the challenges of French bureaucracy

Administrative Adventures in France

“To maintain order in your bureaucratic life, you more or less have to stay home; go away for any length of time and you’re always likely to run foul of some agency or another.” – Michel Houellebecq, Submission

One of the realities of life in France is that you never really know when something is going to come from some agency that requires your (more or less) immediate attention.  Sometimes you expect it, like the tax forms that are released in May and expected to be filed in early summer, followed by the official government acknowledgement of the correctness of your sums in late September.  Sometimes these documents and declarations arrive on time, sometimes not, because, after all, this is France.

Taxes

But sometimes you’ll get something for an unexpected reason.  One such correspondence arrived towards the end of 2018.  It came in an envelope from the Direction Générale des Finances Publiques, which never contains good news, and can be paralyzing enough to some of my French friends that they tell me they set aside such envelopes to read a week or two in the future, when they have “gotten up the strength” for it.  I’m a “bad news first” sort of person so I will sometimes tear into the envelope on the way up the stairs from my mailbox.

This note contained a request for my taxe d’habitation as well as a “contribution a l’audiovisual public” which was a charge I was liable to if my building had a television antenna on top of it, even if I didn’t use the connection to that antenna.  I know, you can’t make it up.  But right away I knew that my taxe d’habitation would be less as in 2018 I was no longer living in the flashy and central 2nd, but in the quiet gardens and parks of the 19th.  I replied, letting them know that I had moved and to please tax me appropriately at my new address.

Keeping in mind I had lived in France over 5 years at that point, I should have known to include PROOF that I had moved.  Hence I was not all surprised to receive a response in late February from my note in January saying that if I might please provide my “etat des lieux” I might get the administrative result I wanted.  I’ve spoken about this document before and it also relates to another adventure later on in this article, but in case you don’t know, this is a document completed between you and your landlord that certifies you moved out on such and such a date and sometimes includes an inventory and notes of a walk through upon your departure.  This is a key document.  Thankfully, I keep all of these sorts of things, both in hard copy and digital form and happily sent it on to a M. Cavaro who had sent the reply to me.  All good, I thought.

The next exciting letter from the Direction Generale was actually two notices, one for my taxe d’habitation which was, as I had guessed, 33% less, as well as the silly TV tax, which was exactly the same.  But I had a “majoration”, which is a “late fee,” attached.  How could I have gotten a late fee when this is the first time I was properly billed, and only due to my own intervention?  Now, keep in mind I have lived here long enough to have a corrective French voice living inside my brain.  “Now, Stephen, let’s be fair, euh?  If you ‘ad told the mairie when you ‘ad moved into ze 19th, none of zis would ‘ave ‘appened!”  It’s true, there is a twisted logic to the administrative game, so I bowed to the logic of my internal Gallic voice, and went on playing it.

I composed a letter which explained that I had only recently received these billings, and included previous correspondence which documented the paper trail.  I also enclosed two cheques (that’s how Commonwealth countries spell what we call “checks” in America) for the proper amounts, less the “majorations,” hoping my explanation would be sufficient.

In early June, seven months after this correspondence began, I was returned both cheques under a cover letter of a M. Guigues who let me know that as of 18 March 2019 neither of those charges applied to me, and I dumbly examined the cheques which were for more than 400 euros back in my hands.  Very rarely does the Direction Generale send you money you had written off but I wasn’t going to question it.

Carte Vitale

Last year those of us who were in the Profession Liberale classification (think solopreneurs) and paid an agency called La Ram for our health care costs were rolled into the CPAM agency, which covers all the rest of France.  It was part of the efficiency measures Macron had campaigned on, and I for one, was generally happy to have one regime instead of two.  That said, my Carte was programmed to bill La Ram for my health care charges.  The only problem was, when I went to an orthopedist and dentist in early February, the change had taken place.  I was supposed to stop by a pharmacy and get the card reprogrammed, but I had neglected to.

