France has a reputation for being over-bureauctratic - it does after all have the highest ratio of civil servants to population in the world. These 'fonctionnaires' are 'fondly' known to the rest of us as cravattes (tie wearers) or, less politely, as chiers d'encre (ink shi&%ers).
I recently put this to the test; I have lost my UK driving licence so needed to apply for a French one. So, I diligently checked the official website to see what documentation I would need - added a few extra items just in case, and painstakingly photocopied everything - if you don't have your documents photocopied then they send you off to the 'presse' across the road - 10c a sheet. I called the Vehicle Licencing Agency in the UK to get a certificate stating that I had a licence there and the driving categories I am allowed (there was no mention of this requirement on the website but I knew it was needed - clever eh?). Finally, off I trotted to the supermarket to get my obligatory passport size photos (2, cut out carefully because I know from experience that the civil service doesn't have scissors - at least not ones they lend to the great unwashed public!).
After checking the office opening hours (8.30 am to 12.30pm Monday to Friday) - France is notorious for being closed at lunchtimes and all day on Mondays - Mark and I set off early on 6th January to get my new licence. I have to confess to a feeling of smugness (my first mistake) 'knowing' that I had beaten the system - because I had jumped through all their hoops before getting there. We walked past the 'Bureau des Etrangers' just along the road from the driving licence centre - it was mysteriously shuttered and closed - and on to our destination. Zut alors! Also closed - but why? We had heard no news of strikes, impending nuclear war....then we saw the sign, just underneath the opening hours - closed on the first Thursday of each month...6th January was a Thursday! So, after much muttering and shoulder shrugging (how French we are becoming) we shuffled off, had a coffee and planned our return visit.
The following Tuesday (not chancing a Thursday again) saw us back in Tours. This time the office was open. I stood in the queue at reception; when it was my turn I explained all to the lady, she asked if I had some ID (yes), proof of residence (yes, again), I showed her my certificate from the DVLA (she nodded approvingly). She picked up the phone and advised her colleague that she was sending a lady up to transfer her UK driving licence to a French one, then politely gave me directions to said colleague. I'm home and dry here, I thought (second mistake!) At the second window, I explained all again - the lady asked me for the relevant documents. 'Have you photocopies?' she asked, 'of course' I replied and handed them over. She took everytning away to a mysterious back office (obviously going to prepare my French licence I thought....wrong!) Two minutes later, she was back. 'Have you got a declaration of the loss of your UK licence?' My bood ran cold. 'No', I replied - knowing it was futile, 'but there is the certificate proving I had one.' 'Not good enough, you need to go to the police and declare officially you have lost the licence, they will give you a form, bring that back here.' So, tail once more between our legs, we trudged back home.
Next, the police station. I'm very pleased to say that Bourgueil has a low crime rate, but one of the side effects of this is that the police officers don't seem very, how shall I say, dynamic! The old guy I saw was completely flummoxed by the highly unusual request of someone wanting to declare a BRITISH driving licence lost. After consultation with two colleagues and a phone call to higher powers, he discovered the right form to use and as I had luckily brought along my passport, proof of residence, the UK certificate and I gave the names (including maiden name of my mother) of both my parents, I left 30 minutes later clutching the precious declaration.
The end of this story is pretty boring. I returned to Tours, went to see the driving licence lady, handed my forms over and got my licence! Before writing this blog, I surfed the internet a little to look for some statistics about civil servants (see my opening line). I was amazed, then not at all surprised, at the number of articles there are about French bureaucracy and problems we foreigners have with it. Our only consolation is that our French friends find it just as frustrating. Perhaps I should have read the advice of Jo Laredo, journalist for the Paris Voice, BEFORE staring my epic task:
Top tips for dealing with French red tape: 1 Always find out from an official source exactly what you need before making an application. 2 Double-check the opening hours of the office and ensure it isn't a public holiday. 3 Always take a duplicate of everything. 4 Expect not to have the right paperwork the first time. 5 Allow plenty of time to make an application (and take a good book).