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How to deal with the French bureaucracy?

(asked by Emma)

Is there a specific strategy to deal with secretaries and administrators in France? I feel that they often take a dislike to me. They will be incredibly rude, downright mean, ignore what I’m saying, invent rules, make insulting comments, pretend they can’t do the job or simply be extremely inefficient at their job.

Of course I realize that bureaucracy is inefficient and despised anywhere, but it does seem that there is a peculiarly French style of administration where everything depends on personal sympathy with the secretary/admin officer. I have lived in a number of countries, and while they may have a very inefficient system of administration, the actual people working in it are only seldom as spiteful as those I have come across in my 4 years in France.

Nor do I think that they behave like that with everyone, I do have friends who get on with them and therefore get done everything they need. But I don’t know what their secret is. Well one thing I have realized is, it helps to be male and/or French, but that is apparently not all.

So to restate my question: “How to behave with French secretaries/administrators so that they will like me and do their work?”

Btw, I have tried all kinds of approaches, friendly, polite, serious, angry, appealing to pity, but no success so far.



Ask a FrenchmanAh! The French bureaucracy! It’s probably the biggest hurdle for foreigners to adapt to life in France. If you manage to deal with it successfully, you really made it in France.

I think that the number one mistake foreigners make when dealing with the French administration is to expect administrative employees to behave with you as if you were a customer in a store or in a restaurant.

That’s two big mistakes in one. First of all, customers in France don’t behave like customers in many other countries (especially the English speaking ones) and shop owners don’t either. (find link about customer service in France).
Second, you’re not a customer, and while you want to have a successful interaction with the person that’s in front of you, on their hand, they kinda don’t care. Whereas a shop owner will care at least a little (they want to sell you their product), an administrative employee doesn’t. At all! If your interaction is unsuccessful, it will have no influence whatsoever on them or their job.

Another factor that you need to take into account is that they hate their job, and as you are part of their job, they hate you too. OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, not everyone hate their job, far from it, but it’s not exactly an exciting job either. Well, you get the picture.

Finally, keep in mind that most people you deal with don’t do that all day long, their job is divided between office work and dealing with people like you and me, and sometimes they only hate that part of the job, because you know, they’re going to be yelled at for no reason by some idiots that they’re trying to help.

You see where I’m going with this last part: make you see their side of the ordeal; because yes, sometimes it is one for them too, and that’s often the main reason why they’re not helpful.

OK, now to the real answer: how to deal with them in order to have a successful interaction?

I think that here, we need to separate Paris and the rest of France (once again) or at least big cities and smaller ones (I’m not too sure where the division line stands, the only big city where I had to deal with the bureaucracy extensively was in Paris (when I lived in Toulouse and Bordeaux, I was a college student, and not an official resident of those cities, so my experience with the administration there is very limited).

Let’s start with smaller cities and/or France that is not Paris (which is most of France, contrarily to what non Europeans sometimes think).
Actually, things are not that bad with the bureaucracy in smaller cities. Generally speaking, life goes smoother for everyone in smaller cities, so everyone is less stressed, everyone is nicer to each other, and human interactions are overall better.
If you show a minimum amount of respect to the clerk (that is treat them as your equal at least, if not a little bit higher as they’re the ones providing you with a service at that moment), if you’re at least polite, everything should go smoothly and pleasantly.
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had bad experiences with the administration in a small town in France, I even had many very pleasant ones where the clerk goes out of their way to help me. Yes, you read me right, I’ve had administrative employees either going around certain rules, or simply doing a little extra work for me.
What’s my secret? I was nice, polite and friendly. And they were too with me. You know, the way most human interactions should be.

Now onto Paris…
Yes, I had my share of struggles, troubles and unpleasant experiences dealing with the bureaucracy in Paris. Parisian employees are always on the defensive, if not in a “preemptive strike” mood and they will mistreat you more often than not.
Why is that? Well… This is Paris we’re talking about. A very beautiful city, but a very unpleasant city as far as human interactions are concerned. There is a constant tension in Paris, people always tend to be on the defensive. Aggression, at least verbal ones, tend to be the norm when dealing with strangers.
And all of this is exacerbated in the public portion of administrative offices. Administrative employees will treat you like shit by default, because they are treated like shit constantly, by most people that they have to deal with all day long.
How to avoid that?
Honestly, I’m not sure. I’d say, the same way you’d do it in a smaller city: be nice, polite, friendly… No, be extra nice, extra polite, extra friendly. Behave with the employee as if you’re serving them and not the opposite… And maybe, just maybe… They’d be friendly with you. It’ll be random. I believe that some of them are so jaded, that nothing can change their behavior. But I also believe that some of them are people like you and me that are trapped in that terrible environment and they don’t need much to remember that we’re all human beings and that we all deserve to be treated nicely and that we all should be nice to each other. They exist. But for them to come out of their shell, you’ll have to do the first step. They won’t. It’s a matter of staying sane for them.


I hope this helps.




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