French Letter


When it comes to after sales service, President Macron is the personification of a French problem


The delivery of After Sales Service has never played a major role in the French Big Business psyche. Over the years preceding “reform”, pretty much any excuse to shut the customer up was fair game: “Don’t you know it’s August?”, “The Elysée has cut our budgets”, “We are experiencing unprecedented demand”, “We’re expecting delivery of the part tomorrow” and so forth.

When call centres, requirement options and classical muzak came in, the French leapt behind this new wall of protection with alacrity. The standard four levels (with five options each) alone could fill up ten minutes, followed by a sales message and some more music. When a voice finally answered, you had made an error in choosing the wrong option, so the girl very sweetly gave you another number to try. After another five minutes of options, a robot would say you had the wrong number for that query, and give you the number used to no avail the first time around.

The arrival of the Internet and “online service” gave les grands fromages the chance not only to reinforce the castle walls, but also pull up the drawbridge. Speaking to an employee was absolutely out of the question, but the new system “was designed with you the customer in mind”. The support for this obvious lie was that each and every one of us now had our very own Espace Client at the website, but it was up to you to open an account and be given a code number. All communication of every type now became unthinkable if you didn’t have your Numero Espace Client ready to hand. Having typed it in, a robot puzzle then asked you to prove you weren’t also a robot by filling in the ‘Captcha’ space. On doing so, the robot would accuse you of being a robot, and cancel the conversation.

These minor teething problems at last overcome, an obstacle course awaits the client eager to experience the new Speed of Light website service response. At first, one was able to send the castle barons an email, but that soon disappeared in favour of two more torres vedras – which of these products does your query concern, and which of these subjects gets closest to what you need?

If you tick ‘tablet’, you get a list from which to choose. If you find the model in the list before dying, you may proceed to try and match your problem to those in yet another list. I usually find that none of them are anywhere near my requirements, and so having rejected things like ‘My tablet has vapourised’ and ‘My fridge keeps breaking foul wind’, I arrive at a very begrudging little box in which I can type out the issue in my own words, but using under 35 characters….and then press ‘send’.

Whether the response comes via text, email , espace client or at all is entirely down the caprice of whichever weirdo is on duty down in the silos.

Giving the French first call centres and then the internet as customer avoidance hardware was bad enough: handing them a Coronavirus to exploit was always likely to make a difficult process impossible. I’m still waiting for a Velux part I ordered (delivery within five working days) three weeks ago; I’m not chasing it up because I know the shop will simply say, “C’est le virus Monsieur”.

Whereas in Anglophone countries, I’ve noticed, just about everyone calls it “Covid19” now, in France it is merely, and always, ‘le virus’. The French don’t want any confusing numbers – like “0.0045% dead” – to get in the way of something as important as ignoring the customer. Large company after-sales service was alreadly socially distanced from us long before C19 came along: such has now been surpassed, and self-isolation too has been left behind in favour of Nobody There.

“Eet eez ze veerus” everyone says, in a voice blending the swinish evil of Bela Lugosi and with the hissing menace of Peter Lorre. ‘Le virus’ can pole-vault fifteen feet, bite your neck, live forever in your car’s AC system, make every other weather forecast wrong, and destroy even Les Gilets Jaune: zut, c’est méchant, ce virus-là.

When the deadly killer Covid19 closed France overnight, I must have been emailed by the CEO of every company with whom I have a  relationship  espace client to tell me that ‘I stand beside you in this, your hour of great adversity, and this is a far, far better thing than I have ever done’. Two days after the wifi in the maison d’amis here died, its supplier SFR’s Big cheese sent me such an email. So I replied to say yes, you can indeed help me in this my unwanted loneliness, I’ve no longer got a landline or wifi in my gite. The CEO was obviously far too busy playing Sydney Carlton in A Tale of Two Cities to reply; look, he went to the guillotine to save my ass, so there’s a limit to what you can expect. I went to my espace client, made it onto the obstacle course and arrived at highighted text that promised ‘numéro telephone service’. I clicked on it. It was dead.

Encore le virus. Zair eez no escapp frurm eet.

Social media like Twitter are (in my experience) good for one thing alone: naming and shaming risible service. Nothing scares the bejeesuz out of those on the other side of the moat (especially in the Media Room) like a truculent client asking, in public, “72 year old lonely single man in poor health just wants you, @SFR, to restore his phone line and Internet. So why are you being so shit at doing it?”

It takes about 90 seconds for the Twitter Chief to get in touch and beg you to move to Messaging….which is the allegedly private part. That was four days ago, and I’ve been asked lots of patronising questions by the Happiness Engineers at SFR (“Have you tried switching it off and then on again?”) ; so today I finally called Time and told them to fix it or we’d be back in the public domain. I’ve been told somebody will contact me within 48 hours. Whether this will be by text, ESP, pigeon, email or balloon has not been specified.

This, mes enfants, is La France En Marche as reinvented by Emannuel Macron, the French President whose sense of direction is a little off, in that he calls himself a Centrist but is somewhere to the neoliberal Right of Sarah Palin. It still hasn’t quite occurred to the Boy King that overlaying neoliberal Don’t-Give-AF values onto a France already loyal to the Je m’en fut mindset is like putting Lloyd Blankfein in charge of Wall Street compliance: things can only get worse.

Indeed, Macron’s reputation as the most revolutionary change-merchant since Bonaparte is starting to unravel. He is widely perceived to have been unprepared for le virus, and in turn to have an unhealthily close relationship with France’s Big Pharma player, Sanofi.

The lady who had an equally dubious role in that kissy-kissy cronyism, the former health minister Agnès Buzyn, is Mr Macron’s candidate for mayor of Paris; but in the first round,  she came third behind the Socialist incumbent Anne Hidalgo and Right(ish) Rachida Dati. This disaster is a direct reflection of Macron’s falling electoral support.

Further, a few desertions from his National Assembly Party have been turned into an avalanche of departure, such that the President has lost his overall majority in that body, with seventeen defectors last week alone.

But the potential for Macron to be defeated in 2022 remains severely limited by two factors: there is nobody on the French Left with anything like a clear strategy for tackling a post-Covid crisis; and Marine Le Pen (who has already announced her intention to stand again) cannot find allies to help her outnumber the President. She gives off a confident air, but knows that only a full-scale econo-fiscal collapse in France and/or the EU will give her any chance of victory.

That, of course, is more than likely: but even were she to win, I severely doubt her chances of staying alive in order to take office.