Commercial Practices in France
Read more about dubious professional practices on this Streetwise-France page.
About the often murky French business world, you may also want to refer to the article "Other lawyers here have informed me about how sleazy the south east of France is".
Also read my page about travel warnings in France.
Please refer to the article "The French Telephone Numbering Plan - French Premium Rate Numbers" on this site.
Internet service providers and other businesses selling to consumers are obliged to provide a non-premium rate number for calls concerning the fulfilment of contractual obligations or complaining. They sometimes hide it and publish an overcharged number, so may have to go searching yourself on their web sites.
To circumvent premium rate numbers, you can often find a company's geographical phone number by looking the company up on a business information site.
Naïve as many of us are, we have the romantic idea that if we buy cakes or pastries at a bakery, then these products have been baked by the baker and his staff on site the same day. What else would you expect in a country with a reputation as the country of gastronomy?
In order to be allowed to use the name boulanger (baker), then the bread must be produced on site, but the regulations say nothing about cakes and other products.
According to an article on page 16 in the consumer magazine Que Choisir number 503, May 2012, up to half the pastries (pain au chocolat, croissant ...) are industrial products that the bakery has just heated from frozen condition, and something similar is the case for cakes, where the baker's role is reduced to assembling them from pre-cooked parts, although the percentage of industrial products is not indicated. What is known is that the market for industrial cakes and pastries in France is so large that there is an annual fair for these products in the beginning of March at the Salon professionnel Euro Pains at Villepinte in the northern suburbs of Paris. At least it doesn't seem that the products are manufactured in China as many souvenirs are.
The quality of these industrial products obviously varies. If frozen ingredients are used, the shop is obliged to display a penguin or an igloo in the front, but that is rarely respected. Hence, there is no easy way to find out if a bakery a selling industrial or homemade products.
There is no guarantee how fresh the cakes are either. Regulations allow cakes to be sold up to three days after they have been produced if they are stored at refrigerator temperature. This has been validated by authorities from a hygienic point of view, but it says nothing about the quality. Practice varies from bakery to bakery.
The only way to find out where to buy cakes and pastries is trial and error. If you don't like the products, they are probably industrial. Vote with your purse.
Similar conditions is the case for restaurants. Read more about that on my page about travel warnings and tourist scams in France for tourists.
Cold Calling can be very aggressive in France. In the vast majority of cases, my best advice is to hang up very quickly. You can do that politely, of course : Cela ne m'intéresse pas ; je vais alors terminer la conversation. Bonne journée. Au revoir Monsieur (or Madame). (I am not interested; I am thus going the end the conversation. Have a nice day. Good bye).
As an expat, you have the convenient solution of speaking English to them even if you may speak French. That will throw them off course.
In most cases, you can't verify if the caller is who he or she pretends to be. It happens that agents for Internet/phone services call and pretend to be France Telecom to make you sign up for for they want and give them your bank account number. The fraud authority is aware of these companies and bring them to justice when they can. You can ask them to send you their offer by post, but never give them bank or credit card information. The best is not to give them any information at all, even your address. These companies may insist that they can only send you the offer if they get a bank account number. All you have to do is hang up - if they don't hang up themselves when they realise they are not getting anywhere with you. This is based on real experience.
Always be vigilant about Internet companies, as many people get their lines subscribed to the new provider and the old provider disconnected without ever having signed anything (known as "slamming"). You can get it sorted out but it causes you a lot of trouble. This is why it is not a good idea to confirm even your address on the phone.
If you are self-employed and appear in the yellow pages, you will get a lot of junk calls. Companies regularly call and ask if I am aware of the latest campaign to inform about the latest tax regulations. They want to make appointments with you so they can make you sign up for something. They make you think it is some sort of official or government sponsored information campaign, whereas it's pure marketing. Just hang them up - politely if you prefer.
Many shops advertise to refund the price difference if you've bought something and then found it cheaper elsewhere, but they ask you to bring a quote from the shop with the lower price in order to refund you. If the other shop refuses, then they may not refund you. I don't see what should motivate a shop to write such a quote. That means that the guarantee can be a bit of a gimmick. Another trick they may use to avoid paying up is to claim that their model of super-xyz is a later version than the super-xyz sold at Farty, that they are therefore not comparable, and that they therefore don't have to refund you, unless you can demonstrate that they are the same versions. In other words, the shop where you didn't buy it has to write up a small novel.
