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Undelivered letters: Why is France’s postal service struggling?

Stamp prices have increased by nearly 5%, but changes to La Poste’s organisation are causing disruption to deliveries

One postman has claimed that La Poste sometimes sends out its yellow vans on rounds, without the postal worker delivering all letters, just to reassure people waiting for post Pic: Sibuet Benjamin / Shutterstock

There has been a drop of 20% in the number of letters sent in France over the past year but complaints over late or non-delivery of mail are still common across the country.

La Poste is struggling to cope with restructured workloads and an influx of temporary workers, Franceinfo reports.

Residents of a town in Essonne (Ile-de-France) spoke of letters arriving late or going missing, while a postal worker criticised new changes to the organisation of the post. 

It comes as a spate of such problems has been reported in regional press around France in recent months, in areas ranging from the Lyon metropolitan area, to the Haute-Pyrénées and Pyrénées-Orientales, Ile-et-Vilaine (Brittany), Aude (Occitanie) and Côte d'Or (Burgundy).

The consumer association Familles de France has also confirmed to The Connexion that there is a growing problem with deliveries.

The situation comes as La Poste has been losing money on letters, with a 13% drop in turnover in 2020, continuing a ten-year period of decline. 

To combat this, the government is planning to spend €500million each year to guarantee a “universal postal service”, but some worry it is not enough.

What is going wrong?

Residents in Essonne provided a snapshot of the trouble many people around France are currently facing with the postal service.

“I had a death announcement in my letter box dated December 17 and I received it almost one month later,” one person said.

Read more: La Poste claims improvement to custom charge issue for foreign parcels

Cathy, a postal worker in Essonne with over 30 years of experience, said the issues began with the sorting of the post. 

“Before, we arrived in the morning and sorted the post ourselves. That meant there were no mistakes. Then we prepared our rounds and…we would head out on our bikes,” she said.

That system has now stopped and the letters are now sorted at dedicated centres, usually staffed by workers on temporary contracts who do not have the same level of training as the postal workers. 

As a result, Cathy’s bag of letters is now “full of mistakes”, she said. 

“This letter is supposed to be forwarded on, meaning that someone has paid to have his post sent elsewhere. He no longer lives here [at this address].

“He has paid for this and it’s not cheap. The person who sorted this letter has not taken this into account,” she said. 

Cathy said that she finds herself with a pile of undelivered letters on her desk at the end of every day. 

Fewer staff, longer rounds

La Poste is also said to be attempting to reduce costs by cutting down on the number of rounds and increasing the length of the remaining ones. It means fewer staff delivering to more houses. 

“Even I, with 30 years’ experience, have to run to finish my round now,” Cathy said.

“Sometimes I can’t finish.”

If she does not finish on time, temporary workers or those with fixed-term contracts take over. These are usually people with little knowledge of the route, leading to more mistakes. 

The number of temporary workers covering shifts has increased significantly in recent years, and there are now around a thousand such jobs advertised by France’s unemployment service, the Pôle Emploi. 

More parcels, fewer letters

The coronavirus pandemic has also played a part in disrupting the postal service. It has meant more staff absences with people infected and close contacts having to self-isolate at home. 

At the same time, people have been doing more online shopping. La Poste had an increase of 30% in the number of parcel deliveries in 2020. This means the service is having to give priority to delivering parcels over letters. 

Consumer group says problem is partly a 'lack of will'

The head of consumer rights at the national association Familles de France, Jamy Belkiri, said they have heard from many members about the issue, for example in the Marseille area and in the Paris suburbs.

“One member from Marseille said he’s not had any post for a week and when he went to the post office they said there were a lot of delays because there were no postmen or women, because they were on sick leave or off work, so the mail wasn’t being delivered.

“I’ve written to the director of La Poste, saying ‘it’s not normal, why can’t they take on temporary staff?’

“Others there have complained of waiting for urgent letters that they had not received. One who had been waiting a week was told that there are three or four days’ delay but ‘maybe she’ll have a postman for the round tomorrow’, but nothing more."

She added: “Two or three years ago we also had a lot of complaints about the post, but I’ve noticed at the start of this year it’s started again.

“Unfortunately, public services in general are going downhill. There’s a lack of funding but also simply a lack of will. When someone’s waiting for mail for a week they know it causes difficulties for them. It’s a lack of respect for the customers.”

Diversifying services

In order to shore up its plummeting revenue, La Poste has begun to diversify its services, including offerings not normally associated with postal services.

This includes computer services, delivering medical prescriptions and meals to doors, and offering help with domestic chores such as cleaning, ironing, DIY and gardening through its company Axeo Services. 

Read more about La Poste’s diversification in our article here: Decline in letters sees La Poste diversify: What else does it do?

While this diversification is intended to make the service more profitable, it also further stretches thin the postal workers and the staff.

The yellow van trick

La Poste has a trick to hide delivery issues and to try and reassure customers, according to one postman, Arnaud, a postman, quoted by Franceinfo. 

“When the situation becomes critical, we bring in what we call a ‘super-roller’. They drive around in a yellow post van, not delivering everything. People see the car and think they will probably get their post soon, which reassures them for a few days. 

“This is what we call the ‘yellow car effect’ in postal jargon,” he said. 

Stamp price increases

Despite the issues with letters being delivered, the price of stamps increased on January 1, as is normal at the start of the year. The costs rose by 4.7% on average, with the first-class red priority stamps jumping from €1.28 to €1.43.

The cost of second-class (green) stamps, which should mean a letter is delivered within two days, has risen from €1.08 to €1.16. 

The French postal service is to slow down delivery times by one day for second class letters in a bid to combat deficits accentuated by the health crisis.

The new delivery options – expected to be in place by 2023 – will give the choice of sending letters that will arrive within three days rather than two days as now, and is expected to save La Poste €400million per year.

Read more: French postal service to slow second-class delivery times by one day

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