of time remained to us if we wished to eat.

At Langres-Perrogney, the restaurant, as it insisted on calling itself, was one of those ones that has a formule for children. Your child picks up a clear plastic box containing some piece of plastic junk and a fruit compôte; they collect their mini boisson; and then they proceed to the main serving hatch where some unsmiling woman asks them what they want in a manner bordering on aggressive. Aggression or otherwise, the Curly One loves a plastic box and a portion of indifferent steak hâché frites, so she was in her element. It was the Reader who caused a problem.

I am immensely proud that the Reader has an environmental blog, and goes around our house turning off lights before we’ve finished using them. In this spirit, at Langres-Perrogney she decided that she did not want a plastic box, still less the plastic junk or the compôte, and that she would simply take the mini bottle of water and the greasy main course. As we were making our way with this feast to the till, the dame who had served us (there is no verb to convey what it was that she actually did, so “serve” will have to do) bellowed at our retreating backs: si vous prenez ni de boîte ni de compôte, ce n’est pas un formule enfant et vous allez payer plus cher.

Regulation meal for the Curly One, with plastic box and no wine.

Whereupon I made that rookie error of applying a little bit of logic to the situation. In my best French I explained, as patiently as I could, that it was a win-win situation. Madame got to keep her boîte, jouet en plastique, and compôte, and therefore to re-sell them, theoretically at least making a tiny profit, whilst we did not have to encumber ourselves with things that we did not want or need. To no avail. The woman shook her head. After several volleys of this, we gave in. We would pay 3€ more if we didn’t take the box, and so we took the wretched thing, and she smiled in a self-satisfied manner, knowing that she had done her boulot despite the best efforts of her lawless customers.

Needless to say, as soon as her back was turned, we snuck back into the self-service area and replaced the plastic on the shelf from whence it had come. Sometimes I wonder whether the national motto should be less Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, and more Le regle est plus fort que la logique.

As we were muttering to ourselves about French literal-mindedness at Langres-Perrogney’s finest formica table, we espied a hapless German couple enter the premises. They embarked upon a tricky conversation with our friend behind the counter about what was on offer (they didn’t understand French or the system of formules, and explaining what andouillette was in German was beyond the serveuse). Eventually they settled upon a bowl of soup each (I didn’t blame them). Then the male half of the couple retraced his steps and made the terrible bêtise of picking up a tiny bouteille de vin. Non, non, non, she was heard to shout, vous ne pouvez pas acheter ce vin. They turned round, perplexed. Our ears pricked up. Why could they not buy the wine? Had they not picked up the correct box? Vous ne prenez pas de viande, the woman explained, donc ceci n’est pas un répas, et vous ne pouvez pas acheter du vin sans répas.

Silly me! Everyone knows that it’s not a meal unless it’s eaten at 19h, accompanied by a plastic box and consists largely of a huge slab of dead animal.



Thank you to everyone who had noticed that I have been quite quiet for a while. Life has been rather busy. I have ten times more paperwork than you do… but I’m back!

Fast Food Nation

On a recent trip to the UK I took the girls on a London bus. The Curly One, who must have been a bloodhound in a former life, suddenly wrinkled her nose in distaste. “Mummy,” she said, in her well-spoken foghorn: “someone is eating a steak hâché on here. Why doesn’t the driver tell them to stop or get off?” Having furtively ascertained that she wasn’t about to get us all knifed, I shushed her and pointed out that she had herself just eaten a snack on board said bus. Assuming an air of world-weary patience she explained, “yes, but that was a goûter. That lady’s eating a whole meal. It stinks”.

My daughter is quite correct. UK high streets reek constantly of food. Tube carriages are infused with air de cheese ‘n onion with accompanying crunchy sound effects, and train stations are filled with wafts of Cornish pasty, which the adjacent spiralzed kale and goji berry joints do little to smother. Meanwhile one glimpse of the pavement at the end of a Saturday night in any major town will tell you that if anyone in the post-Brexit UK economy is going to thrive it will be the fast-food worker and the street-sweeper.

This image, from Joe Hawkins via WikiCommons, captures a street scene from Blackpool

The ubiquity of food, and people consuming food, was not something that I particularly noticed when I lived in the UK. Having now spent nearly four years in France, however, it hits me smack in the nose. The thing is, you see, that nobody eats food in French streets, unless they are seated outside at a café or brasserie. Just occasionally you might see someone eating a croissant standing up at a bar, but presumably they have a very good excuse for doing so. The only waft that you will encounter in the rue is the fug of a gauloise, or, more pleasantly, the smell of fresh bread that canny boulangers have pumped out onto the pavement to lure you in.

Whereas fast food to a Brit signals cheeky kebab, or guilty donut, to a French person it means menu du jour. With this menu, you may not have any choice about what you eat (invariably lump de viande, with sauce de quelque chose and overcooked haricots verts followed by slab de tarte aux pommes), but you do know that it has been freshly cooked, from scratch, probably using local produce, that it will only cost you 12€, and that you will sit down to eat it, possibly with un petit verre de vin.

