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How to Complain Against Public Bodies

Thursday 02 May 2013

Bureaucracy is a way of life in France, and while it can sometimes be a struggle dealing with it, formal complaints systems are in place to deal with grievances.

With around a third of the working population in France a fonctionnaire of one kind or another, your encounters with French administrative bodies are likely to be fairly regular.

Indeed, form filling and red tape seem to be endemic in both the private and public sectors, so you are hardly likely to be able to escape it whatever you may want to do.

Of course, it is not always a trauma, for bureaucracy can also give certainty and reassurance, and not all encounters with local officialdom are negative ones.

In our own experience, many officials will go out of their way to assist, and it certainly helps if you approach them in a courteous and respectful manner and with an ability to speak French.

The problem of 'bureaucracy' in France is very often, not the attitude of officials, but the sheer complexity of the rules they are expected to apply.

Faced with processes and rules that are frequently incomprehensible, or even unknown to local officials, it is not surprising that instances of 'maladministration' are common.

So like most Western democracies France has in place an independent ‘ombudsman’ system to deal with disputes between the individual and the State.

Almost all the public agencies have their own médiatieurs or conciliateurs. Thus, you will find there are médiateurs or conciliateurs in place for water services, postal services, health, energy, public transport, tax, etc.

In relation to tax matters it is the Conciliateur fiscal départemental in each department; local health authorities have similar arrangements, where each has a Conciliateur de la Caisse d'Assurance Maladie.

Some critics consider many of these arrangements lack a degree of independence, and, certainly from our own experience, the lack of transparency in the way most operate is a concern.

Défenseur de Droits

The daddy of all the complaint bodies, and the one who certainly is independent, is the Défenseur de Droits. The present incumbent is Dominique Baudis, a former journalist and politician.

Monsieur Baudis is charged with dealing with complaints of maladminstration and discrimination right across the public sector - government departments, local authorities and public agencies.

The line of accountability from the Défenseur des droits is to the judiciary, not to governments departments, which sets him apart from other domestic ombudsmen.

If you are unable to obtain suitable redress from other channels, then it is to the Défenseur des droits to whom you are able to make a final appeal.

You can do so either by completing a form, sending an e mail, or making contact through one of the departmental offices.

You can find more information about the complaints process and contact details of the local offices at Défenseur de Droits.

Our own advice would be that initially you make contact with a local official of the ombudsman, as it might be possible to resolve the problem more quickly, and they would also be able to provide advice on the submission of your complaint.

Although the decisions of the ombudsmen are not binding on either party, their recommendations carry great weight and public service bodies are required to report back to the ombudsmen on progress with implementation of any recommendations arising out of casework. The recommendations may have either individual or general application, depending on the nature of the problem.

However, an early decision cannot be expected, as their cases normally take at least several months.

Private Sector

A system of mediation also operates also within the private sector, notably for banking, insurance, travel, and telecoms.

In each of these sectors there is an independent 'médiateur' able to receive and deal with complaints from members of the public about the service they have receive.

Before engaging such a procedure you are required to make use of the 'Service Client ' department to try and resolve the dispute, failing which you can contact the mediator.

There is no recourse to the Défenseur des droits against private sector bodies and companies.

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