I bought a new Toyota in Belgium. Firstly, because Belgian list prices were lower than in France, secondly because the Belgian dealer outright offered 10% on the list prices, thirdly because the model I wanted was not in the French catalogue and could not be ordered. It came with 3 years' manufacturer's warranty and a further 2 years' warranty provided by Toyota Belgium/Luxembourg, the latter valid only for repairs done in Belgium or Luxembourg. The manufacturer's warranty is by law valid throughout the EU. After 2 years and 9 months, the car developed gearbox problems that I reported to the Toyota dealer in Avignon. They concluded the car needed warranty repair. I got worksheets for each time they saw the car. Throughout the last month of the warranty, I asked them when the warranty repair could be done, and all I was told was not to worry. After the end of the 3 years, I was told there was no more manufacturer's warranty and Toyota France confirmed that in writing. Someone at Toyota Avignon and someone else at Toyota France quite obviously both wanted to teach me a lesson about buying cars outside France. After complaining to Toyota in Japan, they just referred to Toyota France, and Toyota France didn't want to know a thing about warranty. I could sue Toyota France and/or Toyota Avignon but I have little energy for it. Toyota Avignon did try to repair the gearbox after a few months, claiming to have paid the parts out of their own pocket as Toyota France refused, but the repair only lasted a couple of months before the problem returned and became worse. I could get it repaired under the 5-year warranty in Luxembourg or Belgium but it would be quite costly to drive the car there, for me to travel back to Avignon, travel back to collect the car and drive it back. I have been phoning down Toyota Avignon, Toyota France, Toyota assistance, Toyota Belgium but nobody wants to help getting the repair done. Finally, the Toyota dealer in Belgium who sold me the car told me to send a formal notice by registered letter to Toyota France, ordering them to get the car fixed, with copy to Toyota Motor Europe in Brussels and copy to the Belgian dealer. He also told me that Toyota France's rejection letter is a standard letter they send out to customers who have bought their cars abroad, and that his Belgian dealership near the French border is inundated with warranty repair for cars he has sold for registration in France because the French Toyota dealers and Toyota French illegally refuse to honour the warranties. "They don't want to work", he said. The lesson is to make sure that your French dealer reports warranty incidents in time and document it to you, particularly if the car was not bought in France. I will not claim that such problems are limited to Toyota. It seems to me to be French "customer service" mentality and that would be independent on the make of the car.
In a later warranty incident, it was white goods and electronics retailer Darty that refused to apply the two-year warranty. Darty proudly boast with a "contract of confidence" in a massive PR campaign that has lasted for decades. A complaint to the CEO sorted out the problems in this case, though.
If you buy from third-party retailers on Amazon Marketplace, beware that Amazon take no responsibility for warranty, except that they offer a 3-months "A-Z warranty" that is limited to a handful of claims for life. Read more about Amazon Marketplace here.
French companies love their customers so much that they hate to see them leaving. In fact, they hate it so much that you may find that you can only give notice once a year and/or that the notice period is 2-3 months. While you can usually change a service to more expensive options during the year, changing to a cheaper option could be as difficult as giving notice. Some insurance companies use the tactics of notifying you about the increased premiums for next year when it's too late to give notice. This is at the limit of legality and can only be done for certain types of insurance. A recent law obliges companies to remind you in writing about the annual deadline for cancellation, and if they don't do it, you can cancel at any time.
When you cancel a contract and respect the terms of the contract, then you may already have prepaid too much, so that the final invoice shows a balance in your favour. Some companies hope that you just forget about it. If you remind them, they confirm they are going to refund and then they still don't do it, hoping you'll forget about it now. Some companies are worse than others. Always be vigilant with telecommunication companies.
When you cancel a contract and respect the terms of the contract, then the provider must obviously stop debiting your account, but mobile phone or Internet companies often continue. It is a problem across the board. I've seen it so often that I must conclude that it's not just by accident. In some cases, they even harass the client with debt collection agencies regardless of the fact that the client can prove with recorded letter receipts that the contract is duly cancelled. Even companies considered well-reputed do this, Richard Branson's Virgin Mobile France included, although they may be a franchise and not owned by Branson. Some companies play tricks and stop sending invoices, then suddenly send an invoice with two days' notice before the direct debit date, so you have very short notice to cancel it (Virgin Mobile). Be vigilant and stop direct debit immediately when you cancel a contract. If necessary, pay any balance by cheque. It's so much easier than fighting for months to get money back.
