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What is La Poste and the French Postal System?

The "Fast Lane" Answer

La Poste is the primary postal courier for the nation of France. Like other postal providers that we have discussed here at SmartyStreets, France has a long and rich postal history, and it is a diversified organization that capitalizes on that history to serve its customers in a wide variety of ways. Among the services they offer are traditional postal services, banking and insurance, real estate, and a mobile phone network.

If you're looking to send mail to an address in France, here's a format that will help you get it done right:

  1. Name, title, and other pleasantries
  2. Secondary address information (apartment number, etc.)—optional
  3. Information regarding access (building name, entrance number/location, etc.)—optional
  4. Street name and number
  5. Additional information for aiding in delivery (PO box, lieu-dit, etc.)—optional
  6. Postal code and name of city or other applicable locality
  7. Country of destination—optional (only necessary for international mail)

Here's an example:

French Address Format

The address should be placed on the bottom righthand corner of the face of the envelope.

Capitaine Jean Luc PICARD   addressee
52 RUE DES FLEURS           street number and name
33500 LIBOURNE              postcode + locality
FRANCE                      Destination nation notation

This information should be placed in the bottom righthand corner of the face of the envelope, essentially beneath the stamp. We have more "dos", "don'ts" and "hows" to offer, but they're going to take a "oui" bit more space, so if you want them, you'll have to put up with our jokes and keep reading.

The "Scenic Route" Answer

History of La Poste

La Poste, a government-owned business that manages the nation's postal system, is the foremost mail carrier in France. They serve France itself, as well as its overseas holdings and Monaco. Though not as sizable as DHL/Deutsche Post, they are a sizable organization—they're the second-largest employer in France, behind only the French government. La Poste is the result of over 800 years of shipping endeavors; here are some highlights of that history.

Things started in the Middle Ages with private enterprises. Universities were the big players starting back in the 13th century, which makes sense—a large group of people who regularly need to communicate information with other groups of eggheads. 1576 saw the debut of "royal envoys"—the first government-run postal organization that offered services to private individuals in France. Use of the royal envoys eventually led to the creation of the very first post offices later that century.

Skip forward another hundred years, and France saw the first telegram in the world. Fifty years later, France started using postage stamps less than a decade after the UK invented them. And in 1874, France was one of the founding members of what was then the General Postal Union; we now know this organization as the Universal Postal Union, or UPU.

Now you might have been confused by the telegraph mention, thinking "That's cool, but what does it have to do with the mail?" The post managed the telegraph service, leading to the name P&T (Postes et télégraphes; which means, as you may have guessed, "posts and telegraphs" in English). When phones were invented they took the helm on that too, changing their name to PTT (Postes, télégraphes et téléphones; which means . . . actually you've probably got that one).

1964 brought the rise of postal codes in France, and the '90s saw the split of PTT. The company was broken down along the line of "Does a postman carry it?", separating the telecommunications from the mail. The mail service became La Poste, and the other part became France Télécom, which is now known as "Orange." Like the color.

Orange was turned into a private company almost immediately, but La Poste has resisted progressive moves like that; they only opened up their monopoly to competition in 2005 (to competitors like DHL) and as of 2015 still holds the status of "public limited company," even as La Poste's contemporaries like Royal Mail and Deutsche Post have made the jump to privatization.

French Postal Codes

Originally, postal codes got their start in France back when La Poste began using automated sorting in 1964. Less than ten years later, they had updated to the 5-digit system that's still used today. A French postal code today is five digits consisting solely of numbers; no letters, no spaces, no hyphens, much like the US ZIP Code system (if you don't count the ZIP+4).

The composition of the postal codes is based on what are called "départements"—administrative subdivisions that roughly resemble a US county. The first two numbers match the number of the département where you can find the destination city. Department numbers were originally assigned alphabetically back in the 1800s, though there have been a number of small changes to the list over the years, so the organization's not as strict as it once was. The other three numbers in the code indicate what post office will actually handle the job of dropping the letter off.

