French Bureaucracy – It Takes A Village

An image of a hand sticking out from behind stacks of paper waving a "Help" sign. The typical response to French bureaucracy.

The difficulty of navigating French bureaucracy is legendary. Every time I think I finally have a handle on it, something else arrives in the mail that requires my attention. Cue several months of back and forth communication with various government agencies and/or utility providers in an attempt to solve the problem. I’ve asked around, and apparently this is the norm. For both natives and foreign nationals alike. This is why I’ve come to see French bureaucracy as a communal activity. It really does take a village. Take my recent experience trying to switch Internet providers. Should be easy, right? I’m sure you already know where this is headed.

It started off easy enough. My old contract was coming to an end, and it was time to get a new one. I did some research, and I discovered that if I signed up for Internet with my mobile provider, everything would be cheaper. Yes please! I filled out the form and hit submit. I then went on my merry way thinking I would have Internet in no time. That was two months ago.

My first hurdle was discovering that this particular Internet provider would only deliver the modem to an actual person. No delivery points allowed. Since I live in an apartment without a superintendent, and I, you know, work, that was a problem. The second hurdle arrived when I received an email with the instructions for the technician’s appointment to install the equipment. Turns out it wasn’t possible to install those types of cables in my apartment. When I asked to switch to a different package, they told me I wasn’t allowed.

At this point, I told them that it was either switch my package or cancel my subscription. To my amazement, they chose the later option. Not only was I going to have to cancel, but I was going to have to mail in a letter (yes, snail mail!) to do so. Furthermore, it would take 10 days from the receipt of my letter for this cancellation to go into effect. All this despite the fact that I had yet to actually utilize their Internet services.

After sending the letter, I tried another Internet provider. This time around I knew exactly which package I wanted, and although it took several phone calls, I finally managed to convince them to give it to me. They even allowed delivery of the modem to a delivery point. That later became complicated when they accidentally sent my package to a different delivery point than the one I had requested, but on the plus side, I got to see a part of the Paris suburbs that I had never seen before. So… silver linings?

Now that I had the modem, it was time to activate my Internet line. Once again there was a problem. Turns out, the account information of my old Internet account was lost somewhere in cyber space, and this meant they couldn’t identify which Internet line in my building belonged to my apartment. That night, I had to go around to all my neighbours, knock on their door, and ask for the name associated with their Internet account. Using this process of elimination, the Internet provider was able to narrow it down to one of two lines that could be mine. We effectively flipped a coin and hoped for the best. 

A week later I received an email informing me that my line had been activated. Success! I hurried home to turn on the modem, but as you’ve probably already guessed, the all important little green light that indicates whether or not the Internet is working failed to turn on. I then spent the next several weeks calling the Internet provider to try and fix the problem. They had several suggestions, including cancelling my account and starting the process all over again, but no one seemed to actually understand what the problem was. No one, that is, until last week. After a particularly long call with the first level of customer care, I was finally transferred to the all important Level 2. I was officially a Level 2 problem!

Thankfully, the woman on the other end of Level 2 understood what was happening almost immediately. She quickly arranged for a technician to come to my apartment to check the line, and yesterday morning he finally arrived. Surprisingly, given the path to this point, he was exactly on time. He then proceeded to plug something into the wall, disappeared outside for about 20 minutes, and while I don’t know exactly what he did, let’s just say I finally have Internet.

So there you have it! Offline to online in just two short months. Yes, that’s a ridiculously long time to be without Internet in today’s digital age, but on the flip side, that feeling you get when you finally conquer French bureaucracy? It’s a rush, let me tell you. However, in no way is it one that can be reserved entirely for me. I truly mean it when I say it takes a village. Case in point, my French skills over the phone are still not exactly great. Therefore, every time over the past two months that “I” made a call to solve this problem, it was actually one of my incredible friends. I also may have peppered my more tech-savvy friends with incessant questions about Internet hook-ups and types of cables. By some miracle, none of these people unfriended me. I honestly don’t know what I would do without them.

So, what’s up next in my continuing adventures with French bureaucracy? I suppose that would be getting my driver’s licence and health card sorted. I hear the paperwork is in the mail…

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Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.