Thursday, July 15, 2010


I may be able to engage these ladies in conversation soon. Or, given my luck, maybe not. Over the past week, I've finally hacked through the underbrush of the entire French telecommunications industry and, if all goes well, in a couple of weeks I should have my telephone and internet service back.

The whole thing has revolved around a number of misunderstandings on my part, based on the fact that in France, nobody is obligated to inform consumers of anything whatsoever. You don't get a clear idea of what you're signing up for, and you don't get to see your options.

In mid-April, my telephone land-line stopped working. This was odd: I'd paid my bill. But it turns out that I'd only paid one of my bills, and the mysterious hole in my bank account (which is now closed because of this affair) was due to the fact that I didn't know that I was obligated to pay France Telecom Orange, despite the fact that my telephone service provider was an outfit called Free.

It didn't matter that I'd paid Free; I was three or four months behind with Orange, and so, without a warning note (obligatory in the U.S., Britain, and Germany, at least) they terminated my service.

But why did I have this service in the first place? Because Free didn't tell me about my options when I signed with them. And since they won't do it, I'll do it for you, as a service to anyone thinking of getting telephone and internet (and cable television, which I have no interest in, but comes in the package) service in France.

Once, France Telecom was a monopoly, just like all of Europe's other national telephone companies. Then, like all the others, they were obligated to allow competition, and, like many of the others, they changed their name so that the many, many customers who hated them might be tricked into continuing to use them. In Italy, the national firm became Alice, in Britain BT, and in France Orange. (The rumor that Deutsche Telekom was toying with calling itself Satan proved false, and it remains Satan...err, I mean, Deutsche Telekom).

Now, because these monopolies had laid the telephone lines in their respective countries, they were allowed to control the lines from the street to your house, and they were also allowed to keep the right to provide certain services. In France, these were the grandfathered services: analog telephone lines, or low-frequency lines. If you have an old dial phone, an old fax machine, you'll want to make sure you keep these lines available to you, and you'll have to pay Orange. If you're signing on with the competition for most of your telephone usage, you'll have an agreement that's called dégroupage partiel. If you're using all-digital equipment, like 99% of the people in France, you sign up for dégroupage total and owe Orange nothing.

Did Free tell me this when I signed up? No. Did they tell me this three months later when they came to my house because my equipment was acting weird and they discovered that Orange had never given up my phone line's upper frequencies? No. In fact, I found this out from a mole within Orange, the son of a Facebook friend of mine, a guy I actually don't know from Adam, but friended because he lives in France and is a Holy Modal Rounders fan. My guess is we Rounders fans number into the high single figures in this country, and we should stick together.

Plowing through the pile of papers relating to my problem, I discovered that the Free tech had left me with a dégroupage partiel in March, 2009, and I'd had €19 a month sucked out of my bank account every month since then. And that explained the almost daily cell-phone spam I was getting from Orange in my e-mail box: they do a brutal sales campaign for those things.

Tuesday, I called Orange's English-language help line. For your reference, this is 09 69 363 900; many English-language help guides in France have it wrong. I was astonished that a young woman picked up after only five minutes on hold (Orange's eight-bar hold music is stupefying, incidentally) and confirmed that I'd been disconnected without notice for nonpayment. Unfortunately, I'd reached the wrong department -- hers was billing problems, and I'd resolved them -- and I had to talk to the technical department.

And they were currently eating lunch.

So, marshalling the cultural sensitivity necessary to reach my goal, I called back at 2:15 and was almost immediately on the line with a young man, who took my info and said the line was now on. Now? Yes, now. I should plug my phone in and call Free and tell them to turn me on.

This, however, was a problem. I can't do phone calls in languages other than English. Not even French. I freeze up, the right words won't come, and I don't understand the person I'm talking to. Not to mention that I wasn't sure how to plug the phone in with the tangle of cables around my "freebox." But a friend had offered to help, and, missing Wednesday, which was Bastille Day, we called them today. (Free has no English-language help of any kind, live on the phone or via Internet; although they do pretend they have the latter, the link hasn't worked in the 18 months I've had service with them and they once chastized me for writing to them in English).

It was an interesting experience. The first guy put her on hold and, we eventually decided, had actually hung up. The second guy wanted to know if I'd gotten a letter or a document from Orange stating that the service outage had been their fault. Of course, I hadn't known I'd needed such a document because, as usual, nobody had told me. I had a choice: either obtain this document -- and no, he didn't know how to do that -- or pay them €50 and in two weeks they'd turn me back on. What about the four months I'd paid for and received no service? He couldn't care less.

