Bureaucracy & Prefectures, merci France Services
Originally posted on & updated on 11th January, 2024
We’ve recently posted about overdue improvements made by the French government services and online systems, which prompted us to think about those who are not online or live in rural areas of France. Most people will know what a ‘Mairie’ is, but what is a ‘Préfecture’? And why everyone, including the French, dread a visit to their local Préfecture building? This month Beth shares her experiences about French bureaucracy when living in the countryside, everyday is a new adventure!
“Tackling the French administrative system can be baffling. With various layers of bureaucracy, France takes its governmental systems very seriously. Half the battle is finding the correct point of contact for your questions.
Start at your local Mairie or Townhall
The first administrative level is the Mairie, also known as ‘Hôtel de Ville’ (the town hall, a bigger version of the same institution, usually in towns). They are represented in each commune, numbering around 36,000 throughout the country.
Mairies are often the village community hubs and go-to places on local issues; registering births, deaths and marriages, health care information, local schooling, social events, and local property. And they’re a great starting point if you’re unsure where to take your query. The Mairie is usually one of the grandest buildings in the village. It’ll be the one flying the ‘tricolore’ (the French flag).
What is le Trésor Public in France?
Le Trésor Public (Public Treasury) covers all aspects of financial life within the State. It is divided between the General Directorate of the Treasury (DGT) and the General Directorate of Public Finances (DGFiP).
Le Trésor Public has three main functions. First, the office is responsible for tax collection and setting the State’s expenses, e.g. Civil servant pay rates. It is responsible for establishing the accounts of public law entities (State and local authorities). It oversees State financing through activities on the financial markets, auctioning bonds and managing the country’s national debt. This organisation helps with financial matters including your avis d’imposition (tax statement).
What are Préfectures for in France?
Préfectures carry out the work of the Government Ministry of the Interior. There are 101 in France, and they have operated since the 1789 revolution. Subordinate to them are sous-préfectures, which only function in arrondissements (a level of administrative division within a department – a bit like a British district) where there is no préfecture. To give you an idea of numbers, 234 sous-préfectures operate in the capitals of 333 arrondissements. The sous-préfet manages the administration of an arrondissement, assisting the préfet.
The Préfecture controls the police and fire services and is the place to go for domestic matters, including driving, building regulations, passports, and residency permits. Sounds simple?
We settled in France before websites became standard methods for contacting Préfecture government departments. The alternative of using the telephone often ended in dismal failure. This was usually due to our poor language skills or unsuccessful phone attempts. We’d end up driving to our Préfecture, take a ticket from the dispenser and join a seemingly endless queue waiting for our number to appear on a screen. Today, the challenges can be different.
I’m unsure whether it’s because of Covid, staff reduction or strikes, but turning up to the Préfecture without an appointment could result in a wasted journey. The reception might be closed, or the building may be full of people with pre-booked appointments. Instead, more and more business is done via the internet. The concept is enlightened, though, as we learned, it can be challenging.
Discovering France Services
Thinking it might be only us struggling, I chatted with a couple of French friends to find out whether their experiences are any different. It seems not. We all suffer from frustrating website visits with ‘click on’ pages regularly leading to ‘Page non trouvée, erreur 404’ faults and timing out whilst waiting for online advice. Because of these not infrequent problems, we were delighted to discover that there is an alternative way of seeking help.
France Services is a government-run organisation that sends experts to localities. There are more than 2,379 France Services groups in the country. Advisors travel to villages on a rotation basis: ‘Less than 30 minutes from your home’. In our area, two advisors visit our Mairie once per month, this is incredibly convenient.
Local counsellors offer advice on several subjects, including taxes, retirement, family allowances, driving documentation, etc. If they can’t sort the problem out, they’ll find someone who can. They possess a set of magic numbers, giving them direct contact with Préfecture departments. Better still, they seem to know everyone in ‘the know’ and often solve our difficulties.
For Expats in Rural Areas with no Internet
Overall, the service is excellent and particularly for folks with poor internet access or no PC. And if speaking French is a problem, they’ll try to speak English or find someone who can. We have sought their help on several occasions with great success and even if we still need to go to the Préfecture afterwards, we’ll be better briefed, and they can often make an appointment on our behalf.
It’s true there are some matters, such as getting residency documents registered, that demand your presence at the Préfecture. Your department Préfecture may be highly sophisticated; however, getting an appointment could still require patience if you book online. And you might still need to take a ticket from the dispenser when you arrive at reception…
Our First Port of Call for Admin Assistance
Happily, gone are the days when folks turn up at the offices with a packed lunch and hope for the best. So, if you have an admin issue that needs attention, try your Mairie and don’t rule out France Services. Our wonderfully helpful France Services agents have been a revelation and, nowadays, have become our first port of call. Bon courage!”
As the French saying goes, “un homme averti en vaut deux”. If you are planning to move to France permanently, you should read our propery buying guide, our many blog articles for example about Ameli, the new system to keep on top of your reimbursements for your medical contributions. Or you could take a more relaxed approach and read what is like to live in France, straight from Beth’s delightful books and estate, with all her friends.