Fast food French-style at Jocteur in St Rambert, Lyon

I once found myself in the difficult position of not yet having eaten lunch at 2pm, and needing to get to my next appointment by 2.30pm. Not to worry, I thought, I’ll just buy something quick to eat and consume it en route. Needless to say this was easier said than done. I strode purposefully towards an ardoise bearing the legend restauration rapide. It turned out it should have read rapide [compared to ten-course banquets], for not only did the ordering process seem to comprise five separate steps, but then, having retrieved your meal, you were expected to consume it at one of the tables provided. In any case, the man running the joint gave me a dirty look as I approached and very deliberately plucked away the ardoise that had drawn my attention (it was after 2pm, after all, and tout le monde sait qu’on ne mange que entre midi et 14h).

Next I ran into the nearest mini supermarché and hunted round desperately for the picnic lunch section. If you have ever tried this you will know how disappointing an experience it can be. There are always several dispiriting croques monsieur on display, all requiring the aid of a frying pan before they can be consumed, and otherwise your options are limited to some plastic cartons containing mounds of carrottes râpés, and then one or two approximations of a sandwich, containing lacklustre Emmental et jambon on soggy pain de mie. Thoroughly disheartened by what was on offer, I purchased a packet of chips anciens and a bunch of bananes and went on my way.

That was not the end of the matter, though, for I had not reckoned with the public shaming that would ensue when I made my first attempt at opening my packet of chips anciens once I had boarded le tramway. A mere rustle as I got it out of my bag and the vielle dame opposite fixed me with a steely glare. Knowing that I needed to eat, I turned away from her, only to find a much younger dame glaring at me from that direction with equal disapproval. Fearing that my reserves of sang froid would not run to crisp consumption, I reached instead for a banane, but the chastening stare was, if anything, more sternly applied. Defeated, I put all consumables back into my bag and waited for my stop, where I sat on a banc and shivered as I stuffed a bit of fuel in, unobserved, before my meeting.

This image is by JKCarl via WikiCommons

This idea that fast food is an oxymoron has percolated down even to the likes of McDonalds. No self-respecting French branch of McDo is without its proud advert for service à table. This is too much for poor old Eadred, who mutters perplexedly about the “same soggy fries and contaminated beef burgers” whether it is served to your table or not. He’s missing the point. Eating a steak hâché is absolutely fine so long as you do it in the allotted period for eating, sitting at a table, and never, ever, on public transport.



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Stamp of approval

The other day I heard the emotive tale of a British five-year-old who had saved her mother’s life by dialling 999 when she went into anaphylactic shock. Good point, I thought: I ought to teach the kids what to do in an emergency. The problem is that, like everything in France, the system for contacting the services d’urgences has been designed for the convenience of the service providers rather than the service users and is, thus, utterly impenetrable.

If you have a medical emergency, the people that you want are the Service d’Aide Médicale Urgente (SAMU). To reach them you dial 15. However, the SAMU really only deal with maladies graves, so if your medical emergency is of a lesser order (a cold neck, perhaps) you actually need to dial 18 to contact the pompiers (fire brigade). I was sufficiently troubled by this protocol that I was moved to ask a friend where the line was drawn between a maladie grave and a maladie moins grave. Beh, she said, nonplussed, ze pompiers are for une jambe cassée and ze SAMU are for une crise cardiaque… Well, that cleared that one up nicely then.

For the police you dial 17. If, however, you think that because they have a single number, the flics provide a single, unified service, you would be sorely mistaken. There are, in fact, no less than four separate police services in France. The police municipale are to be found in your local mairie and are the officers who prowl around seeking out parking violations. They are not to be confused with the police nationale, who are based in the local commissariat de police, are under the control of the Interior Ministry, and are described as agents de police.

Just in case this seems too straightforward, there are also gendarmes, who wear pale blue uniforms with gold buttons and slightly Inspector Clouseau képis. They deal with serious national crime and law and order in rural areas. Gendarmes are under the control of the Ministry of Defence, as are the Compagnie Républicaine de la Sécurité (CRS). The CRS do riot-control (and are therefore kept very busy in the land of the manifestation) and, evidemment, life-saving on beaches.

How do I know all this? Well, last time you saw Eadred he was driving around sans permis, fearing arrest at every turn. He had been to the préfecture for his new permis, and had been despatched from there to obtain a signed and multiply-stamped déclaration of the loss of the old one from the police.

Thinking that a policeman was a policemen (quelle bêtise !), Eadred had trotted off to our local mairie to speak to the people who he thought were the police there. Mais non ! he should have gone to the gendarmerie two villages away. Dutifully he schlepped to the gendarmerie after work the next day. Mais non ! c’est la police qu’il fallait. It took a kindly colleague to point out to him that perhaps he needed the police nationale instead of the police municipale, and that he could try a commissariat in the centre of Lyon. Somewhat sceptically this is where he next went. The agent behind the counter was mildly baffled at Eadred’s request but confirmed that, although he had not done one for des années, he could provide a déclaration. Youpi.

Police documentation assured, Eadred then had to proceed to a tabac to spend 25€ on something called a timbre fiscal, a sort of stamp representing payment of a tax, with which to pay for his new permis. Expecting something quite retro in appearance, he was pleasantly surprised to be offered a timbre fiscal éléctronique. Could this be used for a permis de conduire ? he asked. Mais oui, he was told.

