One thing that British Expats moving to France need to know is that;

French Artisans are wonderful.

Wonderfully competent, wonderfully capable, wonderfully knowledgeable and wonderfully exasperating.

If you manage to get one on site, they will work like a gentleman of colour! (Wasn’t that tactfully put, even if it is not PC[1])? They usually know their specialty well and they will undertake the work with alacrity.

They will toil without requesting refreshment, indeed they often refuse it. They put in a full day, even if it is punctuated with the obligatory two hour lunch break. Normally you will be well satisfied with the finished result.

The problems; are, locating them in the first place, obtaining a sensible estimate and arranging for them to arrive at any agreed time and date. Then of course finishing the work in anything like a reasonable time scale.

In essence most French Artisans are superb craftsmen, abysmal businessmen and frustrating employees.


Locating a legitimate Artisan

Identifying an Artisan to do your work is not a problem. The yellow pages (Pages Jeunes) are full of them. That first step is easy. Now cometh the obstacle course. Trying to contact one of them and getting him engaged in your project.

The first problem is that you are a naïve Englishman (or other foreigner) and naturally are the possessor of some of the misconceptions which abound in foreign (Non French) countries. You may even embrace the strange notion that because a French artisan has advertised in the Yellow Pages for work, then he must want the business, C'est evident, n’est pas?

Well not really, the French artisan’s view is that if you really deserve him, then you have to catch him.

Your first approach, a relatively logical one, is to ring the telephone number in the ‘Pages Jeunes’. If you are answered at all, and that will be a first, you will be connected to a hard of hearing maiden aunt, who claims to be just staying with her nephew on a temporary basis. She normally has a less than tenuous grasp on his business interests and an even more reluctant understanding of his current and future whereabouts. This attitude is compounded by her inability to understand any utterance unless it is in the local patois.  French artisans have an inexhaustible supply of such maiden aunts.


After a dozen such calls, if you are of sterling Anglo Saxon stuff, you will resort to direct action. You locate the Artisan’s residence and camp outside until he comes home, weary after a long day (He really does work hard). Then you harangue him about his lack of business acumen and commercial decency. This does not always work on the first occasion, but if you are persistent you may get him to agree to create an estimate for your work. This usually means that five or six other less persistent customers are due for a disappointment.

The fact that you receive an estimate must not be taken as any indication that the Artisan wishes to undertake the work or is in a time sense capable of doing so. He usually only takes the effort to create this document in order to get you off of his back. He hopes that the exorbitant price will put you off and he can go back to his more tranquil life style. The exorbitant price is naturally augmented by the statutory 30% that not speaking perfect colloquial French implies.


The Estimate

French artisans are coyer over their estimates (Devis) than most virgin brides are over their trousseaus. They rarely like to specify too much, like what materials they will use, as that allows the client to check up on the relative prices. They are also very keen to disguise the 30% loading that speaking English defines. You are not being unfairly persecuted, if you were a Parisian the loading would be 50%. Nobody likes Parisians!

The time of completion is never voluntarily included; they are not being awkward, they just do not know. Project control was never one of the skills taught in ‘les petites écoles artisanaux’.


The Work

French Artisans are usually competent and hardworking. There are however two problems with ensuring that they remain on your site to complete the work. These are ‘sirens’ and the ‘white goods syndrome’.


The sirens affect all artisans just as they did to Odysseus. One minute you worker is diligently applying himself to the job in hand, you take your eyes off of him and he has disappeared like the proverbial genie. The sirens are the voices of his other unfulfilled customers who argue successfully, via his mobile phone, that their current need is somehow greater than yours. Unfortunately the remedy open to Odysseus of tying the worker to a mast is rather unreasonably proscribed by French employment law.


It is officially estimated that the average French artisan has contracted to do 2.4 times as much work as he can actually complete. This leads to waiting lists that make the NHS look reactive. The list obviously get bigger as last years backlog is added to this years overestimate. Luckily some of the list withers away by old age and loss of interest. However despite that the pull of the siren voices is always present and you need to guard your artisan carefully to keep him on-site.


The other problem of the ‘missing’ artisan is somewhat different in nature, it really only applies to a category of casual employee known as the ‘white goods’ worker. These are craftsmen who are retired or semi-retired. Some work on the black others have retained their official siret number (Craft certification) and operate within the legal system.


The difficulty is with their motivation. The scenario goes something like this. There they are, sitting comfortably at home semi retired and contemplating their allotment, when the domestic fridge packs up. She who must be obeyed demands its early repair or replacement. She then ejects them into the outside world to find the where withal to accomplish this feat.


That’s when they fetch up on your door asking if you need some work done. After negotiation they start and apply themselves with alacrity to the task in hand. This harmonious circumstance continues until one day they fail to arrive and you do not see them again for six months.  If you are astute you will then have gauged that you have paid them just about the price of a replacement refrigerator.


