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HERE'S A a cautionary tale, one for expats and anyone thinking of moving to France.

Having been an expat here in France for many years, Matthew Guthrie-Booth (a name tailor-made for sending those French people unable to get their teeth and

HERE'S A a cautionary tale, one for expats and anyone thinking of moving to France.

Having been an expat here in France for many years, Matthew Guthrie-Booth (a name tailor-made for sending those French people unable to get their teeth and lips round the English 'th' sound into complete panic) has got his telephone system well worked out.
 
For his internet and e-mail connections he has a contract with Wanadoo, the major French ISP.

For international calls he uses Tele2, which provides a reliable call-by-call service at very competitive rates.

For calls within France he uses his mobile, operated by Orange.

Otherwise he has a contract with France Telecom, which includes upkeep of his line.

Several months ago Matt took a call from a man saying 'Monsieur Gussrie-Booss?' and by his hesitancy and intonation Matt knew his caller had got his name out of the directory and was anxious to sell him something.

In this case it was a telephone company which we'll call Teledu (no connection whatever with Tele2, a perfectly respectable and responsible outfit) and if you look 'teledu' up in an English dictionary you're in for an agreeable surprise. In the past couple of years legislation has ended France Telecom's virtual monopoly over telephone landlines, opening up the field to competitors, some clearly less scrupulous than others. The Teledu cold-caller bent Matt's ear for a few moments with his spiel, proposing a set of services in rapid and idiomatic French. Matt, whose French is good, wasn't interested. However, as he often calls the UK, he asked to have the Teledu international tariff in order to compare their prices. End of conversation.

Thereafter things happened very quickly.

1. A day or two after this call Matt received a letter from France Telecom regretting that he had authorised Teledu to terminate his contract with them. As he'd opted for another operator France Telecom could no longer be responsible for the upkeep of his line.

2. Horrified, he rang his local France Telecom branch. A helpful woman sighed deeply. Obviously Matt wasn't the first. She faxed him a ready-made statement to sign and return, restoring his contract with France Telecom. France Telecom confirmed restoration of his contract in writing by return.

3. More than a week later he received a letter from Teledu, welcoming him as a new client, and backdating his registration to the day of the original call. He rang Teledu Customer Services, to be told he had made an oral agreement to open an account with Teledu. The term used was 'accord téléphonique'. He racked his brains to establish what he'd said to the salesman that could possibly be construed as such an agreement. He was told that if he wanted to rescind his 'accord téléphonique' he would need to send Teledu a registered letter to this effect. 

4. Meanwhile Matt continued making calls through his usual spread of operators, Wanadoo, Tele2, Orange and France Telecom. Nevertheless a bill arrived from Teledu. There were no charges for calls (after all, he hadn't made any via Teledu), but a 'set-up charge' and 'administration fees' were itemised. Nothing very much, about €10 or £7. The bill went in the bin.

5.  Two weeks later a reminder arrived, requiring payment by a certain date, otherwise his line would be cut off. This seemed an empty threat, considering that France Telecom was responsible for his line, but all the same he wrote to Teledu by registered post explaining why he wasn't going to pay this bill. No reply.

6. Another bill arrived, in respect of the following month. No call charges, but more 'administration fees'. When this bill too went unpaid, more threats to cut off the line were followed by unpleasant calls from Teledu's in-house compliance service. In vain did Matt claim that no contract existed between him and Teledu. Teledu insisted on the validity of the accord téléphonique, the oral contract. They said they had a recording of the original call, but when Matt asked to have it replayed to him they were unable to produce it. Matt steadfastly refused to pay.

7. Subsequently a letter arrived from a debt-collection agency, something like the bailiffs. Having added on their own fees, they threatened to seize Matt's car and television and other possessions, block his bank account and his credit cards if he didn't fork out. Matt decided things had gone far enough. All this badgering stank. But what to do? He felt completely powerless.

Then quite by chance one of the glories of civilised France suddenly shone forth in a splendid epiphany. French editions of Yellow Pages begin with lists of government departments and official bodies in a very organised way. Whatever your problem, somewhere there's an official who is actually on your side. Searching for guidance among the details of local courts, he came across the magic word conciliateur, a sort of local arbitrator or ombudsman.

Matt called his local conciliateur one lunch-time, the man came to his house at 2.30pm, and by 5pm the matter was settled. The next day the conciliateur appeared with copies of the faxes he'd sent both to Teledu and the bailiffs. They were headed Ministère de Justice, Ministry of Justice, quite a good address if you want something done. The conciliateur didn't mince his words: it was ridiculous to claim that a legal contract could exist on the basis of a supposed oral undertaking on the telephone, of which no proof could be produced. The near-fraud of such a claim was compounded by Teledu's sales agents apparently targetting people with foreign-sounding names like Guthrie-Booth, in the hope that the victims wouldn't understand the propositions being put to them in French and so find themselves unwittingly in the Teledu net. (We make no mention, of course, of the bonus earned by their salesmen for every catch.) As a result of the conciliateur's intervention the bailiffs withdrew at once, advising Matt to sue. I don't expect he will: all he really wants is peace and quiet.

So the moral is: Always say non! to cold-callers and telesalesmen. You never know what you're letting yourself in for. And if you do ever find yourself in the soup, remember the conciliateur.

And Teledu's international charges? Eventually Matt received them. At first glance they compared well with other operators' charges, but when you looked at the small print you found that every call attracted an additional connection charge, pushing the total charge well above the average.

AS IT'S the season of peace and goodwill I won't reveal the true name of this rascally outfit, except to say it's almost an anagram of 'inside', which is where they're heading if they carry on like this. If you've had problems like this in France I'd be glad to hear of them. So would the conciliateur.

 

Christopher Campbell-Howes' new book, More French Leaves: Tales of a Titular Organist, is hot off the press and now available. If you ever delighted in French Leaves: Letters from the Languedoc, his first enchanting collection of stories about living in the south of France, here's another wonderful treat for you. Allez-y, put some Midi sun into your winter!

Available from good bookshops, amazon.co.uk or direct from the publishers at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. £8.49, 15 euros or dollars, + p and p. ISBN 0-9543350-5-8