Professional Practices, Courts, Administration

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".

About general French cheating mentality, read more on this Streetwise-France page.

About dubious French commercial practices, read more on this Streetwise-France page.

Also read my page about travel warnings in France.

When in France, never ever forget that the French practise by the motto: "If I can get away with cheating, it is all right. If I am caught out cheating, I will just lie and refuse to compensate. If you want money out of me, it is your problem to go through all the trouble in the world and you will often fail because I have better connections than you have, you may have to pay up front for a solicitor and/or legal expert, there is a good chance they will be dishonest too, so in many cases, you will just give up". Dishonesty pays in France. Since everybody cheats, there is virtually no stigma associated with cheating. If you complain about cheating, many Frenchmen will perceive you as just being difficult, not understanding that the culture of the land is cheating and grabbing what you can. Of course, you are not supposed to say that openly but only talk about French culture, nature, history, gastronomy, language and literature and how magnificent they are, just as the navel-gazing French.

Don't make the very serious mistake of believing that just because someone has a fine title, like for example Maitre for lawyers, huissiers for bailiffs, mandataires, so-called judicial experts, police officers, and certain others, he or she is honest. One could sometimes be forgiven for thinking that the higher the title, the more serious the dishonest practices of certain elements. I've seen examples of dishonest accountants, doctors, lawyers, notaries, huissiers, insurance agents, judicial experts, judges and many more.

An expat to me this: "the lawyer we contacted to help us with the migration asked us for 1500 Euros and then we never heard from him again.  Literally - the day after he got the money, he stopped responding to all emails!"

In 2012, a huge police corruption scandal broke out in Marseilles. This must-read Telegraph article is an excellent summary of the third world conditions in French police.

On the page about business in France, you can read about how corrupt magistrates in Marseilles appointed a convicted fraudster to empty a local business of money.

A report by the consumer association UFC's magazine Que Choisir listed endless cases of incompetent judicial experts in real estate disputes, these so-called experts delaying their reports, biasing them according to their taste and local preferences and connections, not being interested in observing the claimed problems, producing faulty reports etc. Independently of that report, I had had a similar experience. 

Often, you can think of no good or obvious reason why they start mishandling your file, delaying it, deliberately obstructing your case etc., as I have seen in real life. One sometimes wonders how many hidden connections they have with other important people to nurse, giving these connections priority over client affairs and the law. If you complain to the official bodies like the ordre des avocats for the lawyers or the ordre des expert-comptables for the accountants, they will in most cases protect their dishonest member, no matter how obvious his misconduct is. Regardless of their official mission, reality is that they are there to protect their members' interests; not yours. Basically, the whole thing is profoundly corrupt and there is little you can do about it. Jungle law rules in France. The government and president regularly try to bluff the naive by stating that France is a country of law. The intention is to exploit those who naively believe the official words and play by the rules. If it were true that France is a country of law that worked, it wouldn't be necessary to say it all the time. Some expats in France may end up concluding that to survive in France, you have to become like the French and 'interpret' the rules according to your taste and needs so that you recover the loss on one account by being 'creative' on another account.

The notaries and huissiers exercise as private practices but perform public duties against fees set in stone by government regulations. The consumer association UFC - Que Choisir has shown how some of them don't hesitate to illegally exceed these fees. A 2008 survey by Que Choisir thus showed that 84% of the huissiers quoted illegally high fees for an état des lieux (description of the state of a property at the start or end of a tenancy). The survey also showed that it is useless to complain to the chambre des huissiers which is supposed to take action in such cases but which simply take the side of the dishonest huissiers. In a few cases, the cheated client has gone court to get his money back and won. One of the examples I've seen in real life is that they "forgot" to divide the base for the fee with a factor 2 that should apply in the case before using the fixed percentage to calculate the fee. Note that they can also provide private, unregulated services where they set their own fee. Be sure to understand fees before starting.

Foreign expat service providers: More and more Britons, Americans and other foreigners are earning their living in France by selling services or goods to expats. Expats tend to trust fellow countrymen - or at least someone who speaks their language and comes from certain parts of the world - more than others. In the vast majority of cases, it turns out just fine, but a few less scrupulous foreigners target expats, either for pure fraud or for finding rich expats who can be abusively overcharged for bad services. I have seen how a company of accountants in Brittany, targeting expats, operate like that. 

Graham Briggs (not an accountant) used his charm and good manners to con close to £2 million out of British expats in the Dordogne by promising lucrative investments. A number of pensioners handed over their life savings, never to see them again. Even if Briggs' victims had issued the cheques to financial institutions, Briggs signed the cheques over to himself. Many of the victims' lives were ruined, reduced to poverty until the end of their days. Briggs was convicted to two years' prison in 2009 but has not served the sentence yet because of overcrowded French prisons. According to the Daily Mail, Briggs has not changed his ways but are looking for new avenues of fraud. He has tried to become a double-glazing salesman but failed. He has pretended returning from Colombia, having had a coffee plantation, trying to convince a pub to hire him as financial consultant to grow their business.

