Les aléas

– How are you this morning? – If you really want to know, press 1. Otherwise, press 2.

We all have those Murphy’s law moments, when we are reminded that nothing in life is ever intended to be easy. A natural catastrophe. An unexpected expense. Anything involving a government administration

Here in France we talk about ‘les aléas de la vie.’ And as long as they don’t involve death or taxes, it’s par for the course. I’ve had my share lately – nothing serious but annoying none the less.

It started with the bank. We ran out of checks, and as France is a country where people still write a lot of checks, and also take long holidays in the summer, I wasted no time in ordering some. More fool me, I tried to be super-efficient and modern by going online. After digging up my login and password, a feat in itself, I wrote a quick message to our so-called account manager. In six years with this bank, the turnover at the branch has been too frequent to allow us to develop much of a relationship with the constantly changing staff. And we live half an hour’s drive from our bank so stopping by is not convenient.

– It’s about a loan.
– Great, how much can you lend us?

Two weeks later, still sans-cheques, I phoned. My tone may have been slightly annoyed when the woman I dealt with informed me coolly that she had no idea why her colleague had not replied to my message; I was, of course, free to send a message to any of the staff but each individual was responsible for replying to their own messages. I pointed out that there was no point in going through a centralized platform if there was no centralized follow-up, and that email was only good if you got a reply. She snippily informed me that the checks were now ordered and I should have them by the end of the following week, given the mid-August holiday. The end of the month came and went, with still no checkbook.

Everything changed when our regular contact returned from holiday. Naturally nothing had been ordered in her absence but she pulled some strings and I got the checks within the week. Several companies who’d probably thought we’d taken a very long summer holiday finally got paid.

Meeting agenda: do we really need insurance for water damage?

Next, my car registration papers went AWOL. I searched up and down, convinced I must have stuck them in a drawer, a file or even another purse but alas, there was no sign of the ‘carte grise’, as we call it. I would have to pay for a new one. Then began a little dance with my leasing company, the official owners of the car. The first phone call involved endless loops of automated voices and after punching in the wrong contract number finally led me to a cranky lady who informed me they would send me the necessary document by la poste. Snail mail? I hung up in frustration.

The letter arrived the following week, advising me to connect to an online platform where the entire process would be handled automatically. I needed a letter for that? Still, it was good news: no lengthy trip to the Préfecture with various copies of documents. But first I had to create an account, or log-in with something called France Connect – a service that manages your identity with various online administrations. It turned out I already had an account with this mysterious organization. Once again, I surprised myself by finding the keys to the kingdom and logging in. Off to the races!

Shortly out of the gate, I ran into the first hurdle: I needed a special code to request a new registration for the vehicle, and as the vehicle belonged to leasing company, it would sent – by la poste – to them. Gah! Back to cranky voicemail lady a week later. I explained my tale of woe and was informed that they had in fact received a code in the mail, but they had to request the number from whoever opened the mail by phone so who knew how accurate it would be? Their words, not mine, as I wondered in what kind of parallel universe they operated.


Naturally, the code was wrong. Back on the phone, punching in numbers and another disembodied voice informed me that this time, they would send me the code. Seriously? They couldn’t have done that in the first place?

It arrived several days later, an official letter bearing exactly the same number as the first time. In despair, I went back to the government site and typed in the number. Still wrong, although this time the message seemed to suggest it had once been right but was now expired. Determined to have no further dealings with the leasing company ladies, I ticked a different box that led me to a different window. It’s all a bit of a blur now but somehow, the magic happened. And once again, French efficiency kicked in: I was able to print a temporary registration document and, lo and behold, two working days later, my brand new Carte d’Immatriculation was delivered by La Poste.

(I will probably find the old document within the week.)

It seems that even with all the technology in the world, things still work essentially the same way in France: you get stuck in an administrative no-man’s land where you think you’ll never get out and then, suddenly, you’re done!

What’s your most memorable Murphy’s law moment?


  1. francetaste · September 13, 2018

    Oh dear. I am not so sure about services that handle passwords. There was one that got hacked. Of course.
    My kid just got braces. For some reason, they put on the braces before having the necessary teeth pulled. I was told, two at a time, starting on the bottom. When? We will let you know.
    So in June we went for the appointment and were informed that the bottom teeth needed to be pulled before the next appointment, which was in August. I called the dentist immediately and was informed that the next availability was in September and that it would require two visits–one to look at the teeth and one to extract them. I pleaded and begged and managed to get in sooner. Happily, the dentist does sports with my kid and they are buddies. So the dentist said, oh, let’s just pull them now, and five minutes later it was done.
    At the next orthodontist appointment, I asked about pulling the top teeth, explaining that it takes four months to get a dentist appointment. No problem, we’ll let you know in good time, they assured me. I insisted–even if it wasn’t for six months out, it was prudent to secure the dentist appointment. Email the orthodontist, the secretary said. Three weeks (!!!) later, with fruitless follow-up phone calls between, the orthodontist emailed me the paper for the dentist to pull the other teeth, with a note saying it should be done by the next appointment — in October!!!
    For crying out loud. This is a small town and there are only three orthodontists and four dozen dentists. The orthodontists have to know it takes a couple of months to get dental appointments. I wasn’t even aware because until now I’ve always made the appointment a year in advance–on leaving one annual checkup I would get an appointment for the next one.

