Taking defective items back to the shop used to be a traumatic experience for many English speakers in France.
Expecting a ‘customer is always right’ attitude, it was common to be met with a glare, shrug and a suggestion to contact the manufacturer.
The law has changed only fairly recently to bring France into the European Union rulebook based on the Anglo-Saxon legal model of the seller being responsible for the goods.
This applies universally for a standard two years after all purchases and should be mentioned on till receipts.
This garantie légale de conformité is different from any commercial guarantee that a shop might offer, and it does not cover private sales between individuals.
It does, though, apply to all products bought within the European Union. As a result, things are better now for returning faulty goods.
Most supermarkets have dedicated staff, who go through the necessary replacement or repair procedures without fuss.
Smaller shops sometimes still put up a token resistance, particularly with older shopkeepers, but in general the ‘replace or repair’ process is handled with good grace.
The government too has started to try to make sure consumer rights are respected in all areas of business.
Children now have lessons, usually in their last year at collège, in basic consumer rights, usually from the history and geography teachers.
The finance ministry has a dedicated page with consumer rights advice, found here.
Most of the advice is simple
If you find yourself in a conflict over what you think is a consumer rights issue, try first to find a ‘friendly solution’.
Where it is a large organisation and your first contact has gone badly, get in touch with the service clientèle to explain the problem calmly and what you would like to have done.
This can often be done by telephone – if so, write down before the call the points you want to make, and make notes, either while you are on the call or immediately afterwards, on what was said and by whom.
Some customer service departments in France insist on written communication and this can be done by email or by letter (either way, keep a copy of what you send).
If you opt for a letter, sending it by récommandé avec accusé de réception allows you to have a trace.
Smaller French businesses might be offended by the registered letter, but do not let that worry you, especially if they did not respond face to face.
If you get no joy, either because the service clientèle refuses your requests, makes an offer you consider unacceptable, or ignores you completely, the next stage is to consider making a formal complaint.
You have three choices: hire a lawyer; try to lay a complaint with the Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes (DGCCRF); or join a consumer rights association such as UFC-Que Choisir and try to get it to take up the case on your behalf.
An annual digital subscription to its magazine starts at €45.
A list of local sites is at tinyurl.com/UFC-local. It claims to have local associations in every department, but in reality, many do not seem active, especially in rural areas where there is a small presence in the main town only.
Other consumer bodies can be found here. If you go down the legal route, many household insurance contracts come with a bundle which includes help towards legal fees, but check how much you will have to pay upfront before finding a lawyer.
Lawyers likely to be expensive
As always with lawyers, it is likely to be expensive.
For disputes of under €5,000 or involving neighbours, mediation is now obligatory before going to court, but it is best to have a lawyer to represent you during this process.
Mediation is, in spite of its name, effectively a law court below the tribunals.
France does not have the equivalent of UK county council trading standards departments. Instead, it is the government’s DGCCRF which is charged with looking after consumers.
It is organised from the prefecture, not the conseil départemental, and does not have a public face, so going in person to the prefecture will be fruitless.
Around 300 leaflets, from house buying disputes to how oysters are classified, are on the body’s site, and you are expected to read the one corresponding to your problem before going further.
If you still feel you have a case, then you can contact the DGCCRF directly, either through the government’s signal.conso.gouv.fr site, or by the telephone number 0809 540 550.
This works between 8:30 and 12:30, and 13:15 and 17:15 on Mondays and Tuesdays, on Wednesday afternoons between 13:15 and 17:15, Thursday mornings between 8:30 and 12:30, and on Fridays from 8:30 to 16:00.
Deaf or hard-of-hearing people can use the ACCEO service. Details are available here.
DGCCRF can also be contacted by writing to DGCCRF, RéponseConso, BP60, 34935 Montpellier Cedex 9.
The service says it will examine your case and take it further if warranted, issuing warnings, advice to shopkeepers, or even taking the case to prosecutors.
However, do not expect quick replies. Even professionals complaining about unregistered competition, expect complaints to take months to be acted on.
If you are the victim of fraud, the first stop should be to report it to the police or gendarmes, which can either be done in person or through the website pre-plainte-en-ligne.gouv.fr, if you do not know the identity of the crook.
You will then be called in to the police station or gendarmerie to sign a statement, based on the online declaration.
You should do this if you intend to also make a claim on your insurance.
Many of the worst consumer frauds in recent years have come from cold-call operations, and the government set up ‘Bloctel’ which, in theory, informs all telemarketing operations not to call your number if you register at bloctel.gouv.fr.
For years, it was widely seen as ineffective but recently, after consumer organisations threatened to take the government to court, it has become better, mainly because fines have been increased.
It is now possible to complain about calls if you continue to get them through your Bloctel account.
Special attention is given to calls relating to home insulation – an area where crooks abound, and which has a dedicated reporting button.
In summary: What to do in a dispute
1. Your first step is to contact the firm’s customer service department.
2. If this is fruitless, make a formal complaint, using one of three routes:
i) Hire a lawyer and be prepared to take your case to court. You may first go through a process of mediation or conciliation;
ii) File a complaint with the government’s Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes;
iii) Contact a consumer rights association, such as UFC-Que Choisir.