Graham Briggs; bad company!
Click on photo for full size.

An insurance agent who bought a car from one of my clients "did not have the time" to reregister the car in his name and kept driving it in the name of my client. After 11 months, he had an accident, left the scene without filling in an accident statement form or giving his address to the other driver, and my client was contacted by the other driver's insurance after witnesses had taken the car's number. From this insurance agent's partner, I understood that he had not declared any accident to the insurance. The insurance company of the other driver tried to write to him but letters were returned and he did not respond. Many, many others in France have been sent fines for traffic offences committed by a new owner. It has become a national problem mentioned several times by the main news program on TF1. It is extremely important that you inform the prefecture immediately when you have sold a car. A new online procedure is being put in place to that effect, including safeguards to protect the seller from such abuse.

A lawyer from a major company deliberately started lying to the client that the court had no time until 10 months later, while in reality he had deliberately delayed the case himself by sending the conclusions to the defence lawyer only the day before the hearing and then told the judges that the case was not urgent and could be postponed, whereas the client had underscored the urgency.

Another lawyer could not be bothered to recover the amount of damages that his client had been awarded over a period of 6 months, inventing one bad excuse after another not to do anything, and he did not show up for the judicial inspection of the property concerned.

If you go to court, your case may not be treated by a real judge. The new juridiction de proximité is criticised by the consumer association Que Choisir for not having professional judges but other legal professionals who have had a short training in acting as if they were judges. Some of the judges in the tribunal de commerce are elected members of the trades and not professional judges. The judges in the employment court conseil de prud'hommes are not real judges but employees and business owners appointed to this task. Hence, lawyers in employment cases frequently point out to their clients that these 'judges' know nothing about the law and need every argument spelled out in simple language. One cannot automatically conclude that these judges are not competent, but given the complexity of today's laws, there is a not unimportant risk that a case might not be decided purely on legal arguments. Another problem for the courts - all of them - is that the government is not providing adequate funding for them to function effectively. The result is that the quality of many judgements is highly questionable and displays a lack of logical reasoning in many cases, even weighing undocumented theatrical babble over documented claims if the babbling part is an authority or other public entity. It is often automatically assumed that they must be right. In other cases, lax or illegal behaviour is tolerated by courts to a great extent, particularly if the lax one is a local. Expect the preferential treatment of locals to be most visible in regions with a strong identity, such as for example Provence. You may have to appeal to the appeals court and further to the highest court, the Cour de Cassation, if you want logic and justice to win. Count 5 to 10 years for that to happen. In other words, as so many have said before me, French justice doesn't work. For this reason, the French often find alternative ways to solve their disputes or settle their scores, taking the law into their own hands.

If you benefit from legal aid because of low income, the lawyer will be paid so little that he is not interested in the file and would rather find the quickest and easiest way out for him, whether or not it is in your interest.

Many doctors refuse patients who benefit from the low-income medical cover called CMU complémentaire, because their fees are capped at the public rates for these patients, and they are not allowed to practice unregulated fees for them. If there is not enough money in the patient, he can heal himself. The doctors must treat these patients as any other patient, but many doctors have put their wallet where their sense of medical duty should have been. Other doctors take advantage of the complicated fee structure to overcharge patients while on a home call, for example for a sick child. Home call fees are also regulated, but again, money is important for many doctors.

A good advice in general is to keep and classify all administrative paperwork without exception, even personal notes and diaries. If you send originals to someone, always keep a copy. You cannot predict which piece of paper you may need three years later. When you get to know the system better, you can start making informed choices about which paperwork you can throw away after 5 or 10 years and which paper should be kept for life. Even if you don't plan on starting any litigation yourself, you can be the subject of claims from others. For example, if you pay for parking in the street and don't keep your ticket, how do you prove that you've paid if the inspector made a mistake and noted your number instead of the offending car's number? If you send a doctor's bill to the social security for refund and they lose it (it happens), you will only get a refund if you can send them a copy.

Insurance companies and mutuelles don't hesitate to increase the insurance premium after you've signed the contract. It can be caused by sloppy administration, particularly if you sign a new contract just before their annual indexation date. In such a case, some companies don't have procedures in place to make you aware of the increased premium before they start debiting your account. This is of course illegal, but it is up to you to verify the amounts debited. To confuse matters further, they don't always make it clear if the "annual" amount mentioned covers 12 months or the remaining part of the calendar year.

Banks don't hesitate to collect illegal fees. One example is stopping one or several direct debits, either temporarily (opposition) or permanently (révocation). It is illegal to collect fees for that if you demand it no later than at the end of the day preceding the day programmed for the direct debit. If you demand it later, the bank is entitled to charge a fee, and you also need the approval of the creditor. Such are the rules under the European Payments Directive as transposed into French law in the Code monétaire et financier. But not all banks respect it. Check their fees for this before opening an account if you don't want a protracted battle about these fees. Another abuse is to charge hefty fees for unauthorised overdrafts. Some banks charge a fee for each transaction debited while in overdraft. But the highest civil French jurisdiction, the Cour de cassation, has ruled that if such fees are charged, they must be taken into account when calculating the global interest rate, the global interest rate for overdrafts being limited by law to the official taux d'usure (arrêt number 06-20-783 dated 5/2/2008). If the total in interest and overdraft fees paid exceed the taux d'usure, you are entitled to a refund of the excess. But better than having to take a court battle, check such fees in advance. If the bank isn't honest with its fees, better use another bank.

