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The problem is not so much the hour as the day, the week, the month, or, in some cases, the year. When will the blighter turn up? Will he ever turn up, come to that? More worrying, would it be best if he never did turn up?
The 'artisan francais' is the generic term for the French craftsman and covers everything from the plasterer to the local baker, but I prefer not to think about the baker at the moment, having grazed my gums on the razor sharp crust of a loaf with a lead weight interior, the result of his not following the instructions on the sack of ready mix from which he concocts his burnt offerings. I really must go to the supermarket and get some decent bread, made by guys who do follow the instructions.
All this comes to mind because this is the time of year to have the chimney swept, and I have summoned up M. Lalou and wife to come and see to it. It is a marathon job here, chimneys all over the place and no inspection traps, and they do a super job, even cleaning out the wood stove in the kitchen while they are at it. So why am I so annoyed? It is because Team Lalou cannot touch the chimney which serves the boiler and for this I have to wait for the boiler man...sorry, the 'artisan chauffagiste'. The Lalous are perfectly capable of disassembling and reassembling whatever would be necessary, but they know and I know and, what's more, the boiler man knows that if anything were ever to go wrong with the boiler or the chimney, the insurance would not cover the damage, as an unqualified person had intervened. I wouldn't be too convinced that the insurance would work anyway to judge by my last experience. There was a violent storm two years ago which knocked out some bricks from a chimney stack which in turn damaged the slates on the roof. I duly descended on the bar at lunchtime, hijacked the local roofer, who calls himself Monsieur Misery because he is to be found everywhere - this is what passes for a joke in France - and sent his estimate to the insurers.
Two months later, by which time I had given up and sent M. Misery up to make the repairs to avoid further damage, the insurers smugly replied that according to the nearest meteorological station no high winds had been reported in my area and they weren't coughing up. Their nearest meteorological station proved to be some 50 kilometres away. It wouldn't be too much to expect that if there were to be a fire in the boiler chimney, I would be found to have used unauthorised fuel! Anyway, insurers are universal. I sincerely hope that the artisan francais is not.
The boiler man will come when he thinks fit, cancel goodness only knows how many firm appointments when richer pickings loom into sight, will do all sorts of unnecessary things and present me with a bill of eyewatering proportions. Or rather, he will send his underpaid assistant to do the work, reserving to himself the delights of making out the bill. I could not believe the first bills I received...I was paying more in the backwoods of France than I had been in central London! My senses have becomed deadened by repetition these days...the frisson of horror at the sight of the envelope from the builder is nowhere near so powerful.
Why don't I get another boiler man? Because the artisan francais doesn't believe in competition and one man won't touch anything on another man's territory. To each his prey. Further, he has a strong suspicion that if he touches the lash up the first guy made of the job, he will get the blame when inevitably it all goes for a can of worms.
To some extent I can understand their taking on work which they can never hope to carry out in a reasonable time, infuriating though it is. It is very difficult to sack an employee in France, thanks to legislation cooked up by an unholy alliance of unions and employers which may be appropriate to large enterprises but not to the little firms of electricians, plumbers, etc who also fall under its sway. Thus, even when things are booming, a little firm will not take on staff to meet the demand because if later there is a downturn, the wages of these staff will have to be paid even if there is no work for them to do.
Further, they have to pay an enormous amount to cover the social security payments for themselves and their employees, which is one of the reasons why the bill with which they present you is so exorbitant. Your money is not going to pay the workman's wages so much as to support the immense waste and extravagance of the French social security system. There are genuine benefits, like paid time off work while ill, but there are also the parasitic elements, like the private ambulance services who are more like taxis than ambulances proper and whose bills are reimbursed by the social security budget. Sit in the waiting area of any French hospital and you will find as many ambulance drivers as patients. Many of these patients are perfectly able to go to the hospital unaided but, as the service is paid for by the state, they take full advantage. Your plumber's bill will reflect this state of affairs.
Not every part of your massive bill is explained by circumstances outside the control of the artisan. These days, the taxman demands that his estimate and bill include every nut, bolt and widget that he proposes to use, itemised and costed. Gone are the days of 'one septic tank and installation 50,000 francs'. This is fine for the taxman, even if the artisan has to take a lot more time concocting the fantasia with which he presents you when you ask for an estimate for repairing the gutters, but it does the client no favours.
Being a small business, there are no economies of scale. The artisan typically will have an account at the big builders' merchants who give him a discount of ten per cent of the value of his purchases at the end of the month. As he passes on all his costs to you, he is not too worried how much he spends...that ten per cent glistens ahead of him at each purchase. Some of the brighter sparks are now buying at the discount DIY warehouses...where the quality is excellent... and pricing to the client at the builders' merchant prices, which more than compensates them for the loss of the ten per cent.