I thought this was solved by my orthopedist’s assistant, who punched away information into the handheld device which was asking her questions, probably forcing her to do what I should have done at the pharmacy. And, as usual, within a week, my reimbursement was in my account.  I went to the dentist the day after the orthopedist and for some reason or another his terminal sent the charge to La Ram, which, as a defunct agency, meant that the bill went nowhere.  I sent a letter to CPAM explaining this issue, with a terminal printout from my dentist, asking for reimbursement, but that was shortly before the entire covid shutdown here in France, so who knows what limbo it is in now?  As an extra precaution, I went to a pharmacy that same day and ensured that the card was, indeed, switched over to the new (for me) CPAM regime.

I then realized I needed to change over to the CPAM system online so I could track these charges and registered, as I was instructed, at Ameli.  It asked me to create a login and at the bottom showed an option called “FranceConnect”.  What is FranceConnect?  It’s a service that allows you to automatically log into one of your government accounts using information from one of the other accounts you already have a login for.  To put it in US consumer terms, it’s like the “login with Facebook” feature that allows you to bypass filling in all the normal fields when you establish a new account somewhere.  I was incredulous, as this is very convenient, but why fight the future?

The shock would continue.  After establishing my account I found out that there was an iOS app for health insurance which I could log into using facial recognition.  In the app I could see what charges had gone through, when, for what amounts, and when my reimbursements were sent.  I also took a moment to request my EU “Carte Vitale” which was something I could use for emergencies within the EU.  That took about four days to arrive, despite them warning it might take two weeks.

Office Depot

I recently took the chance to grab some office supplies and with free delivery from Office Depot on order for purchases of 75€ and above, I added some toner to my purchases of batteries and pens.  The very next day a package arrived.  I stood outside the vehicle as my socially-distant delivery driver handed me the package and told me “there’s another box coming, this is only one” in French.  I looked down at the delivery receipt and saw that yes, this had been marked one of two.  Fine, I thought.  I understood just-in-time logistics and thought that perhaps the toner would be coming from a different warehouse or even via the mail.

That afternoon I got a follow up phone call from Office Depot asking how my delivery went.  I told him fine, except that there was an item missing, using the meandering flaneur French I use when trying to describe something I consider technical using everyday terminology.  I heard keys tapping away, “C’est noté,” he responded amiably, and told me that if nothing arrived in the next 24 hours to give them a call or email, then kindly gave me the details for both.  The next day I sent an email and the day after I made a phone call.  That day I was told by a recording that I should call back during normal office hours, listing a closing time of 18h30.  I looked down at my phone.  It was 17h05.  I chalked up the inconsistency to changed corona hours.  I tried again the next day, but much earlier, and the person who answered had that smooth, comforting customer service voice (what former FBI negotiator Chris Voss calls the “late night FM DJ voice”) and I almost wanted to prolong the interaction to get just a bit more zen for my Friday.

He told me that I should hear something in the next day and that my toner would be with me soon.  When I pressed for precision, he simply said, “as soon as possible.”  Alas, that was contradicted by the email I received later that day from someone in the same department who told me that the item was backordered and that is why it was not sent.  She wanted to know what I would like done.  I asked for a refund and she complied, letting me know that it would arrive within 48 hours.  We’ll see if I need to follow up, but as you can see, even in private corporations in France, the left hand sometimes has absolutely no idea what the right hand is doing.

Groupama

I’ve often recommended Groupama for renter’s insurance over the years, but after 3-4 consecutive incidents in which the franchise (read “deductible,” my fellow Americans) was higher than the cost of the repair, I figured that I didn’t need the renter’s insurance any longer after moving from the 2nd to the 19th.  I went in person into my agency, as instructed by the kind lady on the telephone who told me no, I couldn’t cancel with her by phone.  When I repeated the story there, they said, “That’s fine, send us a letter requesting that.”  I’m sure you can guess that despite my years in France, I laughed.

