Years before coming to France for 8 months, I was warned about what a bureaucratic nightmare French companies can be and how difficult it can be to get anything accomplished in government and business here.
After living here for 7 months, I’ve experienced this phenomenon firsthand several times. My theory (and this is an over-generalization, to be sure) is that the French secretly all yearn to be Napoleon – they don’t think of themselves as working for a corporation/government entity/under a boss, but instead feel as though they are their own boss and can thus make their own decisions. As a result, depending on the mood/personality of the person you are talking to, whatever you are trying to accomplish may be REALLY difficult, or incredibly easy, and it might be completely different from someone else, with a different employee, trying to accomplish the exact same thing.
One example is, you ask a question, and an employee gives you a response without hesitation and complete confidence. In the states, this would indicate that the employee knew the correct answer to your question, but in France it isn’t necessarily so. After I arrived, I asked my supervisor for a “Passe d’Education Nationale” (this is a special pass for French teachers which allows them to access all French national museums and monuments for free). I knew several assistants who had received this pass without any trouble, but when I asked my supervisor I was immediately told that assistants do not have the right to the pass. Then, when I persisted I was told perhaps I should ask the principals at the schools I work in… Each principal gave me a different answer, from “No, assistants cannot have them” to “I don’t have anymore” to “Where did I put those again?” to “The government is doing away with the pass.” … Finally, after much perseverance and 4 months of asking, I succeeded and got my pass!
So, it can also take longer to get things accomplished here. A great example of this that you would never see in the USA is, another assistant here rents a room in a house. For the past month, the internet hasn’t been working. It took over 2 weeks before the landlady REALLY started bothering the internet company about why their connection was down. Now, she is finally switching companies but has been told that it will be anywhere from 10-30 days before the new internet/phone line is set up. 10 to 30 days!!!!
But, in my experience, nowhere is this frustrating phenomenon more consistent than in the French post office. I dread going to the post office, I never know WHAT my experience will be like but it is generally guaranteed to be difficult.
Once, on the counsel of a friend (who had done this before) I wrapped a package in plastic before mailing it. I had a LONG argument with the postal worker, who was adamant that they could not take such packages, despite my reassurances that they HAD taken such packages from my friend, several times.
Another time I took 3 packages to the post for mailing. All three were wrapped in Paper, with addresses written on the outside. I wasn’t able to mail ANY of them that first day. I was told, they can’t take packages wrapped in paper because the paper might ripped. I was told if wrapped in paper, it needed to be wrapped in tape. When I argued that that was ridiculous, the post office employee actually slipped her finger under the paper and ripped it to show me how it could be done (I argued that her example was done purposely, and it wouldn’t happen on accident, but to no avail). I was also told that one of my boxes was too small, and would be lost. I argued that they manage to get much smaller letters from point A to point B without losing them, but again, my logic fell on deaf ears.
I took my boxes back home, wrapped the seams in tape, and came back. Again, I was told my packages could not be mailed. After arguing with 3 different employees, I was eventually told that all international post is sorted by a machine, and the MACHINE will rip paper wrapped packages, so if wrapped in paper, they have to be ENTIRELY wrapped in tape. After more arguing, they ultimately took my biggest package, but I had to pay an additional fee for the “inconvenience” of giving them a paper-wrapped package. But, I was AGAIN sent back with my two smaller packages, after being told by one employee that my boxes were too small and would be lost, and told by another that they were too small and the customs form wouldn’t fit on the box. Ultimately, I had to re-wrap both boxes in BIGGER boxes.
I was back at the post yesterday, in the company of a friend, with two more boxes to send. The post’s newest inconvenience is that, after waiting in line to be helped by a person, you are sent to an automatic machine to purchase the stamp for your box, then you wait in line AGAIN to give your box to the employee for mailing…
My friend’s box was wrapped in plastic, but perhaps plastic is more solid than paper, because yesterday, they took her package without any questions or concerns. My boxes were literally COVERED in tape, and made it through okay.
If you ever find yourself in France for a long period of time and need to get anything accomplished, the best advice I can give you is be patient, be persistent, and try not to take anything too personally.