Enfin, Eadred was able to make a rendez-vous at the préfecture (or the préf, as he had taken to calling it). The meeting was for 10.30 in the morning: he turned up at the appointed hour, took his ticket and waited. Just before midday he was called in.

Relieved to be at the final hurdle, Eadred produced his dossier, proudly handing over the déclaration, signed and stamped with about three separate tampons, as all good official documents in France should be. He was midly disappointed that, after all that effort, his interlocutor showed barely any interest in it. Timbre fiscal ? she prompted. Aha ! She wasn’t catching him out that easily, he thought, as he pulled the swanky éléctonique version from his folder. She looked at him with disdain. Mais nous n’acceptons pas des timbres fiscaux éléctroniques she said. Eadred must have looked so crestfallen that, rather than following the usual procedure of unceremoniously ejecting him from the premises, the woman softened, and told him he could go and buy a timbre fiscal classique in the nearest tabac, and that she would see him again upon his return.

Eadred ran out. No, the tabac would not exchange the version éléctronique for a version classique (zis is not in zee reglementation), and he would have to buy a new one, for another 25€. Tant pis, he thought, as he handed over his money. He sprinted back to the préf and presented himself at the office. Mais, monsieur, tous nos interlocuteurs prennent leur pause de déjeuner he was told. And so he settled down to wait, again. Finally, after the staff had eaten their eight-course meal, he was summoned again, presented the new timbre fiscal, had his dossier validé, and was told to go home and await the arrival of his permis

… and, three weeks later, it arrived. Quel bonheur.

Now he just has to complete the dossier (including lengthy form, the timbre fiscal éléctronique, receipt from the first tabac, a copy of his passport, and his rélève d’identité bancaire) to obtain a 25€ refund. This could take some weeks.



The given day

One of the happy side-effects of becoming a bloggeuse is the number of people who get in touch after they have just moved to France. A fortnight ago I spoke to one such person. Her two young children were due to start school five days after we spoke. She was beginning to feel a little bit uneasy about this, which was perfectly understandable given that a) the only conversation she’d had on the subject (some months earlier) had taken the form of a vague reassurance from the maire that everything would be fine; b) nobody had made it clear whether or not the younger of the two children was eligible for, or expected at, school; and c) there had been no letter, e-mail or text telling her when the school term would begin.

Happily, despite the fact that I live several hundred miles away from the commune in question and, indeed, had never even heard of it before, I was able to answer most of the questions. Yes, I said, because the younger child had been born in 2014, she would be expected at school. Term would begin on lundi 4 septembre. I knew this to be true because the school in question is a state primary school, and such things are governed by edicts from central government, no doubt from the great hand of Emmanuel Macron himself.

About the precise time and location I was less certain (Macron is presumably disinclined to micromanage). I was unable to specify what, if any, school supplies would be needed by each child (though I knew there would be a list). Nor, because of a recent and controversial change in the law, was I able to say whether or not there would be school on Wednesdays. However, all was not lost because the very next day was vendredi 1 septembre, and I did know that, on that particular day, the teachers in question would be found on the school premises, and could therefore be approached for all the answers that I had been unable supply. How did I know this? Well, everyone knows that la rentrée des profs happens on the working day before la rentrée des élèves … don’t they?

Not only do all pupils go back to school on the same day, they all have the same Tann’s bags, too.

When we first put the kids into French school, I found the lack of basic information available bewildering, and read into it a certain degree of hostility towards interlopers. It turns out that I was just being paranoid. Nobody communicates with you about the bare essentials because they are, quite simply, une évidence. When, at the start of our second year, I tried to engage another mother at the school gate in a little bit of cheerful griping about the fact that I had resorted to guessing when the kids needed to show up on the first day, I failed miserably. She looked at me as if I was a bit dim: mais comment tu ne le savais pas ? she asked. Well, nobody told me. Mais tout le monde le sait !

She was right. Tout le monde does indeed sait. This knowledge is not genetic, as I had at first wildly imagined, or even cultural: it’s laid down by central government, or at the very least by the mairie, and, having remained largely unchanged since Napoléon, can be considered to be immutable.

In some ways this monolithic system renders matters much simpler. This August I spent several hours telephoning and e-mailing people to try to arrange our children’s extra-curricular activities for the coming year. The responses, when the people concerned were not on holiday or at lunch, were mildly derisive. Je vous prie, Madame, de vous rendre au forum des associations. OK, fine, but when is this forum? The first Saturday after la rentrée, Madame, comme d’habitude. (Oh yes, silly me.)

The simplicity of having a single day on which people across the entire land can sign up for clubs is, like everything in France, a double-edged sword. Yes, it is convenient for you to know when and where to go without having to ask. However, suggesting to everyone that they do the same thing at the same time and in the same place is ultimately helpful to nobody except the organisers.

Imagine the terrifying consequences of a failed registration for Karate Kid.

The annual forum des associations is home to queueing on an epic scale. If you are English, the sight of perfumed ladies casually wafting into the line in which you have been waiting with only a mild air of martyrdom for twenty minutes is likely to send your blood pressure soaring. When you eventually get to the desk, you need to make sure you have your entire dossier at the ready, otherwise your application for your offspring to do karaté will be sunk for want of a single passport photo, a certificat médical or a stamped-addressed envelope (smiley though those people in jolly t-shirts at the desk may seem, they are ruthlessly unforgiving when it comes to dossiers). And whilst being turned away may not seem so terrible, when you are aware that there are only a limited number of available spaces, that the perfumed lady has taken 75% of them, and that registrations are for the entire year, well… failure doesn’t bear thinking about.