If you cancel an insurance, a telephone service, a subscription or whatever, always do it by registered letter with proof of receipt - lettre recommandée avec accusé de réception (AR). It is standard practice, and it is nearly always written in the terms and conditions. If they lose your letter, they won't hesitate to claim they never received it. Some of the larger companies with more mess will even claim that they have not received a registered letter, but at least you can prove your case then.

Crime and Fraud in France

Official crime figures for France by département (county).

US Department of State: travel advice: France
British Foreign & Commonwealth Office: travel and living abroad advice: France
CIA World Factbook: France

Cheque Fraud and Advice: A small number of less scrupulous retailers, mainly of the category that can easily disappear in the thin air - that is market retailers and similar, increase their revenues by modifying cheques they receive. The best you can do is to be sure to use a ballpoint pen of good quality, write all the information on the cheque without unnecessary space between the letters and numbers and draw horizontal lines in all the unused parts of all fields, except date and signature. Never leave the beneficiary field blank, as this field is the only way to prove who has received payment in case of a later dispute. If the retailer proposes to fill it in later, politely decline and ask him to inform you what to write. 

If you send a cheque through the post to be credited to your bank account, ask your bank what to write on the back of the cheque to minimise the risk if the cheque is lost. Also, keep a photocopy of the cheque. For cheques to La Poste, for example, you can write "Payez à l'ordre du chef du centre des chèques postaux de Paris. Créditez compte Numéro 1234567A099" and sign below. Replace "Paris" with the centre that holds your account - and the account number of course. 

The correct way to write the amount in letters is, for example for 199,67 €: "cent quatre vingt dixneuf euros 67 cents". You can replace "euros" with the € currency sign if you wish.

Car Crime: France is no different than other countries: Thieves steal cars. However, modern immobiliser systems have made it impossible for common thieves to steal equipped cars. As a result, they attack the only weak point left: the driver. While the total number of stolen cars is going down, the number of car jackings at red lights and underground car parks is increasing. In cities, it is therefore advisable to always lock all doors and never leave anything like bags, suits, coats, papers or anything else that thieves might want to steal at a visible place in the car. There is also an increasing number of smash and grab incidents where thieves run off with your purse after having smashed a window. Quite obviously, luxury cars attract more attention than old bangers.

Petty Swindle: France is full of people who swindle small amounts out of many people. For example, when I was picking someone up at the Lille Europe railway station, a guy came over to ask for one euro to make a phone call because his car had broken down. I politely declined. When I came to the same station again two weeks later, the same guy came over with the same story. Later, I saw him using a mobile phone. Whatever the excuse, decline all requests for money. It's likely to be bogus. Of course, you can still give a tip to the postman, the firemen and the dustbin collectors at Christmas, but be sure it's really them and not someone else.

At shopping centres and other public places, you may also see a group of people collecting signatures for a "petition" for poor children in Africa or whatever, asking you to fill in your name and address and maybe money. Decline politely and don't get into conversation with them. They may be bogus and keep your money for themselves and they may want to collect addresses for crime. Also see Selling you something so that you don't even notice it.

British author Stephen Clarke has added a few more scams to the list in his Telegraph blog.

Watch your Change: People speaking French with a strong accent or maybe not at all are more likely to get too little change back or to "accidentally" find foreign coins amongst the change. Some waiters may try to keep your change as an acquired tip without asking. Don't accept that. Restaurants are obliged to include a service charge in their published prices, and no tips beyond that are mandatory.

Some cashiers at large, 'anonymous' stores like supermarkets and their fuel outlets keep some of the change for themselves, typically the cents, if you pay in cash, so as to increase their wages with a few euros each day. Most people don't count their change or notice that a few cents are missing. I have personally seen this happen in even well-reputed stores as Auchan and E. Leclerc. It's not going to ruin your finances, but if you disapprove of the principle of such practices, it's perfectly legitimate to ask for the rest of the change, even if you may get a sulky response. I have never seen a cashier insist that correct change had been given in such a case, because they know very well that it's not the case, and in the vast majority of cases, it's deliberate. The sulky response is simply a reaction to having been found out. If you pay by credit or charge card, this is not an issue. It is important to distinguish this from small, local retailers that you see frequently. They would only rarely behave like that, because they know that customer relations are much more important than a few cents. Should they make a mistake with the change, it is just as likely that it's in your favour as not, and you should not assume that it's deliberate. If you notice a mistake in such a case, simply tell them politely, whether it's in your favour or not.

To sum up: Don't get paranoid, but don't be naive either. Be streetwise like the locals. 

comments powered by Disqus