Il faut écrire

It’s been months since our move from France to Switzerland and I am still dealing with the administrative details. Some things were relatively simple. We cancelled the services associated with our house when it was sold, paid our final bills and did not have the mail forwarded. The reasons for this were two-fold: a) it was ridiculously expensive, and b) by the time I got around to it, we were already in Switzerland; in order to validate the request with the French post office online, you had to first receive a code in the mail at the address in France. I’m sure many letters were returned to sender.

When I first arrived in France years ago, I learned the hard way how to deal with administrative matters. The dreaded ‘démarches administratives’ could only be accomplished in person or, a défaut, in writing. “Il faut écrire,” my late Belle-mère advised me, after I complained about waiting forever to get through to someone on the phone only to be told I had to apply in writing. I believe she knew the address of every major administration by heart. Thirty years on, little has changed.

Sure, in the meantime the world has gone digital and services are available online, even banking. And even in France. But in order to do anything official, like change an address or your bank details, you still need to send an old-fashioned, hand-signed letter by the post. God save us.

In some cases, the whole letter must be hand-written. Manuscrite. I had to write an entire epistle in my school-book French in order to transfer the money to repay the mortgage on our house. Such is the lot in life of the person with neat hand-writing, however rusty. Husband could have done it more readily in French but his chicken scratch is nearly indecipherable.

The absolute worst example of this is ‘la Securité Sociale’, the French health and old-age pension system. To be honest, I kind of let that one drag on. Partly because I knew it would be sticky — my situation as a self-employed person working in Switzerland means I must deal with a special ‘caisse’ or fund of the SS. (Abbreviation mine, but somehow so fitting!)

Also because, especially in times of COVID-19, I wanted to make 100% sure I was covered in Switzerland before I cancelled things in France. Somehow that took until the end of the year, during which time I did get the dreaded virus, thankfully not requiring any major medical attention. And in the meantime I ran into a bit of a hiccup.

Switzerland, like France, has socialized medicine but the state only covers the basics. Which means that if you get seriously ill, you’re covered, but for all the rest you’re out of pocket. In order to get full health coverage here you have to apply to a private company for complementary insurance, which costs but does offer peace of mind. I was granted the basic coverage right away, as that is a given, but for the rest, they needed my family doctor in France to fill out a health questionnaire. The request was made in November and I am still waiting. We lived in the Haute Savoie in what is known as a ‘désert médical’, with few GPs. My doctor was one of the last ones in our area. Now he is busy transferring his practice to a new specialty: laser therapy. I get it. Burn out happens and he’s entitled to switch to a money-making occupation. What I don’t get is why I’m still waiting. I’ll spare you all the details but he has the form, we did an online consult to go over the questions. After two months of silence, I even sent a request to the Conseil des Médecins (licensing board). In the meantime, no complementary insurance.

However, what that meant was that I forgot about cancelling my French Sécu (unofficial abbreviation) until I realized I was still paying for it. This week I went online but couldn’t find the right way to declare my change in situation. So I phoned. A nice person eventually answered, and informed me that I should have filled out the S1005 form within a month of my move. Oops. That I would need to write a letter, fill out the form, send in a ‘justificatif de domicile’ (proof of residence). Yada yada yada. The wheels are in motion.

All of this reminds me of something I saw online a few years back. ‘Les perles’, or the best-of funny moments from things people had written to the Securité Sociale. This one will make you smile if you understand French:

Mon mari est décédé, je fais comment pour le retirer de la caisse?

Translation upon request.


  1. Mary Katherine K Graetz · March 12, 2021

    We may complain about bureacracy in the US, but I know it’s nothing compared to some European countries, to say nothing of all the places where bribes are required…I do love learning about the nuts and bolts of everyday life other places.

    • MELewis · March 12, 2021

      I agree, it’s interesting to see how things work in different places! Maybe a bribe is what it would take for my doctor to send in that questionnaire. 😏

  2. Gus · March 12, 2021

    Brexit HAS saved us

    • MELewis · March 12, 2021

      Ha ha…seriously? From what?

  3. Ann L · March 12, 2021

    Some things about the traditional way of life in France please us. Others, not so much.

    • bonnie · March 12, 2021

      Oh I love to hear about it all – warts and smiles

      • MELewis · March 12, 2021

        Always happy to share both! 😍

    • MELewis · March 12, 2021

      Agree! I do miss some things, especially food and drink-related. And friends, but mostly from our previous village where we raised our kids.

  4. George Lewis · March 12, 2021

    I don’t know how you tolerate such bureaucratic inefficiency from people who you are payiing and who are supposed to be civil servants.

    • MELewis · March 12, 2021

      I spent the first few years being outraged. After that, I decided to go with the flow and life got better. It is what it is!

  5. Taste of France · March 12, 2021

    I must be French now because I won a fight with URSSAF and the Sécu. I never changed my name after marriage. At some point, some bureaucrat saw that my ID said “épouse XXX” on the back and changed my name to XXX without asking me. My carte vitale said my name, but on the chip, XXX now came up. I would be infuriated every time. I’d write and write but no result. If married, then must use married name. But my lawyer told me they were wrong! A husband’s name may be used, but a woman’s legal name is her maiden name. Armed with the name/number of the law and a link to it, I rewrote my letters and got them to fix my name.
    The number of CERFAs is astounding. A form for every occasion, though some cover so many things, you need a guide to weed out all the cases that don’t apply.

