French Bureaucratic Hell?

Written by kvfawcett on October 15, 2010 – 10:16 am -

I’ve been worrying about this for two years and I’m not exaggerating. Would I or would I not be allowed to stay in my adopted country? There are “eight million stories in the naked city” and I was certain each and every one of them would befall me.

If you live in France and don’t have an EU passport, and haven’t been exposed to a discussion about obtaining a carte de séjour (or titre), you’ve been living under a rock. That plasticized card is worth more than its weight in gold, especially if it permits you to work.

Horror stories abound where people have been literally been given hours to pack up their belongings and get out of Dodge—or actually Panam’ to use the equivalent for Paris in the old days. This is not referring to the recent crackdown on illegal immigration. I’ve known people who’ve outstayed their student visas and have been forced to hightail it back to the U.S.

Others have chosen to remain here sans-papiers—yes, some of my best friends don’t have residents’ cards. But it’s become increasingly difficult because if you’re taking a France-bound flight from the U.S. without a return ticket within 90 days (and no, that doesn’t mean three months) you stand the risk of not being allowed to board the plane.

So you opt to become legal. There’s no way out of having all the many papers translated by an official translator, of proving you can support yourself without working, of having medical insurance, divorce decrees, a marriage license, an official address in France—and that’s just the beginning.

And as is true with all bureaucracies, the rules change or maybe it’s more accurate to say they are moving targets.  One fonctionnaire will ask for a paper another one doesn’t feel is pertinent or required. Welcome to long lines, repeat visits, and Excedrin headaches.

So my day had come and my stress level was on the rise. It was time to renew my ten-year card and, being a wee bit of a pessimist, I was convinced the French government would bid me au revoir. I realized this was highly unlikely since I own property in Paris, pay taxes and, darn it, sing the country’s praises.

My first ah-huh moment came when my photos were turned down because they didn’t meet specifications.  I avoided going to one of the ubiquitous booths that ask me to buy my identity photos here. I spent more at a photo place because I didn’t want to screw up. Well, I did because I smiled.  The application papers were returned and I had photos taken that make me look as if I’m a prisoner on death row. Hopefully, I won’t have to show the card frequently, but probably will since it’s valid for ten years.

No more official letters meant (I hoped) good news—no news is good news, right? I decided to make the foray to the Préfecture de Police on the Île de la Cité, which is Paris’s central headquarters for official business and also houses some fairly mean-looking people awaiting trial in one of the building’s jails.

It’s common knowledge you should expect to spend a day when having to accomplish anything official. Registering a car in Paris took so many hours that I became friendly with a woman in the process of waiting and being shuttled from guichet to guichet.

So, I determined this would be a lost day, shoved a book, a sandwich and a bottle of water into my bag and assumed I’d be home before dark. After all, this is August. I walked up to the métro to be greeted by a train pulling into the station and then whisking me to the Cité stop. If I hadn’t been in such a hurry, I would have stopped and bought (or at least admired) the plants and the flowers at the open market at the top of the métro stairs.

But, I was a woman on a mission. I expected a line a block long to just be able to go through security. There was no one ahead of me, and I was in the door, having had my bag go through x-ray and walking through a metal detector so quickly that I assumed I was in the wrong place. I headed to the building where you take a number and wait your turn. My ticket number was 69 and, when I looked up, I saw that I was next. I didn’t even have time to take a gulp of water before my number was flashing on the sign.

In I went and was greeted by a young man with a beaming smile. I said “bonjour” and he replied “hello” and off we were going to getting my new card.  I asked for the card for Mme Fawcett and his face lit up with (I must have been imagining it—hallucinating?) with a modicum of recognition. He looked in the collection of dossiers under F and returned to report my card wasn’t ready.

My new best friend, who insisted on speaking English while I was babbling in French, asked to see my old card again, smiled and immediately went to another area.  He was looking in the wrong place since my identity in France will always be under my nom de jeune fille (maiden name) even though I can hardly remember when I was called that.

Bertrand, my bureaucrat pal, instructed me to go across the hall and purchase a tax stamp for 120 euros. That took precisely two minutes, and I was almost home free. Or so I thought.

I was back waving the stamps and was about to take my card and hit the nearest café and order a glass of champagne. No such luck. Bertrand was holding my card. I could see it—well, thank goodness I couldn’t see the photo—and he told me I’d have to return in six days since that was the day my card expired. Oh, couldn’t he please make an exception. He assured me no (in English) since he’d lose his job. But who was this lovely man who said he’d look forward to seeing me the following week? A mean and nasty French fonctionnaire? Hardly. Perhaps things are changing in La Belle France.

Or realistically, I got lucky, and August may be the best month for dealing with bureaucratic matters. So many Parisians are en vacances and office workers are actually glad to see you since they’re not frazzled or being hassled.

But, what’s with their speaking English? Is that correct? Can’t say it wasn’t helpful, though.

