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.