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.



19 thoughts on “Stamp of approval

  1. Gotta love France! At least Eadred got a good workout from jumping through all those bureaucracy hoops! 😉

  2. I know that there is a humorous side, but the ‘who to call in a medical situation’ conundrum came a-knocking on the night that my husband and I had taken just a small liberty and gone to Lyon for the night to celebrate our 21st wedding anniversary. No, we had not left the children alone without adult supervision (unfortunately only English speaking), but yes, my son decided that he would have a medical emergency and not be able to breathe. We were called just as we had placed our order for dinner.Panicked, I could not think which of the 3 emergency numbers to call, so interrupted the ladies on the next table. They then had a discussion not unlike the one that you have described above concerning the severity of the incident and which number it should be. I won’t go on with all the finer details of a most stressful night. Needless to say, medical emergencies are my biggest fear. By the way, well done to Eadred. An amazing achievement.

    1. Oh my goodness! I hope he was ok? There is always the European number, 112, which I think I will resort to as it means you don’t have to remember. Goodness.

  3. Oh how I wish I had written down all the bureaucracy hurdling experiences I’ve had in 20 years here. You think you’ll never forget them but actually, you do (when you’re as old as me!) But one experience I will never forget is the only time I needed to call an emergency service in my life, and I couldn’t get the ambulance to come. This was despite the fact that my husband was passed out on the floor and bleeding from his mouth, it was late at night and I had a sleeping toddler in the house, so no I couldn’t just pick up the dead weight of an unconscious man, wake my kid and all together go to the hospital for a jolly outing! I remember I rang 18 first and was told it wasn’t serious enough and then 15 but I couldn’t convince them either. I had to ring a neighbour to come and sit with my kid while I took my husband to the hospital, who thankfully had come round and didn’t have to be dragged lifeless to the car. I will never forget how utterly helpless I felt and how utterly awful the emergency services were. I dread the day I need to try again. And I have been living here all these years having had the exact opposite explanation that your friend gave you: I was told by a French nurse (friend) that you call 18 for a life threatening emergency and 15 for a broken leg (and apparently neither for an unconscious bleeding man!) …so now who do we believe? (Perhaps it’s changed over the years just to confuse everyone completely!!!!) Thanks for linking to #AllAboutFrance, so glad Eadred got his licence in the end (and that you’re documenting all these occasions).

    1. Oh my goodness. That sounds HORRENDOUS. I am so pleased that your husband was ok in the end, but really?!?!?!? And I am now very worried about the fact that we have been told the exact opposite. I suspect that the only way forward is 112, which apparently works, though you don’t want to find out that it doesn’t in a moment of crisis. Actually, the only brush we’ve had with the emergency services was when a terrible thing happened outside our house, and a cyclist died whilst cycling uphill. Both the pompiers and the SAMU came out – the pompiers got there first to do triage and the SAMU arrived about 5 minutes’ later. So the system worked well even if the outcome was very sad. But it was a French neighbour that made the call, so I’m not sure what the magic formula they used was exactly. Thank you for stopping by.

  4. There’s a certain well deserved sense of accomplishment that goes with getting through the red tape! I wrote the emergency numbers down for my son when he was visiting with his girlfriend, and told him to just try all three (including 17 for Police) if he couldn’t remember… 112 seems much simpler, but I have never dared to try!

  5. Glad to see Eadred overcame all those hurdles – takes me way back to my days of having to apply and renew my carte de séjour. And the timbre fiscal is in a class of its own! I’d forgotten about all that till recently when we tried to invite an Indian family to stay with us – it would take far too long here to go into details, but it was pretty similar to what Eadred went through.

    1. It’s funny how you forget these things once they have finished, isn’t it? The timbre fiscale seems unforgettable, but I’m sure it will have passed into the mists of time a few months down the line… until the next encounter with it. Grrrrr. Hope you got the Indian family sorted out, and thanks for stopping by.

  6. Wow! This is quite the run around. I can relate to having trouble with drivers licenses though… I’ve had a request for my US license to transfer to France for the past year, but no movement and no communication and absolutely no possibility to get an appointment. I’m not sure what’s going on at the Paris prefecture, but there have been no available appointments for the past 3-4 months (at least). Apparently a few appear and are snagged up immediately. For 3 weeks straight I checked the online calendar daily – the ONLY way to get an appointment – and there wasn’t a single opening. I’ve given up looking now…

    1. Oh dear! When I think about the hurdles for us as (still, just about) European citizens, I dread to think what it must be like for everyone else. Who is it that snaps up these appointments? What is their secret? Good luck!

  7. Whew… I felt exhausted just reading your story! Persistence pays off and here’s hoping Eadred doesn’t wait too long for his refund. Annette

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