    • MELewis · September 13, 2018

      Wow! I had no idea dentists were so hard to find these days (I go in Switzerland, where it is more expensive but, in my still-North American view, of a better standard). Would have rather imagined the orthodontist being harder to get an appointment with? I suppose that dentists earn a pittance in France, probably more are specializing in orthodontia so as to set their own rates! Healthy teeth are so essential, I do hope your son gets the needed care in the right order!

      • francetaste · September 13, 2018

        Actually, lots of people get their teeth cleaned 2x per year, which takes up most of the dentist slots. Once you get in with the orthodontist, there’s some kind of schedule they follow, and it isn’t a problem to see them.

      • MELewis · September 13, 2018

        Yes and that’s the thing: I have never understood why French dentists do this — elsewhere it is the role of the dental hygienist who is specially trained for cleaning!

  2. Gus Fergusson · September 13, 2018

    How encouraging! Another example of Europe’s “one foot in the past” endorsing the sense of “Brexit”.

    • MELewis · September 13, 2018

      Ha, ha! Like the glass half full, I rather see it as one foot in the future – and Brexit a sorry attempt to rediscover the glorious past! 😉

  3. phildange · September 13, 2018

    I sympathize . All this infuriates me too much to keep cool . I don’t know what you know about France’s evolution but here is my view : All the policies followed by our governments -whether they were called “Socialist” or not doesn’t make any difference- since the late 70s had one main goal : more and more money into private corporates , less and less in public services . For that, 2 means : privatization of the most services as possible and downsizing the number of public servants as much it is possible .
    So recently they decided that to get a carte grise it was no longer possible in the Préfectures . You have to do the job by yourself (and it is the same for many documents such as passports now) . Actually people have to do what public servants did – of course, there are not enough of them left . But this is not all, the majority of the programs implemented in official cyber systems are full of bugs, that’s a sort of law . If you read the only independent newspaper of France (and probably of the Western world), Le Canard Enchaîné, you would have known that for years . Reasons are various, either the minister of the time has a stepbrother or a cousin who gets the contract for the cyber program, either he receives a huge pressure to hurry-hurry! because the President thinks he has to make a strong impression of being super-efficient, or any dirty other reason that explains why we had so many revolutions here, the result is in France every step towards privatization always led to a worse service, and dearer of course .

    I knew about the cartes grises modern nighmare so I used a new-born job : some people who have the rigt connections do all this for you and you receive the carte grise in one week at your home . The internet is full of them but of course I’m French and I know how to use France so I did it the best French way : I spoke around and someone gave me the name of a guy who opened a small metal cabin on a parking for that, the man only takes 10€ for his work, I went to his cabin on a wednesday and the postman delivered the carte grise the following saturday, 4 days later . 10 € to save me from a nervous breakdown or a mass shooting was not to expensive, did I think . Fortunately, even with this awful Americanization of what once was la République Française, the old French soul still moves : the eternal “système D”. All this process reminded me the good old 40s, Nazi occupation and “marché noir” ha ha .

    • MELewis · September 13, 2018

      This made me smile as we both remained true to our roots but in different ways. I was told about the possibility of getting someone else to do it for me, by the leasing company in fact (leading me to wonder if they were in cahoots with the service provider and intentionally making it difficult for me to do it myself…?) Which made me all the more stubborn about not paying for something that is supposed to work for free. I can see you preferred the workaround, even for the extra 10 EUR (I was told 30 so your back street solution was definitely cheaper!). I am sure my husband and probably any Frenchman worthy of the name would have done the same. 😂

  4. acflory · September 13, 2018

    Nothing horrible recently…-knock on wood-…commiserations. I hate those automated phone systems. The options never seem to cover the problem that caused the call in the first place. :/

    • MELewis · September 13, 2018

      In most cases the trick seems to be to stay on the for the final option – a human being. But the wait is annoying and far too long. Many times you get cut off and have to go through the same loops all over again — gah! Glad to hear you have steered clear of trouble lately!

      • acflory · September 14, 2018

        Sssssh! Don’t jinx me. 😀

  5. Garfield Hug · September 13, 2018

    I feel the harder we push towards smart nation status, the lonelier it gets in terms of basic customer service. I get frustrated too as after pushing tons of buttons we still don’t get to talk to a human. Ohh and don’t get me started on a lot of passwords! I need a book to list passwords used for work, personal matters any darn contraption I buy as we need to log in to register for warranty. Sigh…so much for pushing ahead in a digital world.😐

    • MELewis · September 13, 2018

      Yes, and surely we will get a backlash where people value talking to living, breathing humans and will favour companies that offer this option. As for passwords, it’s insane. Essentially the only solution that makes any sense is to reset it every time. 😩

      • Garfield Hug · September 14, 2018

        Insane is the right word to describe this password nightmare! I am running out of memorable passwords without the convoluted usage of a sign or symbol or not to use even numbers etc! Sigh a nightmare indeed and I feel you. Have a great weekend ahead.

