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You are here: Home Life in Blogs & photos The (bootleg) Survival Guide: The Système D
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08/12/2006The (bootleg) Survival Guide: The Système D

The (bootleg) Survival Guide: The Système D The Expatica Survival Guide brings you the basics for getting your life rolling in France. And now it also addresses the emotional roller coaster that is your first year abroad. Here are more of tips for surviving, emotionally, your first year in France.

Clair Whitmer has lived here long enough to get settled...but she hasn't forgotten what it feels like to be fresh off the plane. This series covers typical reactions to the experience of moving to France, based on her own experience and lots of email from expats all over France.

One of the things I notice about expat 'success' stories, the people who make a home and feel at home in France, is that they've learned to love the Système D.

The Système D; D is for débrouillard(e), also a verb, se débrouiller, or in noun form débrouillardise. It's tricky to translate but débrouiller means 'to unscramble' and se débrouiller refers to thinking on your feet, figuring things out without help or instruction. In the imperative: Débrouillez vous! Make no mistake: being told you are débrouillard is a compliment.

I've heard it most often used when someone has been explaining to me how to get around some seemingly insurmountable rule or regulation. The Système D is needed and accepted because, as for you the incoming foreigner, the Administration and its endless red tape, la paparasserie, is the enemy: a source of frequent frustration and a consistent time-suck.

The Système D is the collective set of workarounds, both know-how and who-you-know. It includes everything you can think of that will help you get around the rules - but get around them through superior cleverness, not through outright illegality, which is how some people misinterpret it. Cheating is not the same thing as the Système D in the same way that cutting in line is not the same thing as breaking-and-entering.

On the contrary, the French respect for the law is nearly absolute, that's how they've ended up with so much of it. But the result is a labyrinth of paperwork that would be absolutely all-consuming—except for the Système D

It's knowing the most sympathetic secretary in your mairie and making a point to say hello every time you go in; it's knowing to set aside all sales receipts because there is no such thing as an exchange or return without one even if the price-tag is still attached; but it's also NOT keeping your French boss up-to-date on the status of a project until it's finished. They don't want to hear about problems, they want you to Débrouillez vous!

It's all this, plus a certain gleeful determination to find the shortcut which is nearly always there, even if hidden.

The basics of the Système D

Here is how to apply the Système D when dealing with the French administration:

  • Know the applicable rule inside and out so the possible loopholes are apparent to you 
  • In addition to, and definitely in the absence of, knowing the right loophole, know the right person to talk to. France is all about who you know.
  • Once the right person is identified, ask the right question
  • If this fails then keep rephrasing the question until a different answer materializes. This can, sometimes, be achieved by asking: "Well, what would you do if you were me?" Catastrophising is not inappropriate here.

Please note that meekly accepting the first, most superficial and quickest answer provided will be interpreted as a sign, not of weakness per se, but certainly a lack of sincere interest.

Persistence pays off but smart-aleckiness has no place here, presuming your French is good enough to allow it; these bureaucrats spend their lives deciphering the positively Baroque world of French regulations and that kind of sheer doggedness demands your respect. Demonstrate it.

A good way to start when addressing a civil servant or customer service representative is to admit openly that you have a problem and to then imply that the person before you, and they alone in the universe, knows how to help you. This could well be true so act like you mean it.

Learning to like it

You've probably noticed already that a newly arrived foreigner whose knowledge of French law and personal network of acquaintances is limited and whose French language skills may still be somewhat underdeveloped is out of luck here.

Yep, this is true.

But as I said before, the successful expats don't necessarily arrive with an instinctual grasp of the Système D. They learn it as they go along, and the ones who really feel comfortable here not only learn to apply it, they learn to like it, to take pride in their own resourcefulness.

Otherwise, living here can tire you out pretty quickly.

The Système D can sometimes necessitate the occasional tiny white lie. For example, I recently needed to get my glasses prescription updated, something that requires an appointment with an ophthalmologist.

Yet, in my area and across much of France due to a nation-wide shortage of medical specialists, getting in to see an ophthalmologist means a wait of not less than six months and in reality, closer to a year.

So, I went into an Alain Afflelou store and asked for a recommendation of any ophthalmologists with a short waiting list. (This was me trying to be débrouillarde.)

The salesperson says, in such a way as to imply that everybody else in the country knows that this is how it's done: "Eh bien, Madame, you have to call and tell them you broke your glasses. Then it's an emergency and you get right in." He even asked if I had children: "Well, there you go, your son stepped on your glasses!"

After his initial surprise that this wasn't obvious to me, he was quite pleased to help me with this advice. It's often this way: when someone shares some tip of the Système D with you, it's a shared secret, a gesture of complicity. It's Us v. Them and we gotta stick together…

It's not only how the French get things done in a system loaded with complexity, this approach is a way to not feel suffocated.

But why, oh why?

None of which of course explains why everything has to be so complicated in the first place. My theory on this is that, although they too complain about France's red tape, the French, after being intellectually baptized in Cartesian logic at a tender age and by virtue of life-long exposure, actually feel reassured by complexity.

When a 'pragmatic' Anglo-Saxon confronts a thought or a process or an official form that is redundant and/or deliberately time-consuming and/or disproportionately complicated, they might think to themselves: "Someone didn't think this out very well. Where's the bottom line?"

Anglo-Saxons think of complexity, especially on the part of the government or management, as a way of covering up the truth and as such provokes distrust.

When a French person confronts a thought or a process or an official form that is simple and straightforward, they might think to themselves: "Someone didn't think this out very well. I need to know about the exceptions!"

The French often think of superficiality, especially on the part of the government or management, as a way of covering up the truth and as such provokes distrust.

This is one way that 'Anglo-Saxons' in France end up frustrated.

Those who — yes, still complain on occasion about the paperwork, as do the French — see the Système D as an intellectual challenge, a puzzle to be solved, a kind of large-scale Sudoku are the ones who settle in the easiest and stay the longest.


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