Jeremy Clarke

The tyranny of French bureaucracy

Applying for a bank account is like trying for a permit to open a Christian bookshop in North Korea

The tyranny of French bureaucracy
Having failed twice to open a French bank account, I thought I’d try instead for a post-office account. Credit: mauinow1
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Applying for a French bank account is like trying for a permit to open a Christian bookshop in North Korea. Failing twice, I thought I’d try instead for a post office account. I went for an interview armed with passport, proofs of address, pay slips, old school reports and my inside-leg measurement. But it wasn’t enough.

I was shown into a booth and sat facing a masked woman name of Maud. Maud and I were separated by a clear Perspex divide. ‘I’m listening,’ said Maud. I slid my shiny new passport through a slot in the screen. ‘I would like to open a post office current account,’ I said.

Maud glanced at the passport’s identification page. ‘What else have you got?’ she said. I pushed through my ‘Attestation d’hérbergement’ form, signed and dated by Catriona, affirming that I resided at the address given. Maud skimmed it with a professional eye while her hand turned an imaginary crank. I shovelled in the rest of my paperwork: pay slips, bank statements, an electricity bill, a medical bill addressed to me. ‘What is your occupation?’ said Maud as she studied these. I described myself as an auto-entrepreneur magazine columnist.

Maud then sat back and released a fast-flowing torrent of momentous, heavily accented French, none of which I understood. ‘Could you say that again, only a bit more slowly?’ I said. If mutual comprehension was the first man down in this encounter; the second man, goodwill, now pitched forward face first into the mud. In a hardboiled manner Maud repeated the speech, then sat back in her chair and folded her arms in a gesture of ineluctable finality. Yes, the primrose path to a post office account was, I gathered, barred.

‘I take it that’s a no,’ I said. ‘But why?’ Rather than huff and puff through her verdict a third time, she stood up and exited the booth. She came back five minutes later with a flyweight young woman with a nose stud whom I immediately recognised as our post-office queue monitor. Her name was Cadence. Evidently Cadence spoke English and was happy to swap queue monitoring for translation work. Maud returned to her driving seat and said it all over again.

I couldn’t open a current account for two reasons, apparently. One was that the electricity bill I’d shown was more than three months old. The other was that as a self-employed individual I might, if I was lucky, be entitled, as an auto-entrepreneur, to a ‘professional’ account. But not a current account, which comes with a handy cheque book. ‘But I don’t want or need a professional account,’ I said. ‘I want a current account.’ ‘What do want a current account for anyway?’ said Maud. ‘Well. You know,’ I said. ‘Dog food. Fuel. Motorway tolls. Toothpicks. You know. Day-to-day stuff.’ ‘Well, you can’t,’ said Maud, ‘because this electricity bill is out of date.’

I stood up. In this duel I needed a second. Catriona was reading in the waiting room. She agreed to help, edged into the booth and started searching her phone for a record of a more recent electricity bill. ‘Who is this?’ said Maud. ‘This is Catriona, whose signature is at the bottom of the proof of logement form,’ I said. ‘We live together.’ Maud looked at Catriona, then at me and said: ‘And have you a wife living in France?’ Catriona looked up in surprise at this, then raised a schoolgirl’s tentative hand volunteering for the post if there were no other takers. Everybody laughed except Maud. ‘No. I have no wife in France,’ I said.

Then Catriona said that she could find no electricity bill later than the one I had given Maud because the electricity company sends but one a year. And getting a little tired of this already (I thought I could hear a faint skirl of bagpipes), Catriona said: ‘I really don’t understand why Mr Clarke can’t have an ordinary account.’ ‘And what is your relationship with Mr Clarke?’ said Maud. ‘We’re… he’s my copain, my boyfriend,’ she said. ‘You are not his landlady then?’ said Maud. ‘No,’ we said. Maud sighed. ‘Okay. You are sleeping together, yes?’

Now that the intimate nature of our relationship was clear in her mind, Maud softened. Now she wanted to help. She rose again from her seat and went out to have a word with a superior. While Maud was gone, Cadence said, ‘Desolé. French bureaucracy is not up to scratches.’

My fondest hope was that the superior would relent and allow Maud’s furious nomad a post-office current account if only for a laugh. No such luck. After arguing and pleading for 45 minutes we surrendered, thanked them both for their time, and touched elbows all round. Cadence was as disappointed as we were, but said she had enjoyed herself ‘a lot’.