  6. George lewis · September 13, 2018

    Welcome to the socialist swamp and the more efficient technology of the internet.

    • MELewis · September 13, 2018

      More efficient? Not always. When it works, it’s great. When it doesn’t, it’s worse. And it’s a drive for always greater efficiency, not socialism, that leads us there.

      • George lewis · September 14, 2018

        I am being sarcastic. The not my job mon attitude of public servants and the destruction of efficiency caused by poorly written web sites and personal computers .

  7. Heide · September 13, 2018

    What strikes me about your post (and my own experiences in France) is the apparent randomness of the herky-jerky administrative processes. It’s mystifying how sometimes just a tiny bit of human initiative — or blind luck — breaks the bureaucratic logjam, and then everything moves from that point forward. Well … congratulations on your new Carte d’Immatriculation, and on having finally obtained your cheques! The systems may be maddening in their inefficiency, but they’re still no match for your persistence. 🙂

    • MELewis · September 14, 2018

      It does often feel random and you are right — there is always that mysterious moment when something happens to get you out of limbo. I always imagine the wizard behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. 😄 Thanks for the moral support — it’s the little things!

  8. midihideaways · September 15, 2018

    Funny how the banks seem to be so poor on customer service! Some while ago a new person in our bank screwed up a transfer. Her superior shrugged her shoulders and said “Nous sommes dans le Midi”, but eventually managed to sort it, not without a lot of huffing and puffing though! I saw the writing on the wall where the bank was concerned some years ago, just before they moved to new premises. When I wanted to withdraw a precise sum of cash, something like 45.50, the cashier sniffily informed me that that kind of thing would no longer be possible once they had moved – we’re only going to be doing ‘real’ banking then! I suppose I should have closed my account immediately at that point. Only cash dispensers, no more tills, if you want a specific sum it has to be ordered well in advance, and can only be collected on a certain day etc. And if you pay in bag of coins it can take weeks before they credit your account!! Now we only have humans in the branch in the mornings, in the afternoons they allegedly do house visits! Ha! The only bank with a cash till now seems to be La Poste…
    Rant over… 🙂

    • MELewis · September 18, 2018

      Ha, ha, yes I had a similar experience a few years back when I wanted a large sum of cash to pay a supplier. I couldn’t believe how long it took to ‘order’ the funds. It seems that banks want to do everything but these days — insurance, leasing, etc but not to handle actual money! But a bank that does house calls – now there’s a surprise! 🤣

  9. Lisa @ cheergerm · September 17, 2018

    At such times, it feels like the universe is teaching us a lesson in ‘patience.’ I am currently drowning in a sea of passwords….someone throw me a life preserver. I have been jumping through technological hoops trying to install an app that allows me to control and manage the kids technology devices remotely. 25 emails later it still hasn’t worked. (This has also included a lot of password changing/making up/blah blah blah ….argh…)

    • MELewis · September 18, 2018

      Manage your kids’ devices remotely? Gah, no wonder you are tearing your hair out, Lisa! You have my full sympathy! Hard enough to manage our own password hell, technology updates, software fails and platform migrations without adding in more complexity. You are right — the whole password thing is a brain buster, and none of the whizzes that think up this stuff ever seem to know how to make it both secure AND user friendly.

  10. Cecile AU ZEN · September 18, 2018

    Mel, I loved your article. It will require decades of transformation in mentalities as many civil servants have been very confused with or oblivious of the concept of mission : a long-term life of ease plan is not a mission, but serving Clients/Fellow citizens is! Role play would be a great approach, and I am volunteering to take the role of a caricatural version (or is it?) of a detached, grumpy civil servant far more interested in what his/her colleague is doing or in the tick of the clock rather than in the person waiting behind his/her glass shielded desk. I find your Credit Apicole cartoon spot on. Just a thought, to decrease the pain of interactions with your local branch or many banks, may I suggest you change for a dynamic and vigilant cooperative structure?… as a dog lover, you would love their mascot’s messages, and personally I would trade this wise and smart dog with a bunch of front desk officers at many French Commercial Banks. When exposed to frustrations like yours, one of my fellow Anusara teachers would say something like, ”believe that whatever you’re dealing with is being worked on by some entity bigger than yourself, teaching you something” – to which I would answer, ”all right, so the universe is telling me to recapture the ownership of my money and wire it elsewhere”. So I changed the local Savoyard motto ”In Tartiflette we trust” to ”In ZEN interactions I trust”. I now cast my vote once a month and influence the developments of my local branch, plus my checks get delivered home by the click of a user-friendly button. Would you like to join? 🙂

    • MELewis · September 18, 2018

      Hi Cécile, and thanks for chiming in! So glad this rant spoke to you. Of course I’d be interested in learning about your coop, even if I’m afraid we are to some degree ‘married’ to our bank due to our mortgage! 😩 I like your role playing, even I can’t quite imagine you as anything resembling a grumpy (un)civil servant!

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