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.

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