#AllAboutFrance is back on the Lou Messugo blog. To find out more about French ways why not peruse the other blogs on there?


Your number’s up

Here’s the thing. Back in early March, we went on a skiing holiday. Well, Eadred and the girls skied, whilst I wept at the top of the slopes. Anyway, we were à la montagne, and I provided enough of a sideshow to ensure that Eadred was frequently distracted and, during one such lapse, dropped his wallet somewhere in the vast expanse of neige. Neige being neige, by the time we realised what had happened, the wallet was forever lost. It’s not the first time that I have proved to be an expensive hobby for Eadred.

Mislaying your wallet is a tedious occurrence wherever in the world it happens. In the UK, however, a combination of native pragmatism and (relatively) straightforward administrative practices mean that the contents of the wallet can be fairly readily cancelled and replaced. No, I wouldn’t lose my wallet on purpose in the UK, but neither would its loss make it into my top ten worst moments of the year.

Eadred, on the other hand, lives in la belle France. Here in the land of cheese-munchers, losing your wallet is about as cataclysmic as it gets. Whereas in the UK you might consider leaving the house with just a cash card, a few stamps and a tenner in your purse, here your portefeuille is expected to contain ze kitchen sink at all times so that, when an armed policeman asks for your car insurance papers at a randomised roadblock, or when a florist demands to see your carte d’identité before you can collect a parcel containing name labels for your children, you are able to oblige.

In other words, we live in a system under which not only do you kiss goodbye to ze kitchen sink when you lose your wallet, you also face being fined by gendarmes at will, or confronting the wrath of your child’s maîtresse when the contents of your child’s three compulsory school pencil cases remain unnamed. Zut alors.

By far the worst aspect of Eadred’s buried portefeuille was the missing permis de conduire. When a person first moves to France, they attack the administrative process with energy. “It can’t possibly be that bad,” they say to themselves during the honeymoon period when their stiff upper lip is still intact. After six months of waiting for their carte vitale to come through, however; after having signed a 30-page bail on a rented property; had three meetings just to open one bank account; and spent four hours queueing in the préfecture to register the ownership of one’s bagnol, even the most enthusiastic new arrival loses their will to live. And so it came to pass that Eadred gave up before he had exchanged his UK (EU) driving licence for a French (EU) one as he was supposed to have done. Oups.

Ordinarily, if you lose your permis de conduire, you apply to the relevant authority for a replacement. The trouble for Eadred was that the relevant authority in his case was still the DVLA in the UK. But without a valid UK residential address, the DVLA is unable to issue a replacement licence. Which left Eadred with only one option: applying to the préfecture for a French replacement. The problem was that, however stoically Eadred tackled the mountains of paper required to achieve anything official in France, he had no physical UK permis to exchange for a French one as the relevant protocol required. It was in his portefeuille, which was in the neige.

Cue an appointment at the préfecture to beg. Several months and one police stop fine later (fonctionnaires, apparently, do not use the téléphone and only answer e-mails when it takes their fancy to do so), he had a timed appointment and had compiled his dossier (with everything on the exhaustive list of things they ask for and many things they do not, as is traditional).

Eadred in rare selfie with the ticket announcement board in the préfecture

The great day arrived, Eadred turned up, and was issued with a ticket number. The time for his appointment came and went. After an hour, he went up and politely enquired whether that it was normal that a timed appointment should be running an hour late. His ticket and credentials were inspected. Oui, his name was on the list. Oui, madame had known that he was in the waiting room, at the allotted time. But non, the ticket number that they had issued him with was incorrect, so non, he would just have to go away and make anuzzer rendez-vous, presumably some months in the future.

Fortunately, if three and a half years in France teach you anything, it is that non is just an opening gambit. On no account should you succumb to your British instincts of taking no for an answer. Instead, Eadred took the sensible step of digging his heels in and, eventually, madame grudgingly conceded that she might be able to spare a second of her time for him.

The happy and most astonishing part of this tale is that the préfecture does in fact have a protocol for dealing with the replacement of lost European driving licences. If Eadred had thought that this would be straightforward, however, he was much mistaken. Madame at the préfecture told him that he needed to go to the commissariat de police to make a declaration of loss of the old licence before he could be furnished with a replacement. The commissariat, however, told him that, non, it was the gendarmerie he needed. The gendarmerie, however, told him that, non, it was the préfecture that issued such declarations. We think that it is indeed the préfecture that does it but that, in order to do it, he first needs to produce a preliminary piece of papier from the commissariat. This is all deduction, mind. None of the aforementioned officials have yet furnished him with any such explanation.

And of course then it is not at all clear whether, even if his deductions are correct, and even if he manages to elicit the required papier from the commissariat, the same single person at the préfecture will be able to issue both the declaration and the licence, or whether two separate people will have to do it at two separate appointments, each of which will require months of forward planning, hours of waiting and the correct ticket.


