Skip to main content

Getting Information in France: A Scavenger Hunt

I'm now in the always dreary and often stressful process of renewing my residence card here in France. I have to renew it every year, as this is one of the policies for non-European residents.

A familiar scene happened the other day when I began to search for some answers to questions about my particular case, which requires changing the status of my residence card.

My first technique was to call directly the administrative office where I would submit my application (called the préfecture). I got no answer, even after calling four different numbers, several times.
The line answering machine, however, suggested a general number, which I called promptly. 

First thing after calling, it was announced that I would pay 15 cents/minute for the call, and that my waiting time was under 2 minutes. When I finally got to talk to a person, I realized that this is a general number for all of France, and not specific to my region (where procedures can be a little different). So essentially, the person couldn't help me, transferred me by phone back to the préfecture, where the call menu would not work when I tried to select my extension.

At this point, a mix of anxiety and frustration started going strong. 
I realized I would have to actually go to the préfecture in the afternoon during the allotted information time, and wait in line to hopefully get some answers.

When I got there, I was first directed to a line where I had to wait, and then was given a number and sent to a different service. It was here that I finally got to talk to someone who was knowledgeable about resident permits. Turns out, I don't need any special papers and my application will be like it usually is. It didn't actually take that long to wait and get these answers, but it was a pretty complicated process.

I should know by now, after four years, that it would be have been better to just go to the préfecture in the beginning, rather than waste my time trying to call. But I still sometimes hold out the hope that calling or looking on a website will be sufficient to find the information I need.

You see, getting information in France is just downright difficult. This can be especially true for important things like household bills, employment documents, or other administration.

To specify what I mean by difficult: information is often not always readily available or accurate on websites, customer service phone numbers are often paying numbers, etc. 

On top of that, you also need to factor in restricted hours for getting access to information. If you do choose to call one of these paying phone numbers, they will most likely only be in service from 8 am to 8 pm at the latest, and not on weekends. And if you actually need to consult a real person, don't forget the standard two hour lunch break from 12-2, and any of the various extended holidays throughout the year.

Here is a major cultural difference between our two countries. In the US, because of our strong consumer culture, we expect information to be readily and easily available. We are also  independent in trying to get it. 

In France it's always better to talk to someone face to face. French people may feel that they have better access to more reliable information, rather than trying to figure it out for themselves. Calling by phone is the next best thing, and the worst is probably trying to figure it out yourself by looking up information on the internet or elsewhere.

Face-to-face communication is just more effective for the customer/consumer. One example is from my first year here. I received a tax bill for someone whose name was very similar to mine, but not me (different address, etc.). The bill was quite expensive, and so right away I sent an official letter to the tax office, notifying them of the mistake and including a copy of my passport to prove my identity. They resent me the same bill 3 times, even after several letters like this. It wasn't until I finally went to the tax office in person, with all my documents in hand, that I was able to get rid of this unpleasant situation, and also get a paper justifying that I had seen someone who had treated my case.

We all have certain expectations about services and how they should run. I as an American expect to be able to call any service number and get free information and advice about resolving a problem. I also expect a company or organization's website to be up-to-date, and complete with all relevant information I could need. And my first instinct will always be to try to find information by myself, before asking someone else about it.

The French anthropologist, Raymonde Carroll, devoted an entire chapter from her book Cultural Misunderstandings to this issue of getting information. 

One quote from this chapter sums up this Franco-American difference quite nicely.

"In the United States, where self-sufficiency is prized, 'not to need anyone' is a very desirable goal. In French, on the other hand, the expression sounds more like a reproach."[1]

In other words, in the US we expect information to be available and we prefer to be able to find it on our own, without bothering anyone. A major cultural shift occurred for me when I realized I needed to bother people in France to survive. 

I can't rely on my own resourcefulness or ability to find information because the system is not set up this way; here I am dependent on others. Letting go of the feeling of the worry of putting other people out was a big step towards integration for me. Now I don't hesitate to ask people for information, whether it be directions on the street, or for a list of documents for administrative procedures. 

Real adaptations are needed from any American moving here who is used to the 'customer is always right' mentality.  

Sure, I could sit around and grumble (like I used to) about how things work better or more smoothly in the US. But I learned quickly that becoming angry and frustrated in these situations did nothing to help my situation, and only isolated me more. Living peacefully in another country means accepting the good and the bad. 

So when the difficulty of access to information becomes a real challenge, it's at these moments I try to remember the good points of living in France (great food! beautiful scenery! wonderful culture!) that balance out the difficulties. 

[1] 118, Carroll, Raymonde. Cultural Misunderstandings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. 


  1. I am considering putting a plan into motion to move myself, my daughter and my fiancee to France and have been reading up on various parts of France and the challenges that other Americans before me have faced after taking the plunge. This post was very helpful :) thank you for sharing your experiences!

    1. Moving from one country to another is always exciting and challenging at the same time, good for you for doing some research! I'm glad if this could be helpful in terms of cultural information. Another post that discusses a really important linguistic element of social etiquette in France:

      Simple comme bonjour,

      Best of luck with your possible move!!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Autumn Blues (English version)

Why the French Don't Get Fat

If you were intrigued by this title and are looking for the answer to this question, I'm sorry to disappoint. There is no magical French anti-fat gene. The French do, in fact, "get fat". I chose this title because it's a common stereotype we hear of the French, things like "they eat all that cheese and fatty food, and yet have lower levels of cardiovascular disease". People tend to attribute this to drinking wine, or the Mediterranean diet based on olive oil.
Let's look at the facts. An OECD study published in 2014 showed that France has a rising rate of obesity, whereas countries like the US have levelled off.[1]But other statistics show clearly that the US is still far ahead of France in terms of the obesity rate. Depending on your source, the US has approximately twice the percentage of obese adults as in France (anywhere from 24-26 % for the US, and 12-18% for France)[2]. So yes, the French do get fat, but seemingly not as fat as Americans. Even with…

The Aftermath of the American Election

I'll admit, I wanted to post sooner but I have been avoiding the elephant in the room: politics and the American election.
We talked a lot about the election in my lessons with my students, starting with the primaries last winter. We looked at the general election procedure, talked about the big issues, studied the electoral college, watched debate excerpts etc. There is no doubt that this election was particularly rich for discussion. And it also caused great disappointment.
I was surprised actually after the election how much solidarity French people expressed with Americans and the election results. And I quickly realized that their solidarity wasn't just because they were sympathetic. It was because they were scared the same thing is going to happen in France...and it could.
The win of Donald Trump reflects back their own fears about the rise of the French right-wing populist and nationalist party, a party that has been gaining in momentum and popularity since the last elect…