CAMmag logo

Beating the System - French VéloSoleX Hell

by Peter Newton

Some years ago my wife and I bought a house in southern France.  We had been thinking about this for some time, having enjoyed the summer holidays and different cultures and lifestyles in the warmth of both the southern France and Spain.  It was the untimely death of my sister that provided a real focus to our dreamy plan, reasoning that life was too short not to do so, and our house-hunting started in earnest, centring on the Languedoc in France.  Bought nearly a decade ago, the house has been a joy to both of us, and our family and friends, giving immediate access to all that southern France has to offer including beaches, lakes, wild countryside, fascinating villages and towns, local wines and good living.

But even in rural France the practicalities of life always intrude and local transport was immediately apparent as a problem area.  The provision of public transport in much of rural France is sketchy at best and almost everybody who needs mobility seems to have access to a car.  As our house did not have a garage, keeping a second car there was problematic and I suggested that, until we could do so, providing ourselves with mopeds might be a useful stopgap.  I must confess to just a little self interest here - over the previous couple of decades I had become more and more interested in cyclemotors, owning several, and my dismissive attitude to French mopeds from my teenage years had long since evaporated.  Not only would simple two-wheeled transport be useful for my wife and myself, but our children, when visiting the house, would at least have the means to get themselves from A to B.

It just so happened that my London neighbour had a couple of VéloSoleXes.  He knew of my interest in cyclemotors and had mentioned to me previously that he wanted to get rid of them, and was I interested?  Despite my wife's misgivings, I stuck a deal with the neighbour on the basis of a case of Corbières wine for the pair!  I took them back to my house straightaway.  They were both in barn-find condition and on examination I found that one would not run, and the other, once started, would not stop without pulling off the sparkplug cap, but they were both pretty much complete and would form the basis of straightforward renovations.  These would be ideal, and appropriate, for the house in France and were without any documentation from the UK.  Renovation started immediately, completed quickly and over the past eight years the VéloSoleXes have given excellent service, provoked favourable comments from lots of French people, and have been great fun.  Simple machines, driving licenses unnecessary, no need for registration and simply requiring insurance to be ridden legally in France, and even the kids admired their retro über-cool style, what could be better?

The French State had other ideas.  Bryan Hollinshead has written many times in his excellent Amis du VéloSoleX pieces about the changes to the French law, which now require that all cyclemotors used in France, including the old ones, are registered and issued with registration plates.  This is being done to harmonise French procedures with those in other European states, although I now suspect that it is yet another means to allow the icy grip of French bureaucracy to extend to one of the last few freedoms that can be enjoyed.  But we are where we are and this registration (immatriculation) had to be done if the VéloSoleXes continued to be used and I therefore had to get to grips with the French bureaucratic systems.  The registration process, according to the French government web sites, is free if done before the end of 2010.  Now retired, I had some free time over the summer, so let's do it!

Having accessed some of the French government web sites to chart my way forward, my starting point appeared to be the local Mairie.  I put together the documentation that I thought was necessary, and sought their assistance.  "Oh no sir, not here, you must go to the Sous Préfecture" I was told.  OK, off to the Sous Préfecture in Narbonne, 20km away, with my file of papers, waited in a queue for an hour, only to be told when reaching the appropriate fonctionaire "Oh no sir, not here, you must go to your Mairie".  Hmm... so I went back to the Mairie, where their story had now changed and they asked for my telephone number telling me they would advise where I could do my "faire immatriculation" after they had done a little research.  The following day they informed me that I needed to go to a motor cycle shop back in Narbonne which was equipped to perform the procedure I needed to follow.  So off to "Charly Moto" where I had a very difficult conversation with a spotty youth who had no idea what to do, and who spent the best part of an hour on his mobile phone speaking to his supervisor trying to advise, the advice eventually being that I needed to go to the Sous Préfecture!  Back to the Sous Préfecture I went, queuing yet again only now to be told that they no longer offer the immatriculation service and I now needed to present my papers to the Federation Français des Vehicle d'Epoque (FFVE) in Rennes (some 500km away) who could assist.  As I turned to leave the fonctionaire said, with a wry smile, "Bon courage, Monsieur"...

You will understand that by now I was starting to lose the will to live.  All I wanted to do was to register two French mopeds in France, mopeds that had been used legally there for the past eight years.  It was incomprehensible to me that the individual bureaucracies within France, one of the leading nations on the planet, could be so disconnected from one other - nothing appeared to be "joined up".

I spent a few weeks licking my own bureaucratic wounds.  But I wanted to make sure that the VéloSoleXes were street-legal, and I started looking into the FFVE via their website.  The website explained about the documentation that I needed to provide, but surprisingly said that the process for cyclemotors would cost 25 euros per vehicle, rather different from the French government sites declaring this to be a free process.  However, I prepared the information required (photographs of the vehicles, both sides and front view, maker's plate, identification numbers, insurance documentation, evidence of domicile, etc.), wrote two French cheques for 25 euros and posted a whole lot off to the FFVE with an SAE for their return.  Two weeks later my SAE arrived back returning all the documentation I had provided, including the two cheques, but with some different registration forms that I now had to complete.

My wife will confirm that I am not the most patient of people.  This was the limit - what else could I do?  I didn't want to complete yet more forms with no certainty of success, and the clock was ticking.  I was due to return to London for a while and I might miss the December deadline.  I went back to the Internet to explore other options...  Eschewing the FFVE site I went back to re-examine the French government websites.  I read yet again about registration being a free service, about how the service can be performed at a Préfecture or a Sous Préfecture, and at this time noticed in some very small print the fact that some Sous Préfectures may be unable to provide this service - this had not been the case when I started out.  But I had not taken my paperwork to the main administrative regional centre, the Préfecture.  Perhaps this might produce results.  Some distance from me, but perhaps the Préfecture might be able to do the business?

I collected all my paper work together and drove the 80km to the Préfecture.  Once again, took my ticket, stood in line, eventually reached the fonctionaire and presented my case.  "Oh no sir, this isn't right, you need some form of attestation to confirm that your mopeds are exactly the types you state them to be on the form".  For a modern vehicle this will be provided in the form of a letter from the manufacturer, but of course, VéloSoleXes have not been made for some years.  The only way forward, I realised, was to approach my insurers and make sure that their insurance paperwork specified "VéloSoleX 3800" and not simply "VéloSoleX" as was currently the case.  A telephone call to my insurance agent, an e-mail sent to my laptop with the appropriate confirmation, a revisit of the Préfecture that same afternoon with this last piece of the jigsaw and 30 minutes later I found myself in ecstatic mood clutching my two Certificat Provisoire d'Immatriculation for the VéloSoleXes!  And they had consecutive registration numbers - how chic!

Yes, it can be done.  You learn lots of French you will never need to use again, you reach depths of exasperation you never knew existed, you get a tiny insight into the dark reaches of French bureaucracy, but at the end, those sunny uplands of immatriculation success seem almost worthwhile.  All I need now are the new number plates!

© 2011 Peter Newton.

| CAMmag Home Page | List of articles |