Watch out that deposits are refunded when you cancel a contract that involved an initial deposit. Once I moved, the water company "forgot" to account for the initial deposit on the final invoice and only sent an additional credit invoice when I requested it. Keep a simple file on your computer and make a note whenever you pay a deposit.
It happens, even in France, that a company tell you that they will credit one or two months' service to compensate for poor service or lack of service. Sometimes this credit is a contractual obligation, sometimes it is voluntary. The trouble is that some of them seem to just say this to get rid of you, but without enacting the credit. The result is that if you don't write down a note to follow up, you may forget about it. I'm quite sure some French companies are playing games with customers forgetting to follow up. If you do follow up, of course, you will have to complain a second time after a couple of months when you note that no credit has been applied. I have experienced this with Orange/France Telecom and CanalSat, the main satellite TV provider. Of course, it is impossible to prove that they are doing it on purpose, so either it is simple negligence or it is done on purpose. After 14 years in France, I mostly believe the latter.
There are many lovely open-air markets in Provence, where you will find herbs, lavender, local olive oil at reasonable prices, and many other local products with an inbuilt atmosphere of Provence. Unfortunately, while you may think you are living out your dream of Provence, reality is sometimes slightly different. The French consumer magazine Que Choisir, issue 427, June 2005, revealed that 11 out of 14 olive oils sold on such markets were from Spain. In a single case, an analysis revealed that the declaration on the bottle was false. Of course, there is nothing wrong with Spanish olive oil, but it is not from Provence, and you may not get the quality you thought. Genuine products from Provence simply do not come cheap, one of the reasons being the high cost of labour in France. Read the labels and don't forget that you rarely get more than what you pay for.
When cancelling a contract, watch out that periodical subscription fees and similar are properly adjusted on a pro-rata basis. For example, the above mentioned water company charged a flat fee for having access to water twice a year, each covering six months. I lived in the house 2 years and 1.5 months. When I checked the final invoice, they had charged me for 2 years and 6 months. As they explained, they simply charged the fee to whoever lived at the address on the date the fee was due. If that is true, then you could equally benefit from this odd - or should I say French - way of calculating fees.
French supermarkets are bursting with free goods. Amazing how they can make money out of selling free goods, isn't it? Buy something and get something in addition for free has become a new type of marketing. Of course, you can't just take the free part and walk away with that. But it's still a promotion that makes you save money. Or is it? Keep your calculator at hand if you want to be sure to save money. It sometimes happens that the unit price per litre or weight is higher for the something-for-free product than the same product without any "free" part. That's of course illegal, but it's for you to be aware and ask staff to correct the price. Another problem with these promotions is if for example a pack of 6 x 1.5 litre water bottles bears the mark "1 litre free" and the shop sells them by the bottle instead of using a price for the pack. In such a case, a supermarket had priced the bottles 0.50 € each, and at the checkout they counted 6 bottles at €0.50. Their excuse that it had been calculated into the price doesn't hold unless it's sold by the pack. They must deduct the cost of 1 litre. Certain shoppers don't bother about these details. Others on a tighter budget and with time on hand may want to watch the cents.
"Bogus promotions" is perhaps not the right term, as these promotions are very real. The trouble with promotional catalogues is that they intend to make you think you save money on all the articles they present. However, while there are real and substantial savings to be made by buying promotional articles, don't skip the price comparison. Sometimes, a promotional article is still more expensive than its standard price in the supermarket next door. I found a very concrete example in Dia's promotional catalogue 27/2-12/3 2013 where Dr Oetker's Ristorante tuna pizza was on promotion at a price of €3.24; 50% reduction on the second. That is an average price of €2.43 per pizza. The trouble is that the standard price at the Leclerc almost next door is €2.07 per Dr Oetker's Ristorante tuna pizza. On top of paying more for the same article in a discount style supermarket, you get a worse customer service. I once had to wait 20 minutes just to pay because only one of the four staff that could be seen was at a checkout, and he couldn't figure out how to deal with some rebate coupons a customer had. The others couldn't be bothered to help the customers stuck in the queue by opening another checkout. One French customer became so angry that he left his articles on the spot and left the store.