I calmly explained the only reason I was all the way here, in the 17th, was because this was the arrondissement I first moved into in 2013, and I was here because one of her colleagues had instructed me to come here to cancel the insurance in person.  Insert Gallic shrug.  “In any case, monsieur, we need a letter with these elements included to show why you are cancelling.”  I’m cancelling because I moved out of that apartment, I replied.  “Do you have proof of that?”  I laughed, remembering that my word is insufficient in this country.  Proof is what matters.

Suspicious, I sent a letter “suivie” (which is simple tracking, not registered mail) with all the proper wording and completely forgot about it.  A year passed, at the end of which I received an email from Groupama regarding my new billing schedule.  Not only had they not refunded me for the months up to the time I received this notice, they continued to charge me, and had eaten up my billing credit.  Now, they wanted to bill me again.  “C’est suffit,” I resignedly chortled, and printed out the billing schedule and took the metro to the agency.

I began as nicely as possible to explain the entire situation.  After politely hearing my explanation, the young man at the office told me I needed to send a letter.  I stopped him mid-explanation, presenting my tracking number for the letter.  His brows furrowed and he went back into my account.  “Hmmm,” then he turned the laptop around so that I could see it.  “Est-ce de toi?” he asked.  There I could see what was clearly a scan of my long lost letter, sent almost one year prior.  He apologetically U-turned from his previous recommendation that I write a letter and as he banged away at the keys I understood his rapid French to say that, essentially, the request had been scanned in but not completed, and that he would ensure that would happen, and to follow up with him in the next 48 hours.  A bit taken back by such a reversal, I asked about the money owed from the cancellation.  He frowned again, then said he would do what he could.

I did indeed email him exactly 48 hours later, CCing the colleague he told me that was in charge of such requests.  A week after that I received a final cancellation notice, but no word about the 175 some euros I was owed.  Grateful to have had it put behind me, I put it in the collective mental “gain/loss” account whenever one decides how to respond to administrative injustice.  Would it be worth my time to chase down this money?  Would I even get it should I put in the effort, given how much it had taken just to cancel my account and stop them charging me more?  Groupama had always been responsive when I was a client in the past, but was almost entirely useless when I was no longer a client.  This brings me to the final point which I alluded to in a previous article about cancelling my Societe Generale bank account.

“It’s not worth it”

In America we often love to tell stories about amazing and dreadful customer service.  Indeed, one of the more recent ones in my repertoire is, “Why I’ll never fly Qatar Airlines again,” but that’s another story for another time.  For us as Americans, these are parables of good vs. evil.  The agent who goes out of her way to make sure we get on a flight, or get that corner suite, or allow us to return an item, she is good!  The airline that lost our bags, the hotel that didn’t have our reservation and was sold out, the store that won’t accept our return, they are evil!  These parables reinforce a quintessential American value: the customer is always right.

No equivalent value exists in France, though I have noted in the past that this doesn’t mean there isn’t customer service here.  It’s just based on a different set of assumptions which live cheek-by-jowl with the administrative realities I’ve outlined above.  So, when the French complain about how terrible their bank is, or how worthless their internet company is, or how bad their phone service can be, it’s simply to vent their spleen, not to ask you for advice.  I long ago learned that the proper response is not to ask, “Why don’t you change?” but simply to nod my head in solidarity.  The answer is simple: “it’s too hard.”  The French in question would have to go through the (relative) administrative adventures I’ve outlined above, which also includes going changing all the direct debit (autopay, my fellow countrymen) information for all the companies that access that bank account, which for an average French person, is perhaps in the dozen.  Why do that when you can just leave things status quo, and have one more reason to complain?

So much of the French economy trudges along in inefficiency and mediocrity simply because the French cannot be bothered to change providers.  While the customer isn’t always right in France, vigilant customers do get what they want, in the end, as long at they are willing to put in at least double the effort they would normally have to in America.

As with quicksand, the more you struggle against the realities of France and its administrative adventures, the more you sink.  Instead, accept the realities and dutifully trudge on.  You’ll still get to your destination in the end.  And remember, you’re living in one of the most amazing places in the world.  Consider it part of the price of admission.

