Turn Off The Lights

When Martine Passerieu, a single woman living alone in a small house in Bruguière (near Toulouse) opened her morning post over breakfast recently, she nearly dropped her croissant in consternation.

Did EDF mistake villager’s house for Versailles?

The normally unassuming envelope from the power utility Electricité de France (EDF) showed no external hint of threat or alarm , however inside …..!

Her eyes boggling she held the facture upto the light, then hastily switched it off, for her electricity bill said she owed 88,242.00 euros for supply in December alone, adding, generously, she could pay it off in ten equal monthly instalments.

Now everyone knows it was bitterly cold in December all over France. But surely not that cold and in any event, as her neighbours pointed out, the amount EDF was claiming would take your average householder 53 years to consume. It was, they said, what your average artisan might earn in 49 months of hard work, or worse, what you might expect to pay for a small apartment in the village. Scandale they all agreed. “Don’t pay”, they advised.

So the intrepid Mme Passerieu did just that, refusing to pay a penny. Two weeks later, EDF advised her they had corrected the error, and along came an amended bill for ….. 67,166.00 euros.

“I normally pay around 140 euros a month” Mme Passerieu explained patiently before trying some humour: “I don’t live in the Château de Versailles or in the Airbus factory you know. Have you connected the whole village to my meter,” she asked EDF in yet another missive of a now lengthy and prolonged correspondence.

Bad move. EDF was not amused.

The next familiar EDF envelope that her solicitous postman dropped off — with a you-know-what-this-is shrug — , contained a further amended bill, this time for 96,450.00 euros, but this one came accompanied by a threat, to cut her off, in mid winter, if she did not pay it all and within 15 days. “Instead of correcting their mistake, they compounded it!” Mme Passerieu told La Dépêche du Midi. “Initially, I was amused. But now I just think it is incredible that no one seems able to sort this out,” she said.

“I have spoken to four different people, and each time I have had to explain the whole story afresh to each of them. Then when I asked to speak to a manager, I was told there wasn’t one! I’ve spent a small fortune in phone calls and faxes to the company, its beyond a joke now” she said.

Finally she found someone at EDF Toulouse to deal with the problem and admit to “a computer error.” However Mme Passerieu’s travails were not yet over, the error-confessor hastened to add “there is nothing I can do about it.”

Our intrepid consumer was not about to give in and demanded a letter of acknowledgement of error from the customer care advisor who while admitting the error insisted, “no such letter exists on our computers” .

Finally with the help of the newspaper, Mme Passerieu started to get some sense out of the utility. Gil Coulombez, a spokesperson for EDF, told the paper’s reporter: “It is a technical error and we apologise. A goodwill gesture will be made.”

All’s well that ends well, then? Well not quite. Instead of an abject letter of apology from EDF , all Mme Passerieu has far had is one that stated baldly: “EDF sends 115 million invoices out each year, this one may have been a mistake.”

Ah yes customer care you said. At least its warmed up a bit in her village since the big freeze.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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