Most postcodes end in a zero, though there are some exceptions. Those exceptions include some of the larger cities, overseas territories, and post office boxes, to name a few. Some postcodes encompass multiple villages, which usually happens because said villages are all served by the same post office. On a couple of occasions one of those villages may actually belong to a different département, which means that the first two digits of the postal code won't match that village’s département. This is very similar to how the ZIP Code system works in the US.

Another example of variation from the strict system is what's called "CEDEX," which stands for Courrier d'Entreprise à Distribution EXceptionnelle, or "special business mail." This term is applied to a number of different categories of nonstandard mail, including recipients who receive large quantities of post and post office boxes. For all of these, an individualized post code is given. This is similar to systems in other countries, where a particular building, organization, or business might require its own designated post code.

French Address Formats

France's postal address format accommodates a surprising amount of supplemental information. The format's pretty strict though. For starters, address cannot be any longer than six lines (seven for international). There's also a lot of CAPS LOCK going on. We'll show you what we mean.

We ripped a page right out of the UPU (Universal Postal Union) manual for all of this. Since they're a department of the UN, and one that was originally founded by France, we figure they've got a pretty good handle on how to send a letter there. Here's some basic advice they gave us just on addressing mail to France in general:

  • "The address starts with the most specific information (name or company name) and ends with the most general (country of destination).
  • Maximum six lines (seven for international). No blank lines should be included.
  • A maximum of 38 characters or spaces per line. There should be one space between words.
  • There should be no punctuation from the line with the house number and street name onwards.
  • Capital letters are recommended for the last three lines (four with the country name) of the address.
  • The address lines should be left aligned and without italics."

Similarly, capitalizing the last name of the addressee is common, but you should be aware that it's no longer required by the UPU.

The example address we previously in this article was a pretty standard French address. It's almost as short as an address can be. The only way it could be shorter is if it was a domestic letter, and didn't need the international line. If that was the case, it would look like this:

Cpt. Jean Luc PICARD
52 RUE DES FLEURS
33500 LIBOURNE

That's as basic as a French address can get. The thing is, there can be up to twice as many lines as this. So you might instead be encountering this:

L'oreille de Monsieur Van Gough
Building B
21 Rue du GENERAL DE GAULLE
74001 PARIS

Or something as big as this:


Monsieur Jean LAFONTAINE           addressee
Chez Mireille COPEAU Apartment 3   additional delivery point information
Entrée A Bâtiment Jonquille        additional geographical information
25 RUE DE L EGLISE                 house number and street name
CAUDOS                             lieu-dit, i.e. alternative names for locations
33380 MIOS                         postcode and locality
FRANCE                             country

So first a bit of breakdown, before we discuss exceptions. The three core details of any address are the recipient (or addressee), the street address, and the postcode/locality lines, just like in most countries. These are the lines that will be in every address. But additional information is often used to add specificity or clarity to the delivery instructions. Here's the order again that all this fun and excitement happens in:

Line 1: Name, title, and other pleasantries

Line 2: Secondary address information (apartment number, etc.)—optional

Line 3: Information regarding access (building name, entrance number/location, etc.)—optional

Line 4: Street name and number

Line 5: Additional information for aiding in delivery (PO box, lieu-dit, etc.)—optional

Line 6: Postal code and name of city or other applicable locality

Line 7:Country of destination—optional (only necessary for international mail)

Here's our first example again, with the lines tagged:

Cpt. Jean Luc PICARD   Line 1
52 RUE DES FLEURS      Line 4
33500 LIBOURNE         Line 6

And our second example:

Jean Claude Van Damme         Line 1
Building B                    Line 2
21 Rue du GENERAL DE GAULLE   Line 4
74001 PARIS                   Line 6

And one more for the road:


Monsieur Jean LAFONTAINE           Line 1
Chez Mireille COPEAU Apartment 3   Line 2
Entrée A Bâtiment Jonquille        Line 3
25 RUE DE L EGLISE                 Line 4
CAUDOS                             Line 5
33380 MIOS                         Line 6
FRANCE                             Line 7