I shall keep you posted on whether Eadred successfully obtains a new licence before Brexit kicks in…



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A family affair

Last week I popped into the village to run a few errands. Well, it should have been a pop, but in the event it was more of a crawl. My own children still at school, I had forgotten that many French private schools are allergique to the concept of any schooling in the month of juillet, and thus had broken up for the summer a few days earlier. Consequently the local commerces were rather busier than I had anticipated, and our delightful local librarie was completely clogged up with jeunes enfants, who were taking even longer than usual to purchase armfuls of BDs and the odd handspinner because they were accompanied not by frazzled mothers but by doting grandparents. Indeed, it seemed that I was the only shopper between the ages of 21 and 60 that day.
I was similarly taken aback when, a few days later, I collected a good friend from Part-Dieu station in the centre of town. It was 1pm on a weekday and, whilst I had not expected a deserted concourse at that time, I was not prepared for the seething mass of humanity that I encountered. Twice I tried to battle my way towards the arrivals board, and twice I was mown down by a crocodile of jeunes and enfants wearing yellow caps.Was this a school trip? No: closer inspection revealed that they were accompanied by adults wearing T-shirts bearing the legend JUNIOR & Cie. This turns out to be the arm of the SNCF that deals with travel for unaccompanied minors. As I warily threaded my way through the noisy hoardes, I counted as many as six more such groups.
The start of French school holidays, you see, signals the cranking up of that ever-popular national childcare provider, at all other times of year known as la famille. Every conversation I have had with French friends about summer holiday plans has gone something like this:
Friend: What are you doing pendant les vacances?
Moi: We’re going away for three whole weeks for the first time ever [awaits gasp of astonishment and admiration].
Friend [after said gasp has failed to materialise]: Oui, mais qu’est-ce que tu fais pour le reste ?
Moi: [Launches into tedious explanation in dubious French of our patchwork of work and childcare arrangements.] Et toi ?
Friend: Ah well, Clothilde et Gaston will go to zer grandmuzzer’s ‘ouse for one week, and zen to ze ocean wiz ‘er for anozzer week, zen zey will go to ze ozzer grandmuzzer’s ‘ouse while Jean-Chrisophe et moi go to ‘ave a romantic break. Zen we ‘ave ze family ‘oliday, zen zer cousine will come to our ‘ouse and look after zem while we go to work.
Moi: [speechless].
Despite a growing number of reports that British grandparents are increasingly shouldering the burden of caring for their grandchildren, I would struggle to identify a single British friend who routinely relied upon their own parents to look after their children for anything longer than a couple of days at a time during school holidays. In my own family such an idea would be outlandish, not because my parents don’t love the kids, nor because they would be unwilling or incapable of caring for them for any length of time, but, well, because we’re all terrified by the prospect of committing that unspeakable crime of taking each other for granted. My parents are, after all, retired, and what is tending to my offspring other than work? I don’t want to do it, so why should they…? I don’t wish to suggest that my family is in any way unusual in this respect: culturally, using one’s parents as a form of unpaid extended holiday childcare is just not quite cricket.
The other barrier is, of course, transport. “By the time I have got the kids to Norfolk and traveled back, a whole day has passed,” says one UK friend, “if you count the reverse journey, that’s two days out of my meagre holiday allowance, so I might as well find a solution closer to home”.
This is, of course, where JUNIOR & Cie comes in. Whereas most of my UK friends would be appalled at the very notion of their child travelling further than a few metres down the street without them, this is something that French kids do all the time. With two months of holiday in summer to fill, it is perhaps no wonder that an entire industry designed to transport unaccompanied children to destinations throughout France, and indeed across the globe, has sprung up.
And so it came to pass that, after three years of enviously eyeing the carefree lives of our French friends, last March we decided that enough was enough. Being blessed with at least part of a family that had Gallic blood pumping through its veins, we finally plucked up the courage to enquire whether Eadred‘s father and his wife would kindly take the children for us over Easter weekend. Mais oui, came the enthusiastic response, and so, with some trepidation, we booked two seats for unaccompanied minors on an Air France flight to Toulouse.
Children with luggage labels about to embark on solo flight
Before the grand flight took place, I worried and flapped. I needn’t have bothered. Our children’s departure turned out to be part of a mass transit of the under-16s: some being smothered by parental affection as they departed, and others being received into grandparental arms as they arrived. At the kids’ gate in Lyon airport there were literally hundreds of children wearing pochettes round their necks, including six others on the flight to Toulouse alone. The stay itself was a big hit, too. The girls came back bursting with tales of adventures, and of how much more exciting it was to see papy et mamie without us.
Et les grandparents ? I almost didn’t want to know how they had found it in case they were exhausted, or felt that we had taken them for granted. Mais pourquoi ? they asked, genuinely astonished. Ce n’est pas du travaille. C’est la famille.

Enterprising spirit

He has been hailed around the world as the President who will, enfin, rescue the French economy from mounting unemployment and ballooning costs for employers. In many parts of France, however, Emmanuel Macron’s plan to modernise and streamline labour laws have provided the perfect excuse for a good old grève (happily, the timing has the advantage of extending the vacances d’été).

Last night, with mild hyperbole, Le Front Social urged all Lyonnais to join their manifestation against Macron’s plan de destruction sociale massive. Tempting though it was in the 33º heat to join a load of angry French people protesting against, amongst other things, extending potential Sunday opening hours, I managed to resist the urge to install my bales of hay in the public streets.