At this point, I was ready to switch to another provider, but my friend told me it'd take just as long for them to turn me on, so it was easier to stick with what I had in motion. We pleaded with the guy, and he disappeared for a while (but left some lousy French dub on the line so we knew we hadn't been disconnected) and finally he came back and told me that they'd waive the €50 start-up fee, but it'd still be 15 days...or maybe less.

The cost of this lesson, not counting a nice bottle of wine for my helper when she returns from vacation, has been 18 months at €19.95 plus the four months of no service at €36.95 (Free only costs €29.95 per month, but charges a €7 fine for paying via the internet), a whopping €506.90 that I could sure use right now. I figure the €359.10 that went to Orange is a greenhorn stupidity tax, and now that I think of it, I don't know if we arranged for dégroupage total this afternoon or not. Ah, well, one fun at a time. But Free never once addressed the issue of what I'd paid for in April, May, June, and July.

The real bad news is, though, that the wi-fi I've been using I've borrowed from my upstairs neighbor, and she's moving on Monday. Given the record my landlord has, I have The Fear about who might replace her, but the more pressing concern is how I'm going to conduct business -- now that I have a little bit coming in -- without internet access. Especially considering that I've paid for it and have all the equipment on hand. I also need to talk to my agent in New York, which won't be possible til the land-line goes back on.

It's only a couple of weeks, and after that things should smooth out. But I'm not at all happy about how this has panned out. Orange has behaved like a former national monopoly, to no one's surprise. But Free has acted the same. So if you're getting phone service in your new place in France, be informed and be careful. Mistakes, as I've discovered, are expensive in terms of your pocket and your time.


  1. I don't understand? I love Orange's eight-bar hold music! I can (and have) sat for hours listening to it!

    All the best


  2. My sypmpathies, we are in dispute with EDF, who have been withdrawing large sums of money from our bank account for electricity that we have not used, in fact they have been billing us for another appartment, which we only discovered after going over our bill with a fine tooth comb, this has been going on for 4 years from the moment of registration.

    Can you imagine their reaction, firstly because I'm English and calling from England, that I am mistaken ( oh! and don't forget that I am a women!!) and that they do not make mistakes, so I duly stopped all payments, which brought a very speedy response, they went to read the in house meter with a friend of ours as witness and acknowledged that the readings they had did not tally, and that I would receive a phone call, (zilch).

    After several long distance calls from England, and another demanding letter we seem to be no nearer a solution, my only consolation is that whoever has been paying our bill will hopefully get their electricity cut off and then as she lives there permanantly and is French something might just happen.

    What are the bets on how long this will take to sort out.

  3. The Egg has free internet access.

  4. Weirdly, someone made two comment about how hard it was to post comments here, I approved both of them, and now they haven't shown up.

    If s/he comes back, however, it's not a "nanny state" that makes me moderate comments, it's blog-spam. And morons. But mostly blog spam.

    Thanks, Bart, but they're not open in the morning, so I'm using the laundromat at the moment. Need to do the laundry anyway...

  5. They aren't open, Ed, but they leave their WiFi on so you can just sit in the Bar St. Roch terrace and use it.

    Better than asking the Vert Anglais for their WiFi - unless you are prepared to apologize to them.

    And, yeah, I've never seen a blog before that is so fucking difficult and time consuming to comment on.

    How much blog spam could you possibly get? I leave all my blogs posts open and get, maybe, five spam posts a month (unless I've been bored and intentionally made a post designed to piss people off.)

  6. Wait, I should apologize to a bar for throwing me out for doing something they've let me do for a year? I don't think so, but then, my blog-post about that is covered under "morons," since I got spammed with stupid posts after I wrote it.

    No biggie: I'm back up as of this afternoon, and intend to remain so.

    I have no idea why there are such problems with posters from Live Journal, though.

  7. Why does everything have to be SO fucking difficult in France? I have a tiny (23 m2) flat in Paris, and the nightmares I've had dealing with pretty much every aspect of the renovation and utilities have been absurd. Probably worst of all is my bank - when I was interviewed prior to opening my account, the woman assured me that this was a branch that was "tres haut de gamme". Six months later, I had a tax problem, which turned into a lien, and the original woman was gone, and I was referred to another woman, the new person responsible for foreign clientele. She never answered after her initial email, and a long letter I sent to the branch to follow up was returned unopened.

    Really, for the average consumer, French customer service is almost a parody of a stereotype.

  8. Ed, In a country like France it is really important to read everything. I scanned the Free T&C (Conditions Générales de Vente), which are accessible from their homepage (lower right corner), and the unbundling issued seemed adequately covered there.

    Jonathan, did you use the services of an architect or at least of a construction manager? In pretty much any western country it's impossible to navigate the thicket of building regulations without professional help. These are not do-it-yourself kind of places.


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