Tuesday, April 24, 2012

France is not for the fainthearted

OK, this is only partially about Provence. It's also about living (or trying to live) in France, when you are that dirty word: foreign.

The first round in the election has clarified several issues. The population is somewhere over 65 million. Millions of French voters abstained. Millions were too young to vote. Everyone's talking about percentages so I've seen no actual figures on voters. But let's say 35 million voted. If that's roughly correct, over 10 million of those voters rejected the two main parties. Seven million of them voted for the Front National. Millions voted for the Front de Gauche. Add those figures to the abstentions and you have a truly huge number of French voters who reject Sarkozy and Hollande too. It's a "peste on both your houses".

Marine Le Pen did particularly well in Provence-PACA, as did Carla's husband. It's quite something to walk down the streets of a pretty market town in Provence and realise that one in five of the people around you voted Front National. Fiercely patriotic, one has to assume that many detest or at least resent foreigners. As it happens, I understand why. I know several young men struggling to earn a living who would like to work hard and earn a reasonable wage and they simply can't get a break. I can see how they reason when they think about their lives in Provence. The failure of leadership at national level - and/or the crisis at international level - means they look around for solutions. And Marine Le Pen seems to offer them. What the hell are all these foreigners doing in Provence, for example? As an immigrant, albeit European, I get that. How come I bought a lovely home here while Pierre, who has a young wife and a baby on the way, can hardly afford to rent? It's not immediately apparent to him that I worked hard for 30 years to have that home. Longer than he's been alive! He would reply, no doubt, that he knows plenty of elderly Provençaux who have not been able to buy comfortable homes. I don't know what the answer is. And nor, I'm pretty sure, do any of the candidates in the presidential election.

But I was going to go on to say something about being foreign in Provence/France and it's this. Daily life, in so far as it concerns local people and nature, can be blissful. But the companies you need to deal with are like huge, grinding machines that, once they get you in their jaws, will make you feel your life is not worth living.

The first rule of Fight Club was "There are no rules". Dealing with EDF, France Telecom and others is pretty much like that. You're viewed as a tiny, miniscule, worthless cog in a gigantic machine and you are never allowed to forget it. I've had, since 2004 when I came to live in Provence, four solid years of hassle over health care ('the system' admits that as a European I have a right to a Carte Vitale - they just won't send me one); two years of hassle over internet and telephone lines (I'll spare you the detail); and getting on for 6 months of hassle over electricity supply. The lastest EDF hoo-ha is that their meter stopped working in May 2010 - it was full of ants apparently - and they "estimated" that I owed them another 2080 euros on top of what I'd already paid.

Last week, they sent me a letter saying that they'd bill me for 2011 in 2013 once they'd seen what I spent on electricity in 2012. (Yes, I know....). This week, they sent me a letter saying that since I'd failed to pay 2080 euros - Whaaaaaaa? - they were sending a man to cut off my electricity. Now, I 'm a tolerant person but I fail to see how that equates to any kind of customer service and I imagine it may even contradict laws on human rights. After all, I live in a forest and when my electricity's cut off, I lose my water too. (I have well-water, not town water.)

The casual threat to cut off my supply was pretty shocking. Complicating matters was the fact that my EDF "space online" - instead of showing their guestimate that I owed them 2080 euros - showed a facture saying they owed me 5 euros. Go figure, as the Americans say.

When I discussed this total chaos with my partner he looked thoughtful and then said he thought my problems - with RAM-GAMEX, with EDf, with France Telecom - probably are essentially related to the fact that my name is identifiably not French. Boylan is pretty clearly Irish and quintessentially non-French. In addition he said it doesn't help that I'm female and divorced. It all adds up to being not exactly displaced, but certainly mal-placed.... He was born in Provence and has lived his whole life here. I asked him: "Have you ever known anyone local, anyone Provençal, to have the same problems over such a long period of time?" And he said: "No".

My neighbour however, married to a Swiss guy, said: "Oh yes. That's normal. My husband waited 4 years too, for his Carte Vitale."

Yet during the French elections, we saw candidates addressing French voters in London. And the French in London are accepted as Europeans with the same rights as the English (and just about anyone else who washes up on England's shores.) The same cannot be said, in my experience, of non-French Europeans in France. We may have rights in Europe and the French, officially, agree that we have. They're just not always delivered. It gives a certain depth to the realisation, as I walk down the street in my adopted hometown, that one in five of the people around me voted against the idea of anyone foreign living in Provence.


Er....you STILL haven't read Present Tense? What? You don't have a Kindle or something? Jeez....get with the freaking programme!

1 comment:

  1. The notorious French bureaucracy is a real eye opener for sure and has taught me to have patience and a better sense of humor!