Or prix choc in French. Seen on a bundle with 3 packs of chocolate biscuits in Auchan Avignon, stacked up for volume sales. However, the shock was not that the price for the bundled pack was very low but that it was more expensive to buy one bundle with 3 packs than 3 individual packs of the same product of the same weight. Similar example from the same supermarket where it was cheaper to peel off the plastic holding 6 bottles of Perrier together and buy them individually than to buy the bundled pack. Illegal? No. They didn't say the bundled price was lower, just that the price was a shock. In such cases, they sometimes place the big stack of overpriced, bundled products far from the individual products on the shelf so it is more difficult to compare the price. The French consumer association UFC - Que Choisir has investigated this subject and found it to be common in all supermarkets (article Grandes surfaces - Promos bidons par lots entiers dated 24 June 2008). The only solution is to be vigilant.
In same Auchan Avignon, a detergent was stacked up and large signs mentioned a low price. Next to it, there was a just as large stack of the same detergent bundled with a softener. But the large sign only mentioned one price, and it was not obvious to figure out if it applied to both products or just the single detergent. I finally asked, and I was shown a small price label near the bottom of the crate holding the bundled products, very discreetly placed. If you are in a hurry, you probably just read the big sign with the wrong price, believing it applies to the bundled product, and you don't notice when it's another price coming out when you pay. These price differences do matter if your budget is limited.
Another example from Auchan Avignon is a sign showing 2 bottles of soft drink at a promotional price according to their catalogue. But when you pay, it's the full price. Explanation: There were some bundled packs with the low price, but they have already been sold. Left are the single bottles of which you can take two, but the sign doesn't say that the promotion is only for the bundled products.
A third example from the same supermarket: A large pile of pasta and a large promotion sign for pasta. Just not the pasta that the promotion applies to but some other, obviously more expensive brand.
Some shops use the tactic of putting one type of article on promotion, putting up a large sign with a low price, and then - very close to the first products - placing products so similar - same brand, same packaging, same description, all matching the description on the promotion sign - that the customers don't notice the difference, except if they check the price on the back of the packaging. It is not a mistake, because if you ask, they refuse to sell at the lower price shown. The shopkeepers know very well that customers will quickly mix the two types of products, and some will eventually end up buying what they thought were discounted products at a higher price. This has been seen in Galerie Lafayette in the 2008 January sales in the menswear department - and reported to the Direction Générale da la Concurrence, Consommation et Répression des Fraudes (DGCCRF), the authority that monitors that sort of price games.
The price shown on an item is
not what they put on your bill. It is most common for quickly changing items
like fruit and vegetables and promotions. "reduction" -
"buy one - get one free" - "sales" - etc. all mean you should
verify your bill. In particular, some supermarkets leave promotion price tags
on the shelves several days after the promotions have expired but
charge you the full price - that may not even be displayed on the shelf. Many supermarkets have bar code readers where you can check
the price of an item before paying. If it doesn't match the price displayed, and
the bar code on the item is the same as the bar code under the price displayed,
go to the accueil to ask them to have the correct price applied. They are
legally obliged to sell the item for the price displayed, but you may have to
insist and ask to speak to a manager before they give in. If you take the
trouble to verify this, you will find out that it is not uncommon. A
survey by the French consumer authority DGCCRF in 2011 gave the following
Supermarkets regularly distribute catalogues with promotions to lure you into the shop. The promotions are valid during a particular period written in the catalogue. But when you get there, the discounted products you wanted are already sold. Shops have been fined for this, and according to the law, it must be possible to order the product if sold out during the period shown in the catalogue.
Cheating with promotional prices by packing several items together
A Dia supermarket had 2-litre Coca-Cola bottles on promotion. The price on the shelf was correct, indicated per bottle. The bottles were packed together in units of four bottles each, as they often are. When I checked my sales ticket, I noticed that a higher price had been charged for the Coca-Cola, so I returned and asked why the price was wrong. The explanation was that I should have removed the plastic packaging that kept the four bottles together so they were scanned one by one. The scanned price of the unit of four bottles was higher than four times the promotional bottle price. They refunded but not without hinting that I should have removed the packaging, as it was clear that the price was per bottle.
Such scams are what you have to deal with in France. Some supermarkets are worse than others.
Small packaging cheaper per kg than large