Photo by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash

Firing Société Generale

One of the earliest articles for this blog was about my experience getting my first French bank account at Societe Generale.  The process was relatively painless, but that was before FATCA came into force and made life more challenging for US citizens living abroad.  Still, possession of any form of long term visa will allow you to get a bank account here, as I shared some years later.  When it came time for me to open a bank account for my French business, I decided to hedge my bets and audition another company, BNP Paribas.  Time has shown them to be the better bank for me, and armed with additional European bank accounts at N26 and Transferwise, I fired Societe Generale from my life in February.

Mais pour quoi?

Given how challenging it can be to open accounts these days, why would I get rid of one I had?  Well, firstly, bank accounts in France are rarely free.  There’s a monthly service fee (in this case, 17 euros a month for a very basic account) whether you have any activity or not.  Secondly, I had already had exceptional service from BNP that Societe Generale couldn’t match.  When I moved from the 2nd to the 19th, I was able to change my “home agency” using the BNP Paribas app.  With Societe Generale, it was a nine month saga, with multiple trips to my original agence in the 17th.  But the last straw was a denial of a loan.

Americans are used to having a “credit score” which tells lending institutions how worthy we are of being loaned money, and at what rate of interest.  There’s no such thing in France.  Indeed, there’s not even a centralized place for banks to know you have loans at other banks.  I found all this out when BNP Paribas sent me a flyer some years ago offering a 2% loan for my business account.  I didn’t need any funds at that time, but I was intrigued by an opportunity to build my relationship and profile with the bank and thought it might make for a good future article.  The truth was that the process was so speedy, there wasn’t enough meat for the article.  I made an appointment (online, using the app), showed up, and after 15 minutes of us getting to know each other and how we ended up in Paris, he asked what the loan was for.  I told him I actually didn’t need a loan, but was more interested in seeing how the process worked.  He nodded and said, “Okay, how about for working capital?”  I nodded and asked if there was any early repayment penalty.  He shook his head.  Ten minutes after that I was out the door, and 48 hours after that, the funds were in my account.  BNP had once again shown me that they were forward-looking, easy to work with, and fast.

As I audited my expenses for 2019 I wondered about Societe Generale and my personal account there, which is what I paid my French taxes out of and was an account I deposited some sources of income into.  Should I really be paying 17€ a month for my personal account there when my account at BNP cost 7€ a month?  But I wanted to give them one final test to confirm my gut instinct: asking for a loan.

There’s no way to make an appointment with your counselor online with SG, so I had to go into my agence.  That’s fine.  I made an appointment in January.  The day of the appointment, he cancelled on me.  Okay, I rescheduled for the next available time, which was two weeks later.  When that day arrived, I brought all the paperwork I might be expected of to get a loan, which includes the “Avis d’impot” (the government document that verifies the veracity of your last filed return) of the last three years, my business tax returns, my business bank accounts, and the usual ID, lease, etc.  Two hours later, he “didn’t have enough information” and told me he would email me for more info.

Of course he didn’t email me.  I had to follow up with him over a two week period and he kept asking for more info before finally saying flatly, “Non.”  I was appalled.  “Tu rigoles,” I began, and told him that BNP had had the exact same info (actually, BNP had asked for less info) and gave me a decision in five minutes, and I had only been banking with them since 2016, whereas I had been with Societe Generale since 2014.  He shrugged and told me that different banks have different practices.

“Okay, then I need to close my account,” I replied.  He was nonplussed.  We made an appointment for the following week.  You can guess what happened next.  I arrived only to find out that he was too busy to keep the appointment he had made and I was traveling the following week and he was in conferences the week after, so yes, I had to delay closing my account by three weeks, giving them another month of bank fees.