It does not end there, after half a year or so has passed, there they are once again on your doorstep asking what you want them to do, as though not a day has passed since you last clapped eyes on them. No mention is made of their peremptory absence, no excuse and certainly no apology. Under the French system it just does not pay them to work too much so they do what psychologists call satisficing, just enough. They assume that you know the score. This time the boilers bust.


The Bill

If its hard to get an artisan to do your work it is, with certain exceptions noted below, even harder to pay him.

Any notion that France is a modern commercial nation, if that has not been disabused by her politicians arguing against the Global Economy, will be quickly confirmed by any passing contact with her ‘Comercants’.

They just do not seem to connect payment with cash flow. It frequently requires persistent and prolonged pressure to get them to produce the bill. Reluctance to engage in mundane clerical activity might explain some of this recalcitrance but the national lack of a commercial ethos is probably the major factor.


When it is eventually produced the bill and its preceding estimate (devi) will usually have only a nodding acquaintance with each other. This is not because the Artisan intended to defraud you. It is because of a completely different perception in the French mind of the purposes of those two documents.


If by some miracle you managed to get an estimate from your artisan it is usually somewhat bereft of detail. This is because at that time he has not thought deeply about the elements of the job, just the overall outcome. In his mind an estimate is a general and not too precise promise as to future conduct. (Unfortunately rather similar to the definition of False Pretences in the UK Larceny Act of 1861).


The bill on the other hand is his imperfect recollection of what he actually did for you. It is unlikely that he kept any detailed records so the resultant demand reflects a mixture of his perceived endeavours and current pecuniary state. It is not unknown for Artisans to come back months later to measure up for their bill in a perverse form of reversed estimate.


The Timing of the Project

A major consideration when employing French Artisans is timing. I am not talking about scheduling outside work in the summer or road blocking activities outside of the visitor traffic influx.  Much more important are the effects upon your work’s progress and your bank balance of mis-timing you enterprise.


The major impediment to construction progress apart from the two hour lunch time and the 35 hour week is the yawning non-productive chasm of August. If you are careless enough to timetable your construction over that month then unplanned and often unexplained delays are inevitable.


Strangely French Artisans seem to ignore this impediment when forced to suggest completion timescales. However that does not change the fact that France is closed in August. Any suggestion that your job will be completed in that month is pie in the sky.


French workers melt away in the August sun, off to their second homes or relatives on the Med or in the Pyrenees. They rarely go abroad and mix with ‘aliens’, the French attitude to foreign holiday’s makes isolationism seem gregarious.


Building firms become ‘Marie Celestes’ and an uneasy calm descends upon construction sites. It is not just that the Artisans disappear for most of the month, even if they wanted to work their support facilities either close or whither. Transport companies are also ‘on holiday’, Builders merchants run down their stocks in anticipation of low demand and Architects and Inspectors are all away at the sea side.


Small companies post a slightly dog eared and well used ‘en conge’ sign on their doors and steal away for the duration. Larger enterprises operate on reduced staff in a feeble pretence of being open for business.


The August causatum is unfortunately not confined to the eighth month of the year. When the workers eventually and reluctantly drag themselves back to their places of occupation, a backlog of urgent repairs and prior calls upon their time swamps any pale commitment that they might have had to recommence your project. So the malaise of August can often infect the best part of September and even drift into October.


In October things normally begin to perk up, but therein lies another potential snare. If you were suspicious of mind, you might wonder at the revitalised alacrity with which your artisan applies himself to complete your project before the end of the year. Has he spent your 30% advance and now needs funds for the kids Christmas presents? Perhaps, but a much more frightening image is intruding upon his commercial consciousness, January.


The French Tax year starts in January, not April. The Government operates its annual Tax cull just like the months namesake ‘Janus’. It looks back into the previous year and forward into the next year in an attempt to harvest the maximum revenue from every enterprise. Some revenues are assessed for the coming year, others are based upon past activities. However the upshot is the same, January is a very expensive month for Artisans, as the money hungry socialist state strives to feed itself and its myriad bureaucrats.


It’s a truism that all costs eventually get passed on to the consumer. However the ferocious level of taxation coupled with the normally languid business style means that this burden is inversely asymptotic. It gets bigger as January approaches.


The twin consequences of this are that in December the Artisans take panicked remedial action. 1. Their bills get bigger for the same amount of work (The Americans rather colourfully call this being ‘stiffed’) and 2. Their usually relaxed timescale between invoice and payment suddenly tightens like the embrace of a hungry anaconda.


The moral of this is to avoid placing any work which might involve you in an expected payment near the end of the calendar year. If you really want to screw yourself,  contract for some work to start in July, then you will have the frustration of a delayed completion and a big bill.


Cultural Conclusion

Given all of this it is really surprising that all those old piles of stones in Aquitaine actually get renovated with the help of French Artisans. But they do.

All workers are a problem; the British ones can be a pain. The difference in France is that the local Artisans have all of the cursedness of their British counterparts with the addition that they come from another planet.

It just takes time and patience to get anything done.!!

But what the hell isn’t that why you moved to France.


[1] Politically Correct





(c) John Hulbert 2006

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