© Paris New Media, LLC


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So Much for the Smoking Ban

Written by kvfawcett on October 15, 2010 – 10:16 am -

When the French government banned smoking in restaurants three years ago, no one thought people would go quietly in the night. Most assumed you’d hear a lot of yelling and screaming and the tobacco addicted would ignore the law.

They were about half right. People began congregating outside bars and restaurants without terrasses and annoying neighbors. The signs suggesting that noisy patrons would not be tolerated seem to have had no effect. Screaming in the night, probably having more to do with alcohol than a craving for tobacco, is a new Paris tradition.

Not really surprising. There aren’t enough police in the world to hand out fines to all the perpetrators of cigarette smoke. French fonctionnaires aren’t completely dumb, so they announced restaurant owners would be the ones to pay and possibly have their doors closed in order to enforce the law—but if the smokers are outside their doors?

This is not to say that the smoking ban has failed altogether. Initially, people did smoke less. There were 15% fewer heart attacks reported the first year of the ban and it was looking good. But people are creatures of habit and some are next to impossible to break of their habits. In addition, statistics have shown that when the economy is down, people tend to light up due to stress.

After the government imposed the smoking ban and raised taxes on cigarettes (at today’s exchange, they’re about $7.50 a pack, that is, about the same as a pack in Washington or New York), the French did cut back on their cigarette consumption. But, that seems to be a thing of the past. In 2009, there was a 2.9% increase in the number of cigarettes sold, but it was short-lived as people resumed their former habits.

What’s especially alarming is the number of 13-to-15-year-old smokers is estimated to have increased by 66 percent between 2004 and 2008. And almost one in five French 16-to-20-year-olds now smoke, compared to one in ten just a decade ago.

On the plus side, the French smoked 97 billion cigarettes in 1991 and smoked (only?) 55 billion cigarettes in 2009. I guess that makes tobacco manufacturers and distributors unhappy—thank goodness they have Asia as a new and growing market. Come to think about it, so does Starbucks.

During the winter (whether in Paris, London or New York), you’ll see gangs of people clustered in doorways looking like fugitives getting their nicotine fixes. La vie est dure, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. Now that it’s summer, it’s hard to walk down the street and not be surrounded by smokers.

Life on the street where I live has taken on a new look and feel since the weather has become more than wonderful. I’ve waved to neighbors whom I’ve never seen before since they’re sitting on their balconies puffing away. I want to go on record that I’m deadheading my geraniums, which is my idea of gardening.

Some theories as to why the French haven’t quit smoking in spite of aggressive anti-smoking ads:

Does printing “Smoking kills” and other one-liners on cigarette packs discourage smoking? By the time you’re close enough to read it, you’ve already bought the pack. Waste not, want not. And the bad news about smoking is old.

Older people frequently say that smoking is one of their great pleasures and why stop now? They may have a point, but it’s their choice.

French women are fast to say they’d rather smoke than gain weight. Plus, since they’re drinking less, it’s a way for women to socialize with one another. Unless or until there are medical reasons for a specific woman not to smoke, they’re quick to say they’ll continue to do it in moderation.

If they decide to get pregnant, most women will stop smoking. They already drink less wine, or practically not at all—much to the chagrin of the French wine industry—so that’s less of a problem, unless of course winemakers start investing in Philip Morris.

Some people attempt to confine their smoking to parties and when they’re out socializing in clubs and in after-dinner bars. That seems counter-productive since they’re forced to stand outside and miss what’s happening—unless of course the reason to go to the clubs is to stand on the street and smoke.

What’s evident and prevalent are the ever-expanding restaurants with terraces and mushrooming tables on the sidewalk. They’re doing booming businesses catering to smokers. If you want to sit outside and enjoy some sun and fresh air, expect to be inundated by second-hand smoke. There’s talk of some restaurants instituting non-smoking terraces, but as the French would say, “On verra.”

Should you be in the Rue Montorgueil area in the 2ème, there are plenty of restaurants on the pedestrian streets that have more tables outside of the restaurant than in the interior. Everyone’s eating, drinking, and smoking away. Because most doors are kept open, non-smokers are doomed if they want a smoke-free meal.

According to data from The Non-Smokers’ Rights (NSR) Association, the ban on smoking is currently being violated far more than it was when the 2007 law went into effect. In addition, restaurants have constructed enclosed terraces, initially so people could eat outside under heaters; these terraces have become de facto smoking zones. The NSR says it has conducted tests that show the air in establishments with covered smoking terraces is three times as toxic as in restaurants and cafés without them.

It’s as if people aren’t even trying. Fewer people are buying stop-smoking nicotine patches and gum to try to diminish the need to light up.

What do you think is going to be the bottom line in France and, for that matter, in the U.S. as well? Are people ever going to stop smoking? And for those us who have (and with difficulty), are we doomed to have our clothes smell like cigarettes because we’re surrounded by others who can’t kick the habit?

Something tells me this isn’t a simply French phenomenon. What do you think?

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