It took nearly an hour to actually close the account.  I was forced to sign several papers closing both my Livret A (savings account) and the checking account as well as ending the agreements that went with them.  The final action was to transfer the remaining funds at SG into my newly opened additional bank account at BNP (which took all of ten minutes to open, since they just copied all my information over from my existing account). Ridiculous to the end, offering no apology or regret for losing me as a customer, both my counselor and the bank vindicated my decision to fire them.  I’m literally now doubly happy as a BNP client, having two accounts with them and a solid and respectful relationship with my counselor.

Why don’t more French people fire their banks?  That’s part of a larger administrative issue that I’ll address in a future article.

Yes, you should get a French bank account

A friend recently wrote an account of her experience getting a bank account in France and it reminded me to do an update of my various thoughts on this topic beyond my first time getting a personal account, a business account, and the legislation which is the reason for difficulties Americans face on this front: FATCA.  The most important reason to get a French account is that it’s the only way you may hit a snag on your renewal.  Not having a French account signals a lack of integration into society.  You may be able to squeak by with something else, which readers have received inconsistent results with, so the advice I give is to do what definitely works, not “let’s try this.”  Hope is not a strategy, and certainly a poor idea when it comes to renewing visas in France.

While major French banks are understandably reluctant to give a US citizen a bank account because of the high cost of compliance with FATCA, if you hold a residence card (whether a sticker in your passport or the hard card in your wallet), you can, respectfully and calmly, demand a bank account as a right.  Yes, there are low-cost online banks that have no branches, like Boursorama, that will eject you from the application process the minute they find out you are a US citizen (trust me, I tried).

My recommendations, based on personal experience, are BNP Paribas and Societe Generale, in that order.  They both have excellent online banking in the form of web access and brilliant native apps for your smart phones.  My counselors have always been available when I’ve needed help and my cards consistently work in countries all over the world, often offering an extra layer of security by needing me to verify purchases over a certain amount via entering my password on the app on my phone.

What I’ve been told secondhand by readers is that both LCL and HSBC are also willing to grant accounts to US citizens, and feel free to pitch your bank of choice in the comments below.

When you stop in at a bank you’ll almost always be making an appointment for a future date, as the bankers are often booked some time in advance.  If you don’t feel comfortable speaking the entire time in French, make sure to ask for someone who does speak English, and many of the staff do.  They will often provide you with a list of what to bring, which will include, but not be limited to:

  • Passport
  • Carte de Sejour (1st year visa holders – this is the sticker in your passport, everyone else – it’s the hard card)
  • EDF or ADH and/or lease
  • Proof of income
  • Most Recent Tax Filings – both US and French

and expect to pay around 15-20€ a month for even a basic checking account.  It’s part of the deal.

They also won’t let you pick your PIN, but I’ve found this to be a smart policy, because it doesn’t allow a thief who correctly guesses one pin access to all your cards, which Americas tend to use the same PIN for.

An intermediate step in the right direction, if you want to be able to easily transfer in Euros, pay your rent, etc., is a free Borderless Account from Transferwise that allows you to hold multiple currencies with no monthly rate and even includes a free contactless debit card.  But it is not clear to me that statements from a Borderless Account will pass muster with French immigration and no reader has yet let me know that such a strategy works.  The euro-denominated account in the Borderless Account is based in Germany.  I absolutely love Transferwise and use it for other transactions outside of my personal and business ones, which I use my French accounts for.

Troubleshooting: Bank Accounts

Some time ago I was sitting with some friends and the conversation turned to banks and bank fees.  Both of my friends shared how much they hated “establishment” banks and described with relish how they had recently “fired” them.  They had chosen to move on to the “internet only” banks.  One banked at Fortuneo, the other recommended Boursorama.  I was happy with Societe Generale and had long ago written off bank fees in France as “part of the deal.”  Turns out, as an American citizen, I don’t really have a choice.