Back in the UK I tended to read the small print whenever anyone seeking election talked about tax breaks for innovation and enterprise. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for a bit of get up and go, but frequently such talk is used to bring in concessions for the sort of “entrepreneurs” who have already attracted billions to them rather than for your average painter-decorator, or indeed freelance journalist, who is struggling to pay their bills each month.

France, however, is a totally different bouillore de poisson. Anyone with half a brain can see that the system here is not set up to favour small-scale endeavours. Charges are so high that employing someone on a permanent contract here costs the employer double what they pay their employee in salary. If you happen to be rolling in it, like l’Etat, or BNP Paribas, tant pis, but if you are a small business, you have to think hard before taking anyone on. No surprise then that young people are struggling to get even a CDD (short-term contract), let alone a CDI (permanent contract).

From the outside, this all seems insane. I think it’s insane, and my family benefits enormously from it, Eadred being one of those lucky people whose CDI entitles him to over 40 days off each year, not to mention help with his transport costs, childcare vouchers and chèques de vacances which we can spend on, well, vacances: all at his employer’s expense.

Recently, however, I have had more personal reasons for wanting a President who is prepared to tackle the system. Some of the work I do here is freelance and, to work freelance, I had to set up my own company (cue labyrinthine paperwork). Once it had been established, I had to start to pay my cotisations. Everyone with a job in France pays these prélèvements sociaux, the major part of which go towards healthcare costs. And so I jolly well should too, I said to myself, when the issue first reared its head.

The trouble is that, whereas if you are employed by someone else, you pay 20% of your income in such charges, if you are self-employed, the percentage that you pay is much higher. This is presumably because you do not have, behind you, an employer who is quietly matching what they pay you in charges paid to the State. It’s quite difficult to work out how much I have to pay out for the privilege of employing myself because – évidemment – the money goes to no fewer than four separate entities, all of which have different payment terms. On the basis of our last tax return, however, I worked out that last year I paid out about 40% of what I earnt in charges. Double what I pay when I am employed by someone else.

Oh! Did I forget to mention that this 40% levy was before income tax? Although everyone pays their social charges, only 46% of French workers pay income tax. Unfortunately, because tax is paid per family rather than per individual, and because Eadred has his aforementioned cushy CDI, this includes us. As well it should, I thought…

Except that, gulp, all this makes the fiscal régime rather punitive as far as my freelance endeavours are concerned. I earn about 750€ this way each month, for about five full day’s work. That’s 18.75€ gross per hour. Deduct the 40% that goes out to the RSI, Urssaf, Cipav, and in Taxe foncière des entreprises (ground rent on the space in which you work), and I am already down to 450€, or 11.25€ per hour (before tax). Deduct the further 30% that we will pay in income tax at the end of the year, and I am down to 315€. Do the maths and I am paid 7.88€ per hour net. Less than half of the amount I started out with.

So yes, although I am very keen to pay my dues, I am all for the abolition of the RSI; the streamlining of the agencies to whom entrepreneurs pay their charges; and the proportionality of charges on the self-employed. And no, thank you very much, I do not wish to manifeste against any Président of any stripe who is willing to try to sort this mess out…

Step by step

Many of the friends I have made since moving to France have the good fortune not to work. Despite this, when I see them, they are usually a bit speed, and sometimes quite stressée. Don’t get me wrong: I number amongst those who find doing the laundry and providing delightfully home-cooked meals to suit the tastes of every member of the family more wearing than working full time, but nonetheless, initially I experienced a certain degree of bafflement about this phenomenon.

The reasons why my friends are stressée are diverse, but invariably involve démarches somewhere along the way. Literally translated, a démarche is a step in a process: if you are faire-ing your démarches you are carrying out the necessary steps to achieve whatever it is that you want to achieve.

In the UK, there are some situations which involve a series of stressful démarches: take buying a house for example, or filling out the 80-page application form for permanent residency. Mostly, however, life’s little administrative processes are tedious rather than taxing. The prospect of buying a new Oyster card, registering for a TV licence, or paying my council tax hardly fills me with enthusiasm, but a simple click of a button, a phone call, or one irritating queue later, and it’s done. None of this would provide any justification for pleading burn-out to one’s friends at the school gate.

Before moving to France, I had heard that administration was more burdensome here. In my ignorance, however, I had assumed that the difficulties were exaggerated and that a bit of grit and determination would see us over any hurdles placed in our way. Even having undergone the tortuous processes necessary to register a car in our name, obtain our social security numbers, and sign a rental agreement, I continued to labour under the impression that the complexity of these démarches were merely a symptom of our recent arrival in France and that, once we had got ourselves established, we could wave goodbye to the hassle.

It was a routine appointment with the doctor that finally shattered my illusions. The Curly One had been showing symptoms of a mild urinary infection so, after having tried all the usual remedies, eventually I took her to visit the GP, where it was announced that a urine sample was required.

In the UK, under such circumstances the patient would be given a little plastic tube and told to remove themselves to the toilet to produce a sample. The doctor would then either dipstick it on the spot, or send it off for laboratory testing. In the latter case, the lab would contact both you and the doctor with the results once they were ready, and you could make a further appointment if necessary. Not so much a series of démarches, then, as a slightly undignified but mercifully brief and totally free interaction.

