L’administration française

Sometimes French administration can be a nightmare. Perhaps British administration is as bad – it is nearly 20 years since we moved here – but somehow I suspect the French are the winners. When I mention any problem I am having, my French friends sigh, shrug their shoulders (pride or resignation?) and say : « Ah. L’administration française… … »

My level of spoken and written French is OK. Imagine how daunting it is if you speak almost no French. I don’t need to imagine; I know, as for the past week or so I have been helping an Englishwoman several years older than me and with a very basic level of French, who is struggling to replace a lost carte grise (log book) for her car,

My heart sinks when I see an official form, with so many boxes to tick and so many entries to get wrong, especially as administrative French can have a very particular vocabulary.

I should add: imagine how daunting it is to cope with bureaucracy if one is not at home with computers and the internet. Because in France (maybe in the UK too?), the pressure to communicate with government offices online has suddenly become relentless.

This is how I got involved. Initially I had been asked to help my friend come to grips with a new computer. So I think I was the obvious person for her to turn to when she found herself floundering with online forms.

What had I let myself in for? In order to declare the loss of her carte grise online (there is no other way), she had to print, complete and then scan back a long form, together with various backup documents such as passport, proof of residence etc.

It turned out the scanner function of the printer had never been used, so I had to download and instal the software – and then help her complete, print and scan everything.

Next big problem: in order to apply for a replacement carte grise she needed to go through the contrôle technique (MOT) – and for this she needed a carte grise! The only way out of this vicious circle is apparently to obtain a fiche d’identification du véhicule.

This is turning out to be another big challenge: how to cope with endless going round in circles and coming to dead ends on a government site called ANTS which deals with things like documents for cars or passports. The site firmly tells you to go to another site, called FrenchConnect to set up a secure connection to information on ANTS. But FrenchConnect in turn requires you to identify yourself via your space on either the government site for health or taxes.

My friend had never joined either site. I started with the health one, Ameli, and – surprise, surprise – it was temporarily unavailable. So then I moved on to the tax one, impôts.gouv. Guess what, I needed an online reference from her tax returns, but since she pays her taxes in the UK she does not have one.

So this evening I had to admit defeat and say there was no more I could do before going away for a fortnight. She needs somebody to go with her to the tax people and get them to get the necessary document verifying her identity, then to the sous-préfets office to force the receptionist (the only person one ever gets to see) to help her get the fiche d’identification du véhicule, and then take that and all the other papers to the contrôle technique – and then finally she should be in a position to complete her request for a carte grise and thus be driving legally again.

Well I have found a friend willing to take this on, Ive tried to brief him as much as possible, and I have obtained the name of the one person in the tax office whom I know is intelligent, helpful and – added bonus – speaks English.

It is all very well moving to websites for administration, but they must be better written, there must be places where people who do not have computers or the internet can go, and even more important, there should be somebody when things go wrong. In the Pays Viganais we are over 50 km from any significant sized town and public offices are closing their doors all the time. Already the CPAM (health administration) is down to one person available part time by appointment only, the tax offices are scheduled to be relocated to Nîmes (86 km away) and Alès (74km). And the Sous-Préfet seems to do nothing.

So what will people do in the future?

Old folks’ outing

Bréau has a good local club for pensioners, le Club Lou Roussignol, organises outings or events through the year. The club is not really my thing (translating the useful: “ce n’est pas mon truc”) but I try to take part, to support the organisers (who include my friend Margaret) and to integrate with the village.

Yesterday about 40 pensioners drove up to the village of Blandas, high up on the Causses, the lime plateau to the south of us, for what turned out to be an excellent lunch.

I’m a fan of the restaurant – one of the few places round here where one eats well – and they did us proud: a huge plate of charcuterie, then chicken with purée of potimarron (pumpkin), cheese of course, and then a really yummy pudding (saying it included ice cream and lightly cooked egg whites does not do it justice).

But it was the ambience that was special: a roomful of people enjoying the food – and wine – and talking away with the animation I associate with French meals. And all joined in to sing Happy Birthday to Annie Vacquier, a very nice woman who lives in Serres and who was 80 a little while ago.

Claude is the youngest brother of Lulu (Annie Vacquier’s husband) who used to be the star turn at events like this, singing and reciting in Occitan. But Lulu was 90 last year and people accept that entertainment has passed to his brother and to his musician sons.

But no, Lulu got up and sang Les Quatre Vingt Chasseurs, which is basically the story of a Marquise who took part in the hunt and then entertained her 80 huntsmen in her chateau – and nine months later gave birth to a son, “the child of the 80 hunters”. Everyone joined in, as they have on frequent occasions over the 20 years I have lived here, happy also to see Lulu still on his feet, despite his age.