I went through the process of applying for a basic checking account at both Fortuneo and Boursorama, banks that leveraged technology and virtual offices to offer low-to-no fee banking.  At the end of both applications I was rejected, in no uncertain terms.  Not because of my credit score (because there’s no such thing in Europe), but because unlike my friends, who possessed German and Czech citizenship, respectively, I was considered a “US person” for legal purposes, and was subject to FATCA.

FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) became law in 2010 in the US but came into force officially in France this year.  It places an enormous regulatory reporting burden on French banks servicing US citizens.  The “budget banks” mentioned above do not have the means or the staff to comply with this reporting requirement so they rejected me.  I was told by one person in the know that it costs French banks up to 10,000€/year to service someone like me (a “US person”).  This is all because the US government is determined to get its grubby hands on every last shred of our income, even if it was not earned in the USA.

Now, even if that number of 10,000€/year is wildly exaggerated, something like 2,500€/year is still a lot just to comply with US reporting requirements.  When you keep that in mind, you can smile your way through the two hour process of opening a new checking account, as I had to do a few months ago for my new French business.  It’s not enough to sign a few forms and give the bank your money, as we often do in America.  The French want to know what kind of business you are operating, how much money you think you will make, the name of your most recently deceased pet, etc.

Part of this is simply a “get to know you” policy that French banks are encouraging these days.  But part of it is both French governmental compliance and now US regulatory compliance.  My poor counselor told me that I was his first “US” account and he called in backup from his colleagues no fewer than three times as unexpected screens kept popping up during my registration.

All in all, I was happy with the process and BNP Paribas offers the same level of service and convenience that I’ve become accustomed to with French banks but is (to my knowledge) not widespread in the US.

  1. RIB (releve d’identite bancaire) This is an upgrade over traditional “online billpay” as there is never a paper check issued.  The money leaves your account and 48 business hours later it is in another account, whether it’s the account of a friend or that of a regular payee of your household.  When you add a new payee you must key in a pin and everytime you issue a RIB payment to someone you must key in a pin.
  2. App-based verification for online purchases.  When you make a credit card purchase on the web you will receive a push notification on your phone.  You must key in a pin in order to approve the purchase.  Then, and only then, is your purchase approved.
  3. No ATM fees.  By French law, you cannot be charged fees for withdrawing your own money, even if it’s from the ATM of another bank.  So you can use any ATM anywhere, anytime.

It’s a lot of trouble to set up a French bank account as an American these days, but once you have that account, it’s a great thing, and it makes your life here that much easier.

Getting a Bank Account in France

It’s actually not that hard to get a bank account in France.  What’s hard is getting your debit card.  To open an account, stop in at your local bank of choice (I chose Societe Generale because it was and is close to my place) with your passport, some money, and proof of residence (this will be a quittance de loyer or attestation de hebergement).

To get a debit card you will need to transfer a substantial sum of money into your account.  They will ask for 1000 euros – I talked them down to 500 – which will have the excitement of your American bank charging you for a wire transfer, your French bank account charging you for your own wire transfer, and the transaction fee of converting dollars into euros.  My personal expat experience has allowed me to conduct most of my life using American bank accounts, allowing my French bank account to deal with minor day-to-day expenses which would help me avoid carrying cash around all the time (like the UGC Pass Illimite, which occasioned my getting an account in the first place, something I originally resisted.  More about the Pass in a future piece.).  Unless you have a phenomenal bank in America (like mine) you’re going to get killed in foreign transaction fees, so beware.

Only after I got a wire transfer in did I get my debit card – with a pre-assigned PIN.  That PIN, by the way, can’t be changed unless you want to pay to change it.  Brilliant or cruel?  You decide.

My account came standard with a ton of limits that a regular bank account in America wouldn’t correspondingly have.  I could only withdraw 50 euros at a time from an ATM, up to 100 euros a day.  I could only charge so much on my debit card every 7 days, etc.

Even when you want to change your address you have to show proof.  In America I would call and change it, end of.  Not here.  The French love their paperwork.  Don’t you forget it!

If you are here for any period over 3 months, get a French bank account.  It will be a bit of trouble, but well worth it!