Back in France, I was given a prescription for a urine test. Noting my confusion, the GP explained that I was to take this to the nearest laboratoire, where the test would be carried out. Consultation ended, I was asked for my Carte Vitale and paid the 23€ fee that would later be reimbursed by the State and our health insurer, but for the moment came out of our bank account.

The next step was finding our nearest laboratoire, which was a bit tricky as not all such establishments have an internet presence. Fortunately any French person worth their sel has their neck tested for chills regularly enough that they have this sort of information at their fingertips, and a friend was able to come to my rescue. Not wanting to get anything wrong, I telephoned ahead, and was glad I had done so, for not only did the laboratoire have distinctly French opening (or should I say closing) hours, but my enquiry about whether or not they provided a pot to piss in was met with barely suppressed horror. Non, Madame, I was told: if I did not ‘ave one at ‘ome, the pharmacie could provide me with a flacon.

Thus I set out for the pharmacie, which did indeed provide me with the necessary receptacle. Back home I then persuaded my seven-year-old to wee into a jar. In all fairness, this part of the process would have been no easier in the UK than it was in France, so I shall spare you the details.

Urine duly extracted, I followed the strict instructions to rush the sample into the laboratoire tout de suite. I was asked for the prescription and my Carte Vitale, which I produced, but also for an attestation from my mutuelle, which I did not. Having failed this particular test of which random pieces of paper to take with you to any particular place, I had to pay 9€, and was issued with a facture, which I could later use to request a refund from my insurer (in writing of course, and probably in triplicate). I was then given a little card and told to come back 48 hours’ later for the results. After that I would have to make a further appointment with the GP, taking the results with me for her to analyse.

As it happens, when I turned up to collect the results, I was told, rather sternly, that the Curly One had not followed ze instructions for weeing in ze pot correctly, and that there was a risk of sample contamination. I would therefore need to go back to my doctor so that the whole process could begin again. Because I am a cruel and profoundly lazy parent, I decided that I did not want to know about the bacteria in my daughter’s urine enough to face a second instalment of the five-trip, three-fee process, and would opt for swilling water down her throat instead.


Apologies for a more prolonged absence than usual from my blog. I was busy with my démarches …

Everyone is created equal

Before I moved to France, I took the liberté, égalité, fraternité motto somewhat for granted. Lovely aspirations, I thought: who would not agree with them? Now that France is in fully-blown election fever, however, I have had cause to note that the égalité part, at least, is not merely a soundbite for a long-forgotten manifesto, but an obsession that permeates every aspect of French public life.

In the centre of our village, there are a series of metal panels onto which posters can be pasted. For most of the time the peuple ignore the affichage libre signs instructing them where they can stick their notices (so to speak) and compete riotously with each other to plaster their adverts closest to the middle of the only section where they have no right to do so. A few weeks ago, these metal panels suddenly multiplied. Within minutes, they had been slathered with François Fillon posters.

Then, one day, everything was taken down and stern notices went up telling people to refrain from further campaigning. The panels remained naked for about 24 hours whereupon, one morning, they sprouted numerals, from 1 to 11, to each of which a single poster promoting one of the 11 presidential hopefuls was assigned. Since then good citizens of St Cyr have obediently left the panels well alone.

It took me a while to work out that this unusually orderly bout of affichage was a symptom of the literal-minded French obsession with égalité. If all the candidates are given the same surface area on which to advertise, the State can say that they are equal.

It is not just posters that are singled out for the equality treatment. The live presidential debate broadcast across French television screens in early April allocated precisely 18 minutes of speaking time to each of the 11 candidates. In other words, it didn’t matter whether you had a great deal or nothing at all to say on any particular issue, or indeed whether or not anyone wanted to listen, you would be able to express your views for precisely the same amount of time as everyone else.

The debate is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to égalité in French political broadcasting. France Télévision and Radio France are, it transpires, required to give equal time to all of the candidates in all of their broadcasting — quite a feat of coordination across their many networks and channels. I listened to an interview with one of the officials in charge of this policy during which, the interviewer, quite reasonably, asked what the state intended to do about social media. The official responded that ça fait déjà beaucoup de travail de surveiller les antennes. Throwing social media into the equation would require more resources than were available. Well quite. Not to mention the blatantly North Korean note that such an initiative would strike…

On the one hand, it is touching that France continues to strive so earnestly for égalité in politics despite the obvious futility of such an endeavour in the internet age. On the other, it is symptomatic of one of the nation’s most intractable ideological blind spots.

Running provides an instructive metaphor here. In a sprint, officials can do their best to make racing conditions fair: they can make sure that everyone runs the same distance, starting at precisely the same time; and without the help of any detectable drugs. What the linesmen cannot do, however, is create equality. If they could, then Eadred would stand a chance against Usain Bolt. The fact remains, however, that Usain Bolt and Eadred are not equal in running, or in anything else for that matter. That is the point of a race: to root out the inequalities, and celebrate them.