    • MELewis · March 12, 2021

      Good for you! I admire your tenacity. You were right to stand up and make them recognize the mistake. I also kept my name officially but gave up the effort with the administrations after awhile as far as the family stuff went. Professionally, I always kept my name and never had any issue — that was what mattered most to me. Oddly, the forms you have to fill in are often accurate although very confusing as to the terminology. Some specify ‘nom d’usage’ and then add that the birth name is still the official one while continuing to default to the married one.

  6. pedmar10 · March 12, 2021

    I think I told you my story, I did all my paperwork as already a French citizen from the USA at the local consulat, a piece of cake. My parents came with me as titre de séjour visiteur he already renew for the 18th time today, another piece of cake. I have purchase home got people really sick here all very easy. The immigration lady once told me if all did the dossier like me their work would be easier. I guess I have a totally different experience than most. Cheers

    • MELewis · March 12, 2021

      Pedmar, you are an incredibly positive person, and really love your adopted land. I think that’s half of it right there! Clearly you got something right from day one. 🇫🇷 😎

      • pedmar10 · March 12, 2021

        Yes. You are correct.

  7. mistermuse · March 12, 2021

    May I take you up on “Translation upon request”? I made it as far as “My husband is deceased,” but am stumped by the rest.

    Very interesting and enlightening post, btw.

    • MELewis · March 12, 2021

      Thank you, I was hoping someone would ask!
      The French word ‘caisse’ can be translated more than one way. It means a fund, but also a box. So the woman wants to know how she can withdraw her deceased spouse from the fund but also the ‘box’…!

    • acflory · March 13, 2021

      Thank you for asking! lol

  8. Dale · March 12, 2021

    I imagine it is best to go with the flow but oy…
    And that last perle is hilarious!

    • MELewis · March 12, 2021

      It did make me laugh, Dale! But I shudder to think about the administrative gobbledygook around the passing of a loved one. Oy vay indeed!

      • Dale · March 12, 2021

        It is funny though I shudder at the thought me too!

  9. acflory · March 13, 2021

    I kept my married name after the divorce because it was so much easier to spell. And because I didn’t want the hassle of having a different surname to the Offspring. No problems. That said, Australia has its fair share of bureaucracy as well. I think it’s because every law can be ‘interpreted’ in far too many ways. Therefore they keep trying to make each regulation legally specific. The more specific, the less room there is for common sense. And so it goes. But I do think most of the rules did start out attempting to protect people [us].

    • MELewis · March 13, 2021

      I can understand that. It’s one thing to have different names when you’re married but as a single mom it must have been easier to go with the same. Plus, it has a nice ring!
      As for the bureaucracy, I think the history behind most of these rules explains that they are put there in the first place to protect people. But times change and laws need to as well. Rather than adding on to a messy build-up of rules, sometimes it makes sense to clear the decks and start over with a new constitution and set of laws. And I think that the current pandemic situation has pointed out a lot of flaws in existing systems!

      • acflory · March 13, 2021

        lol – thank you, I like the name too. And yes, a clean sweep is needed in so many areas. I think we also have to rethink global trade. The ‘just in time’ concept is great when everything’s ticking along nicely but falls in a heap as soon as something affects the whole world. I know here in Australia we’d lost our ability to manufacture our own PPE and finding enough to import was suddenly impossible. If we had a genuine global government that could cushion these kinds of events then it would be different, but…we don’t. I just hope that all of this isn’t just swept under the rug once things eventually get better.

      • MELewis · March 14, 2021

        Me too! If only this crisis serves as a catalyst for sustainable change…it will not have been for nothing. 🤞

      • acflory · March 14, 2021

        Fingers crossed, but as they say, I’m not holding my breath.

  10. midihideaways · March 13, 2021

    I feel your pain, Mel!! I used to get quite frustrated with bureaucracy in France, but I learnt early on to turn the bureaucrats into allies. Once I had them on my side a lot of things became much easier to get sorted!

    • margaret21 · March 14, 2021

      I agree. We were lucky. Yes, we had to go to head office some 20 miles away more than seemed strictly necessary, but having go there, staff were unfailingly helpful, and I can’t remember any horror stories.

    • MELewis · March 14, 2021

      That is true! If you make a personal connection with people it help enormously. But hard to do when you’re far away!

  11. f1014 · March 13, 2021

    Bureaucrats on your side. Could you share your secret? Being French I am still unable to do so.

  12. nessafrance · March 14, 2021

    Bon courage for the hurdles that remain. Like Taste of France above, I also retained my maiden name and have had a helluva battle to get it used on some occasions. But she is absolutely right about the law, which I have had to resort to quoting myself. Love the quote!

    • MELewis · March 14, 2021

      Thanks! I think (hope!) the worst is behind us, yet remain prepared for a few surprises. Funny how we are three expat women in France who all kept their ‘maiden’ names (even the term feels dated!). I’ve met very few Frenchwomen who didn’t take their married name, unless divorced and remarried.

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