I have just had a bill from my plumber for replacing the thermostats on my radiators. He is charging me eighteen euros for units I have priced at what I suspect to be his supplier at three euros. Everyone is happy...the warehouse has made a sale, my plumber has made a small fortune on fourteen radiators and the taxman can see fourteen units in and out of his books with value added tax duly paid. Who am I to strike a discordant note amidst all this rejoicing?
If you wish to get to know your area really well, employ an artisan to work on your house. He will start, then disappear without warning. You will have to retrieve him from all the other jobs he has started only to disappear without warning. Touring the area, you will see his van outside someone else's house and it is now down to you to stand at the foot of his ladder if he is visible, or knock on the door and and seek audience with him if he is not. He will be a bit like the Scarlet Pimpernel
'They seek him here, they seek him there'..
but being made of better stuff than the average French revolutionary you will dig him out of his hiding place and persuade him to return. I used to have a lovely little dog who liked to dig around the footings of ladders....he was a great force of persuasion in his time. Apart from recovering the errant artisan you will meet some very nice people...other clients on the same quest...and discover that your village is more interesting than you thought.
He has returned, and it is now that your troubles begin because he attempts to do the job for which he has contracted with you. You have clearly in mind what you want while he has clearly in mind what he proposes to do...the match will not be perfect.
I wanted an extra telephone line run into the house. It could run along a ledge which circled the house at first floor level and enter the house through a hole on the rendering to come out where I wanted it, in a room on the first floor. Invisible. I explained this, and went off to the garden. Luckily I returned before too long, to find the brute about to make a hole in the ornate plasterwork ceiling of the hall in order to bring the wire through the front door, up the stately stone staircase and along the first floor landing! To make matters worse, he proposed covering the wire with those dreadful white plastic strips that disfigure all French house interiors. Very visible, and using a lot more by way of materials for which he could charge me.
More important was the problem with the builder doing my kitchen extension. Having seen the rest of the house I knew that I needed a damp course. He prevaricated
'We don't have damp courses in France.'
That is self evident, you only have to look at the problems of damp in French houses. I insisted. He finally agreed and then I did something stupid. He had disappeared for while, so I went off for a week. He must have had me under surveillance because while I was away he struck. I returned to find the exterior wall in place, but no damp course. The kitchen had to be dry lined, all my kitchen measurements had to de redone and the dry lining was, of course, an addition to the bill.
He and his guys had an endearing habit of mixing a load of cement at about ten to twelve and then knocking off for two hours for lunch. The cement, now well solid, would be chipped out and dumped under any handy shrub. This is so common that there is a phrase for it..'cadeau empoisonne'...the poisoned gift. My lawnmower did not appreciate it.
Well, you might say, why do you reserve your venom for the french craftsman? There are bodgers and cowboys all over the world. Because they're what I'm lumbered with by the French system.
According to their national assocation, you can trust the French craftsman because he is qualified and knows his stuff.
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.
You can become a qualified whatever you want if you can show three years' experience and can pass a course which shows you how to fill out your tax forms. I know of one expat builder who specialises in turning out suitably pre qualified workers....one week they're drawing unemployment benefit, the next week, when the pressure from the labour exchange becomes too strong to withstand, they are roofers. Working on three storey buildings on crippleboards...the unstable wooden scaffolding what somehow becomes invisible when a labour inspector visits the site....they undertake the skilled job of replacing a slate roof. Or they become plasterers. There is another special word to describe the style of plastering they offer...'rustique' - rustic. If you see a plastered wall with undulations visible in dim light, surreal scraper patterns and the odd lump of unmixed plaster, that is 'rustique'.
I wouldn't place money on the ones who have done an apprenticeship, either.
Plumbers want to leave all the pipes exposed
'for when there is a leak'.
What do they mean...'when'!
Electricians want to festoon the walls with wires covered by white plastic strips
'for when there is a problem'.
Why do they think I am employing them, rather than just creating the problems myself?
The only reason I will have the artisan francais on my premises is because, nomatter how bungling his work, nomatter how ugly the results, nomatter what damage he causes...here, lovers of Flanders and Swann will begin to sing 'The Gasman cometh' and anyone who does not know Flanders and Swann can jolly well rectify the situation...the insurers will not pay if anyone but an artisan francais does the work.
Since, given their level of competence, there will be problems, you will need the insurers to pay.
Thus, you have to employ the artisan francais.