In politics, as in sport, the State can make conditions fair (although arguably much less comprehensively than is possible under sprint conditions), but they cannot make the candidates equal. By allocating everyone a single panel for their poster and 18 minutes of speaking time, they will not give them all an equal chance of winning. Some will have more money backing them; some more notoriety to thrust them forwards; and some will simply be willing to engage in bare-faced corruption. Others may be female, from an ethnic minority, ugly, impoverished or just championing a difficult cause. Whatever it is, there will always be some candidates that have an advantage over the others.

In the centre of Lyon, not all citizens think political posters should be treated equally.

Does this matter? The inequalities in any system certainly have an impact, for better or for worse (take Donald Trump, for example). If you can’t bring yourself to care about whether or not all politicians are created equal, you probably can care about kids in school. It is the same mule-headed muddling of the concepts of fairness and equality that has led to the creation of an education system where no special considerations are shown to children with dyslexia, or autism, or indeed just those who have a practical rather than an intellectual brain. Well, says the State, we gave zem la même scolarité, ils peuvent se débrouiller, non ?

Fine, though I’m not sure that liberté, sink or swim, fraternité will catch on as a national motto.

Life in the fast lane

In a recent edition of Late Night Woman’s Hour, business woman Hilary Devey was asked whether she followed her instinct in her professional life. She described walking away from a deal with someone after he had revealed that he frequently drove from Brussels to Paris despite being banned from behind the wheel for drunk driving: at this, her instincts told her that the man was untrustworthy.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m with Hilary. I, too, would have turned down the deal. Given that the meeting took place in Paris, however, in her place I would have been neither shocked nor surprised. Since moving to France, I have lost count of the number of times I have seen someone get behind the wheel after several glasses of wine (although it does not excuse the behaviour, British readers should remember that a French glass of wine is a mere 125 ml compared to its bucket-sized UK equivalent). No doubt the man in question made his disclosure so openly because he did not think there was anything particularly unusual about it. If Hilary were to rule out doing business with anyone who had a string of driving infractions to their name, she would never do business in the hexagone again.

The French don’t let a drink get between them and their car

Eadred and I consider ourselves to be scrupulously law-abiding citizens. Our children are the sort of annoying progeny who, having heard us drone on about respecting public spaces, loudly voice their disapproval of people who drop litter or tag walls. Since our brushes with Madame Lipstick, they have added speeding to the list of antisocial behaviours about which they are generally appalled. They have even been known to wind down the back windows of the car and yell disparagingly at drivers striving for the speed of light, mais vous êtes en retard pour la fin du monde ou quoi ?

Of late we have had to admit that our self-righteousness is starting to lose its sheen as the result of a number of speeding tickets, which are beginning to drop into our boîte aux lettres with sickening regularity. They turn up despite earnest attempts to remain within the speed limit at all times.

The fines are uniformly exasperating, doled out for doing a speed of 56 km/h in a 50 zone, or 117 km/h in a 110 zone. “Well,” my formerly upright British self would have tutted at these protestations, “speeding is speeding. It’s a fair cop. You only have yourself to blame”. Oui et non responds the lax Gallic half of my brain. The panneau announcing the 50 zone, for example, was erected precisely 20 metres before the camera which caught me frantically braking in response. The 110 zone was on a section of motorway that alternated between limits of 130, 110 and 90 km/h with bewildering frequency and no discernible logic. One momentary lapse of concentration on the side of the road (when arguably you should looking straight ahead) and you’re liable for a ticket.

The first speeding ticket to arrive (mine, incidentally) prompted much hand-wringing. “We have each been driving for nearly 20 years,” wailed Eadred “and we had clean licenses until we came to France”. I made repeated trips to the filing cabinet to fawn nostalgically over the virgin expanses of my paper licence, soon to be sullied by my first-ever point. I felt it as a great stain on my character. Now that we have received a combined total of five such missives, however, our response is markedly different: oh putain I muttered at the last one, casting it aside in frustration. I have become so acclimatised to my illegality on the road that I have even downloaded a fine-paying app onto my mobile phone. Eadred had to report to the Mairie just this morning with paperwork to appease the police who had stopped him for speeding last week. Whereas three years’ ago he would have been appalled at this brush with the law, now he is principally irritated by its inconvenience.

A screen that pops up on my phone all too often

Speeding is, you see, a French national pastime, but then so is the creation of zones in which the speed limit varies unpredictably. It’s like a vast game of one-upmanship. Where can we hide zis new spiiid limite panneau ? chuckle the authorities as they daily shift the speed zones around on a completely random basis. ‘Ow fast can I goh wizzout getting cotte ? say the drivers, rubbing their hands with glee. At work I have heard colleagues boasting about the number of points they have on their licence, and reminiscing about the happy time they have spent on the special stage you can pay to attend so that the points are taken away. When I attempted to join the discussion, my musings were waved away on the basis that my three points were too meagre to count as a meaningful contribution.

As with school and tax, it seems that the rules of the road proliferate for the sheer pleasure of seeing them broken. Whether we like it or not, for the first time in our straight-laced existence, Eadred and I are being forced to acclimatise to life outside the cadre.


Thank you to all of you who pointed me towards the excellent post by France Says on speed cameras in France. She expresses the view that many cameras are simply cashpoints for the State and has given me some excellent new French terminology to boot. The post is well worth a visit, as indeed are all her posts, if you want to read more about speeding in France…