The only two remaining details that need discussing here are corporate addresses and CEDEX addresses (the two of which are not mutually exclusive). A corporate address, for lack of better words, installs a supervisor over the addressee, thereby shifting the recipient's name to the second line. Behold:

UNSC                 company name
MCPO Jean Sienne     addressee (takes place of secondary delivery info)
Zone industrielle    additional geographical information
117 RUE DES FLEURS   street name and number
02552 LIBOURNE       postcode and municipality/locality
FRANCE               national destination

Aside from the self-assertion of the corporation over the terminal addressee, the address remains unchanged. Also, business names (or at least the last word in the name) are capitalized, similar to the last names of recipients.

Now, to complicate things a little bit further—CEDEX addresses are addresses with their own postal code, most frequently seen in the case of post office boxes. If that business address was, say, a PO box rather than an internal address in a building, it would look like this:

UNSC                   company name
MCPO Jean Sienne       addressee
Zone industrielle      additional geographical information
117 RUE DES FLEURS     street name and number
BP 343                 PO box number
02552 LIBOURNE CEDEX   postcode and CEDEX delivery office
FRANCE                 national destination

The PO box number—preceded by the letters "BP" for "Boîte Postale," or "postal box"—takes its seat on the fifth line, and the word "CEDEX" is added after the locality of the post office, in all caps. Also, the PO box doesn't replace the physical address of the recipient; that keeps its seat at the cool kids table.

Now there is the confusing occasion where that creates a problem: sometimes the post office where the box in question is located is not in the locality where the recipient keeps an address. There's a fix for that. Simply add the locality of the post office to the line with the PO box number, like so:


L'école de Xavier              company
Mademoiselle Jeanne GREY       recipient
Résidence les Capucines        geographical information
56 RUE EMILE ZOLA              street name and number
BP 90432 MONTFERRIER SUR LEZ   PO box number + locality
34092 MONTPELLIER CEDEX 5      postcode and CEDEX delivery office

You may note that in this last example the CEDEX had a number; that's in case a city has multiple post offices, to indicate which one is the destination.

And there you have it, the long-winded, brief explanation of French addresses.

Services Offered by La Poste

Behind DHL, La Poste is the second biggest mail provider in Europe; they hold an impressive 15% of the market. La Poste also offers one of the widest selections of services possible for a business like theirs. Their full name is "Groupe La Poste," and it's quite the umbrella, containing the following subsidiaries:

  • La Banque Postale
  • Geopost
  • La Poste Mobile
  • Mediaprism
  • Docapost
  • Poste Immo

La Banque Postale is a bank. It provides regular banking services, as well as insurance. Geopost covers logistics, and that's apparently a big deal. They're an umbrella within an umbrella, housing all express subsidiaries. In France, that's the courier services Chronopost and Exapaq. Worldwide, it's the brands DPD, Yurtiçi Kargo, and Seur GeoPost.

La Poste Mobile is an entire mobile network (yes, like the ones that brag about 4G LTE), run by a parent company that also runs the mail. Mediaprism is communication counselling, Docapost handles document archiving, and Poste Immo is real estate (of all things). So, yes, they're casting quite a wide net, and that net is helping counteract the downturn in business coming from the rise in internet communications.

Now, for La Poste itself: they offer first class, second class, and "green letter" delivery. Green letter is a more eco-friendly alternative that was introduced in 2011, and produces 15% less CO2 than first class. At the time of this article, it catches about 20% of the French market.

Now let's set all of this aside, and talk about the really fun stuff.

La Poste Prohibitions and Restrictions

It's important to know what can and cannot be sent in the mail. But while many prohibited items are just common sense (like substances that might turn the mail truck into another Hindenburg), others require a bit of a heads up. Otherwise, we might not know the dangers of balloons [anchor tag] or of shipping a cat of ambiguous vitality [anchor tag].