For those with a reasonable internet speed, here is an excerpt from the singing.

Balmy September

What an amazing summer. Usually by now we have had rain storms which bring the temperature down, but today was yet again a sunny day with temperatures rising above 30.

Yes, the pathetic couple of days rain we have had in the past three months present a serious problem long term, but just now I am enjoying leisurely lunches like this:

And when not lunching out, I am eating too many of the extraordinarily large crop of figs (I have these two varieties):

Design for pensioners

This morning I searched for my magnifying glass in order to read the instructions that came with a new medicine. Then I struggled for ten minutes to open the child-safe bottle.

This all seems ironic when pensioners must be the largest single group to consume medicines and many like me have poor eyesight and arthritic fingers.

Of course I am particularly annoyed when it is the pharmaceutical industry that makes life difficult for us. But they are not alone. Electronic gadgets, for example, are guilty not only of having ridiculous hard plastic casing which has to be virtually sawn off, but also instructions printed in minuscule typeface (typically 6 point) in five or six languages on long flimsy lengths of paper. Once again, I have to Look for a magnifying glass. (I have at least two waiting to come to the rescue, but inevitably they tend to congregate in the same place.)

Sometimes industry gets it right. I am very pleased with my collapsible, folding stick, though in an ideal world it would have some way to remain folded without having to use the bag that comes with it (which I always mislay).

But as well as all the instructions and bottles that should be made easier for older consumers to use, there are many other ways life could be made easier for pensioners. Granted my current obsession is perhaps a minority demand, but who knows, maybe there are lots of people who need the same product.

My recent trip to Barcelona taught me that I need to sit down regularly and that I cannot rely on the availability of seats when needed. So for next month’s trip to Fez in Morocco, I plan to carry a daypack with not only my camera and folding stick, but a folding stool. I have one, which I took to Italy three years ago. But it is heavy and cumbersome – not least because to close it I need to press firmly on three buttons with my arthritic fingers. I need something lighter.

What I want is a light (aluminium) folding stool which is easy to open and close and which packs down to a small space in my backpack. Most important of all, it must be at least 40 cm high.

I searched the internet and thought I had found one, but it is ‘currently unavailable’ and of questionable, unknown quality. Pity, because it meets my specification. It is extraordinary how many fishing and camping stools there are on the market, about 25 cm high, made for agile young people with knees that work.

Come on designers, make me my folding travel stool. OK, not for Morocco but for future trips – and for visits to galleries and museums..

Fresh food

I tend to take for granted that we eat and drink so well here. It is only when visitors exclaim at the quality of fruit and vegetables that I am reminded how lucky we are.

Of course, depending largely on local produce does restrict one to a diet based on the seasons and what is grown in our region. Those within easy distance of British supermarkets, especially Waitrose, find it hard to adjust their menus when they find that what they think of as a basic ingredient is not on our supermarket shelves.

Typically I have been enjoying the peaches sold at one of my favourite stalls in the le Vigan market on Saturdays. As the seller handed me my bag he said he had picked them himself at 3am that morning. Last night I enjoyed a peach eaten with goat yoghurt and a little honey (my lodger, Sébastian, has a couple of beehives somewhere).


I have acquired a new tenant for my gite: an acrobat working with a circus based about 30km from here. As with Odile last year, the deal is that Sébastian moves out when the family come, potentially at Christmas, Easter and in the summer. So understandably his rent is very small.

Much of the last ten days has been taken up with removing stuff from the gite and its cave below. I have done a massive clearout of old sheets, cushions, dusty elderly household equipment, broken shopping trolleys, potentially dangerous paraffin stoves….

Sébastian then asked if he could put his motorbike in the (never finished) garage, for security. Luckily Philippe, who looks after my land and fixes things for me, has a van, and he spent a day taking stuff to the tip.

I’m getting quite keen on this idea of reducing my possessions and have now started on a wardrobe full of things I no longer wear and the books I’m never going to read. I have taken a couple of dozen books to an Englishman who sells books in English and plan to make inroads Chris’s the vast collection of thrillers and similar.

I think disposing of years of accumulated junk is a typical activity for someone of my age. We did our major reduction of possessions when we moved from house to flat in Brighton and then I got rid of yet more when I sold the flat. So maybe my task is not as horrendous as for some. I have a friend in a nearby village who is confronted with the nightmare of disposing of a houseful of books collected by her husband, many of them of some value.

I suppose the only part of disposing which has hurt me has been coming to terms with the fact that furniture and objects which I inherited from my mother and which I have loved since I was a small child, have no future place in the life of me or my children.

The only things I would fight to save if my house caught fire here would be family photo albums. All other stuff is replaceable.