When Stuttgart-born Siefried Ulmer took early retirement from IBM in La Gaude – he’d been there for thirty years – he soon got bored. He often speculated on how he could find a useful and interesting way to spend some of his time. Then one day the Ulmers’ cleaning lady turned up looking very despondent. She explained how she’d been ripped off by a household equipment store – and for more than she could easily afford. Recalls Ulmer: “It came to me like a flash. I could use my skills of analysis and communication to help consumers in their battles with companies who, through negligence or dishonesty, give their customers a poor deal.” Soon he was working out of the Nice offices of l’Union Fédérale des Consommateurs, one of nearly 200 branches of France’s national consumer organisation.
The UFC – which produces this country’s most independent consumer magazine Que Choisir? – traces its history back nearly 60 years. Its mission is “to help, inform, defend and represent consumers”. This it does through its magazine – which has conducted famous battles over issues as varied as motorcycle helmets, polluted beaches and retirement homes – and its provision of individual counselling. Explains Ulmer, “Manufacturers and distributors have a lot of power; we try to redress the balance.” Locally, the Alpes-Maritimes branch produces its own bulletin and now has offices in Antibes, Cannes and Grasse as well as Nice where disgrunted consumers can go for advice.
“People are happier in their own language”
“I remember, “says Ulmer, “some IBM assignees without much French who didn’t know what to do when they had a problem: maybe with a difficult lanlord or a dubious insurance contract or a crooked garagiste. So when I got into this I decided to do something for expats, and I work in English and German as well as French. I suppose it’s a bit like going to the doctor: when coping with a problem people are happier in their own language.”
How does the system work? “To start with,” insists Ulmer, “you have to give a firm the chance to answer your complaint directly. If they ignore you or give you the runaround then come to us. We’ll contact them and from what we say they’ll know that we understand what it’s all about and that they’d better play it straight.” But he offers a warning: “To be frank, it’s not worth raising hell over €10 and, be sure you’re in the right. If they’ve covered themselves in the small print in a way that’s okay by the law, then that’s the end of it. But we do often catch companies out and that’s what we’re here for.”
To use the services of UFC – Que Choisir it’s necessary to take out annual membership (€34.50 – including subscription to the bulletin). In Nice the organisation is located at 20 blvd Raimbaldi (a few minutes from the train station). For appointments in Antibes, Cannes and Grasse call Nice 04 93 62 43 72
From Riviera Reporter Issue 121, June/July 2007