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A floppy filled with software worth thousands of francs: Techie can't take it, customs won't keep it. What to do?

Halt and catch fire

Who, Me? A blast from the past, and possibly the future, as a Register reader regales us with a tale of carnets in the pre-Maastrict Treaty era. Welcome back to Who, Me?

Our reader, Regomised as "Ralph", was working for a company specialising in price-reporting and dissemination systems for exchanges ("Commodity, Stock, Metal, Financial, and the like," he explained.)

The company had scored the contract to install a system at the Bourse du Commerce in the Les Halles district of Paris. Ralph, and a van full of kit, had been dispatched to oversee the installation by a small team of engineers.

It all went well. The system gathered price data from the trading pits and sent it into the world via the mediums of Reuters, Telerate, and even France's own Minitel (or "Médium interactif par numérisation d’information tèléphonique," as Ralph explained.)

Minitel was a precursor to the World Wide Web and was first rolled out in France in 1980. Users could shop, mail, and chat in ways familiar to modern web users. They could also check stock prices.

It was still the big new thing when Ralph implemented his system. "The system went live on schedule, all worked as planned, and we had the customary after-show party held, as only the French can, with plenty of wine, Champagne, and canapés."

Poker face

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The following day the team reassembled to deal with sore heads and the thorny issue of the invoice. "This was met," said Ralph, "with a typical Gallic shrug, a bit of arm-waving, and an announcement to the effect that 'sorry, not possible to pay money to England without proof of import'."


Ralph returned to England and, with his MD, came up with a cunning plan. Deciding that the "software" was the main thing of value, they lumped in all the costs of the job (installation, hardware, training, etc) and ascribed a value to "the software" that was well into six figures.

A disk was then created containing "the software" which Ralph took back to France with all the necessary carnets filled out. Customs was to be cleared in a northern suburb of Paris and, armed with all the necessary paperwork, he pitched up in front of the customs officer.

It all began so well. Ralph explained that the disk contained software worth many thousands of Francs. The office accepted the documentation. So far so good. "He said all he needed to do was phone the Bourse and check they were willing to take delivery, and I'd be good to go."

What could go wrong?

"He returned shortly, solemn-faced, to say 'sorry, they won't take delivery'."

"No problem!" said Ralph, brightly. "I'll head into Paris and sort it out."

The officer scoffed: "What? Taking this floppy disk worth thousands? I think not, mon ami."

Ralph: "No worries, you hang onto it."

Officer: "Ah NON! Too valuable."

Ralph: "OK, I'll sit here with it."

Officer: "Sorry, we close at 5pm."

The farce went on until eventually a solution was reached. The office would keep Ralph's passport as security and Ralph could leave with the floppy disk.

The evening was spent with the customer negotiating how payment would be made. A quid pro quo agreement was struck that would see data fees waived rather than a direct payment made and all parties were, we think, delighted. That special disk was not needed after all.

By the time the morning rolled around, Ralph had secured the deal and was ready to return home. He just needed his passport back.

Which meant performing his own special part in yet another French farce with the same customs officer.

"It's OK," said Ralph, "they don't want the software so, if I could just have my passport, I'll be off back to England."

Not so fast: "Ah, but you can't leave with this softwares, no export carnet!"

Ralph shrugged, "OK, you keep it."

The officer was shocked: "What? Softwares worth thousands of francs? I think not, mon ami."

Ralph: "OK, I'll stay here then."

Officer: "Sorry, lunchtime soon."

And so it went on, round and round. What to do about this disk that was apparently worth thousands? Ralph couldn't take it away but the officer couldn't keep it. What to do indeed.

Eventually, the officer (perhaps thinking of his lunch) looked Ralph in the eye and said: "Look, this softwares, do you have an, er, copy back in Angleterre?"

Of course Ralph did. The officer motioned for him to come to the back of the office.

A cigarette lighter was produced with a flourish and the officer set fire to the floppy disk.

Ralph was handed his passport with a cheery "OK, free to go. Salut!"

Ever dealt with a thorny problem via the medium of fire? Or found yourself at the sharp end of officialdom? Share your story with an email to Who, Me? ®

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