So we put together a handy list of things that you shouldn't send, but might not otherwise think of on your own. Now La Poste does not have a an official English list of what's permissible to ship into and within the nation of France. And though we're all talented at a great many things here at SmartyStreets, only one of us knows any passable French, and it's not the monkey who writes the articles.

To counteract this deficiency, we did some research, and found out what other postal carriers are allowed to ship to France and the French postal system. We figure, if other big name couriers aren't allowed to ship it, then you're bound to have a hard time getting it in and out of the country. Here's the list:

  • Certain U.S. Beef hormones
    • Why would you need to, and where do you get them?
  • Collectable stamps:
    • We just have to giggle at the irony of using a stamp to mail a stamp
    • Also, can you get away with it if you use the collectable stamp on the envelope?
  • Doping Products:
    • Drugs are bad, kids; stay in school
  • Diskettes:
    • Does anyone even know what these are anymore?
  • "Dura mater (the tough fibrous membrane covering the brain and the spinal cord and lining the inner surface of the skull)":
    • Wait…what?
  • Gambling devices:
    • It's a bad habit anyway
  • Game meat:
    • They cite specifically two animals with weird names: Chamois or the Rupicapra rupicapra (don't confuse with "chupacabra") and Marmot or Marmota Marmota
  • Hemp Cannabis:
    • See "drugs are bad" comment above
  • Melatonin:
    • Don't expect a good night's sleep in France, apparently
  • "Medical thermometers containing mercury intended for human consumption":
    • Since when is mercury intended for human consumption?
  • "Pajamas and nightdresses made of artificial fibers that are not fire-retardant":
    • That's…awkwardly specific…again
  • Plastic kitchenware:
    • Apparently Chinese plastic diningware can sometimes be hazardous to your health
  • Playing cards:
    • Again, dangerous in the hands of gamblers…or Gambit
  • Personal effects:
    • This is literally as specific as they get on the topic, and we can't help but wonder, what all does this include?
  • Products made in Iran:
    • This would normally merit a "Just anything they make—we don't want that" kind of joke, but this is evidently a serious embargo, so, no Iranian goods
  • "Rubber erasers that are similar in appearance to food products that are easily ingested":
    • That's…awkwardly specific
  • Shoes:
    • Wait, what?
  • Sports equipment:
    • With neither the card games nor the sports gears, you're likely to be pretty bored
  • Silicone used for plastic surgery:
    • There's a "mailing a part of yourself" and a "pound of flesh" joke here; give us a moment, we'll find it
  • Viagra & Vitamins
    • No comment

Undeliverable Mail

Mail in France is undeliverable for the same reasons it's undeliverable most places: bad addresses. The most obvious example is a wrong address. If you address a letter to "5 Pivot Drive" but you intended the letter to go to "4 Pivot Drive," the mail may be undeliverable. A quick-thinking postman might recognize the error and work off of the recipients names, but if the difference between addressed mail and intended destination is more severe you may be out of luck.

Mail might also be returned because the intended recipients are no longer the current residents. If they have moved on and left no forwarding address, then the mail can't be delivered to them. The same goes for invalid addresses: if the address has not been registered with the postal service, or there is no recipient at the address, or there is no address (i.e., there's no building there to deliver to), then the mail won't be delivered there.

In short, it might be helpful to double-check your address and validate before you try to ship. It's as quick as a button click, but it may save you the price of returned postage, and weeks to months of waiting.

Conclusion

France is a cool place: they have the city of love, the Eiffel Tower, and world-class fine dining. Their postal system is easily as impressive, and they're happy to take your letter to your penpal living on the banks of the Seine, or ship your souvenir (that's the French word for "souvenir") home if you're visiting.

If you're looking for some additional information on them, we can help you find what you need. We can also help you make sure those addresses are correct like we mentioned above, so feel free to do that, too. Above all, when mailing to France, remember to keep it to six (or seven) lines, and use that CAPS LOCK responsibly.