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?