How Do People Cope With The Complicated French System?

stereotypes are not always true
What French are actually like

The French stereotype is a person with a baguette under arm, a beret on their head and a scarf stylishly wrapped around their neck. They smoke endlessly, are rude, and have bad hygiene. Have you seen this guy? I haven’t in any of our travels throughout France! Maybe we missed them. Nothing significant enough to deter people from visiting or moving here anyway.

Yes, that is Bradley Cooper, my friend Tracy’s driveway guy. I cut and pasted into a cheesy stereotypical photo of a Frenchman. I thought it was funny. I know Tracy will think so anyways…

We read dozens of stories of what living in Southern France would be like. Bureaucracy is what we kept hearing, where the government is made up of appointed officials, and procedures are followed by more procedures making completing the simplest of tasks involving the government a tiresome one.

Things do take longer to get done than we would expect them to in Canada. The system is a slow itemized process, handing paperwork from one person to the next. However, we have found very nice people to help us along the way.

Being only four months in to our new life in France, it is still too early for any rash judgment on the nation as a whole. We still plan to become a part of it,  so staying optimistic is a must. So far so good.

I still hold on to my Mary Poppins attitude, that people are people and you usually get what you give. The loudest complainers, in my experience, are the ones that are the most negative! We try to stay positive, and see the silver lining on every cloud. For us the silver lining would be to become a part of the system that takes good care of its people, with a good medical system in place, and free education for the children. That seems like a pretty thick lining to me. So wading through a little paperwork seems a small price to pay.

Trying to keep this attitude while we deal with arising issues may prove difficult.  Here are some ‘huh?’ moments for you.

#1 Shutters

Things go on in France that to an outsider seem quirky, and makes you go huh? For instance, every house must have shutters on the windows and doors. I think it has something to do with keeping every house looking French, sticking to tradition, and keeping a continuity through each village you visit.

It is actually mandatory, and you must close them when you leave the house, or your insurance policy regarding break-ins are null and void!

Not sure if the ruler at the time this law was created had a ‘shutter maker’ brother-in-law, but doesn’t closing your shutters tell the robbers you have gone out for the day? Leaving them open would let them know you are home, and for them not to bother stealing from your house. Just saying.

#2 Electricity

At first I thought there is no rhyme or reason to how they calculate the electricity bill and heard from Capestanese citizens, that you must wash your close and run your dishwasher in the middle of the night. What? I knew it was time to take a closer look at our electrical bill and try to decipher its code.

It works like this. If you heat your hot water tank during the night you get a cheaper rate. Most people program their dishwasher and laundry machine to run while they sleep. (For our family that means Angelina wakes up when it starts and stops, being directly below her room.)

The electrical company has allocated 40 days in the course of the year where moderate increases to your heating bill apply. These are days that a noticeable increase occurs when people use more electricity than usual.  They have also decided on 20 days per year they charge a fortune for electricity, nearly double and these are the coldest days of the year. The funny thing is if you try really hard to follow these rules, it is still hit and miss. The days are determined at the end of the year, based on the year as a whole, and decided on by the usage of power.

It all seems so strange to me, especially when the temperatures in this region are very mild all year round. Sounds like a government cash grab from their Languedoc citizens to me, or a diversion to keep people occupied with trivial things. Alfonz disagrees, and says that the electricity is based on France as a whole. Does that mean we need be watch when the coldest days throughout France are? Very complicated. Well just like the French system!

A foreign concept to us from Canada, with a country so large, to keep an eye on the other side of a nation to guess if they will be using more power on a specific day. Things that make you go, huh?

#3 Switching Licence Plates To French

Alfonz’s bike was imported from Canada and our Westfalia Camper Van was purchased while we lived in Hungary. Transferring registration and plates over to French ones have been interesting to say the least.

He started off at the local Capestang Marie our city hall and their helpful staff filled out the paperwork for Alfonz, took a payment and sent it off, only to have it returned incomplete a week later.

From there Alfonz went to the Centre Des Umpots in Beziere to get the Certicate d’Aquisition. They told him to contact a Mercedes dealer for our Camper Van and a BMW dealer to confirm each vehicle and ask for a Certificate of Conformite. He called the BMW Motorbike dealer in Narbonne to have them set up an appointment to get the paperwork filled out but was abruptly told that it cannot be done and hung up.

Alfonz then decided to call the Centre Des Umpot back and talk to them about what it was exactly they needed from him, told them the only dealer won’t do it, and asked if there was another way. They then said, just go to a local Motorbike dealer, to confirm the two items needed on the form that were missed.

The first was to verify that the bike speedometer was in kilometers and the second was to make sure the headlight was for a right hand drive road. Alfonz went to the local shop where the owner happily wrote down the information needed and stamped it with his date stamp. Alfonz found this particularly amusing, and said as much to the Import Centre, as Canada of course drives on the same side of the road as the French. They are so used to having Englishmen bringing their vehicles down, it must be a standard question.

Mercedes France in Paris has our paperwork for the Camper and we are waiting for a reply. The Westfalia is a wee bit more straightforward being that Hungary, where we purchased the vehicle from, is a part of the EU.

Once the forms are sent back to our house, Alfonz still needs to head to the ‘Profecture’ in Beziere with the 2 sets of paperwork to acquire his ‘Carte Grise’. We hope, at that point, we can put the new plates on.

It has been over a month so far, and it has been a little taste of the system. Surprisingly, Alfonz keeps his chin up, and takes it in stride. Good for you!


How do you cope with the French system? Attitude determines altitude. We can only hope things keep falling into place for us. We stay positive, we drink winem and remember, we picked the South of France to live, they didn’t send us an invite.

That’s Hamori!

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  1. We are part of the EU, my parents and Alfonz were born and raised in Hungary. Does make things a wee bit easier. Thanks for contacting us Alisa. By the looks of things, you are doing amazing here. Great website!

  2. All I can tell you is just to go with the flow. Sometimes the Prefecture will tell you one thing and you’ll do it and come back and they’ll ask for something else. Or if you talk to one person they will tell you one thing and then if you speak to another they’ll tell you something different. You are lucky – your husband is part of the EU, yes? Being American or if you both were Canadian it would be much harder. It’s been an uphill battle on getting a business setup, getting our visa status changed, etc. but a good immigration was all we needed.

    We have no regrets packing up everything (including our dogs) and moving to rural sw France. Things take a bit longer, but life is slower and I love that. And the French are lovely and warm and welcoming (well except for the lady at our Prefecture, she’s not very helpful or nice).

    Bonne Chance! And if you have any questions about anything, just let me know…we’ve probably been through it already.

  3. I hope you are right! We are spoiled in Canada, and even though we complain, you can go into any government office and solve your problem in a short time. The person behind the counter will keep at it until they find a way or a person that knows how to solve the problem, and the next time the problem arrises again, better be sure, that they will know. The language is surprisingly come along fast, and not the biggest challenge. Someone did ask us for directions the other day, and in our broken French we told them where the bank was! Progress!! Thanks for the comment!

  4. You’ll adjust fine. We were the same way when we moved from Ottawa to New York City. You wouldn’t think that the US is that much different than Canada but it’s the little things. It took a good month or two for us to get into the swing of things. Everything’s still new, before you know it, people will ask you for directions as if you lived there your whole life.

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