{Un}glamorous Paris: Bureaucracy

I have a confession: I no longer can carry on a conversation without bringing up the trials and tribulations of my French paperwork. No matter who I talk to – someone I’ve never met, the lifeguards at the swimming pool, my friends, somehow I manage to drop it into a sentence. I try to restrain myself, but inevitably, it’s tied to everything I do, and interconnected, so more comes out. You should see the pain on the faces on the receiving end, as they start to feel my pain. Ever since two weeks before Christmas, bureaucracy has been my part-time, and sometimes full time job. It’s a giant maze catch-22s, that one day I’ll have to illustrate – if I ever find my way to the end. So I wanted to share my current “status” – other than limbo – along with some of my best advice and tips in order to give a better understanding to what “bureaucracy in France” means.

Last August while the rest of France was on holiday I was writing a business plan in French. Oddly enough, that was a relative breeze compared to collecting the 20+ documents, many which did not yet exist for me, since I was so new in the [auto-entrepreneur] system. Furthermore, I was grouped together with commerçants so half of the requests made no sense. But I did it, and had a complete file (see entire list of documents here). SO, you can imagine when I went back a month later to pick up my carte de séjour (the card that validates my visa) and they told me, “as you know, you must come back every three months to renew this.” I must have looked like a cartoon, my jaw was on the floor, and remained open for an uncomfortably long time. But what was done, was done, and we scheduled an appointment for December 21st (Merry Christmas to me!), with a following one on the radar for my birthday.

The thing about going every three months, is that my 2inch thick (see, I’m not totally European yet!) dossier of every paper known to man must be renewed ever three months. An expert in the field told me “what they put you through is living hell and they do everything they can to try to de-rail you.” Somehow, this piece of information was “comforting” to know it wasn’t just me, and also that this particular status is extra difficult. My latest visit (the Christmas one) was particularly rough, but I’m going back next week, changed my address (business!), and am in the process of changing my status (to profession liberale). So just say a little prayer and I’m on the road to a 1 year visa. After *only* 3 more visits to the Prefecture – if all goes well.

There are many more tales to tell, which are only amusing for my sanity’s sake. There are the chairs in the waiting room of my Prefecture office that look more like giant purple and red pills (the cure to insanity?), and the reception desk that is empty more than not. But a recent favorite memory was the pregnant woman working on my case and “helping” me (a relative term). I couldn’t help but notice she was wearing a t-shirt with a silvery fetus on it (I’d never seen anything of the sort before in France, and it was Wednesday, not casual Friday!). Her professionalism was further questioned by the chewing of a tootsie roll-equse bonbon while handing over my récipisée (renewal document). The good news is this scenario gives me a funny story to tell. This goes to prove my best advice for dealing with French bureaucracy is to keep a sense of humor about it. It’s the price of your sanity. Good thing I have health coverage here.

Tips and advice for dealing with bureaucracy:

PREPARING FOR A VISIT

  • Scan every single document as soon as you get it (a multi-page scanner may be a worthy investment). Then print it. In multiple. (I have the belief that France has a deal with paper companies, because I can’t help but feel sorry for the tree I’ve cut down in this process).
  • The French like “originals” of every document. This is particularly ironic in the internet age, with things such as online banking. One contact in the industry suggested investing in a color printer, because if it’s in color, it’s surely an original!
  • Carry your official “passport” style photos with you at all times. Make sure that you have your hair out of your face, don’t smile, take any jewelry off, and look as ugly as possible, and you’ll be set. (I’m not sure how I’ve managed it, but the longer I live her the worse my photos get. The other irony is that for things such as my social security card, I provided photos, which were then digitized.
  • Come up with a good organizational system, it will keep you entertained, at least for a little while. I’m enjoying my binder system (see above) with plastic sleeves, where the original and extra copies behind it. (Still, despite all organizational efforts, I still am made to feel like I’m at a complete failure during my visits. It’s almost like you’re going to a mental institution for a couple hours of your life. Not everyone can claim that!).
  • Realize that having your French dossier (file) up to date at all times may benefit you in ways you never realized. I once was able to rent a table only because I happened to have my housing certificate (valid within the past 3 months, of course) with me. Yes, you need an address to do anything in this country (web addresses not included).
  • Make sure all your addresses on various documents match (aka avoid moving around the time of a Prefecture visit! I learned the very hard way). And if you do need to change your address, realize that there is a certain order this should happen in (also learned the hard way).

STAYING SANE DURING / AFTER A VISIT

  • Don’t drink a lot of liquids before a visit. Last time I was the 4th person in line with a 9am rendez-vous and managed to be there for 2.5 hours. Another government office I frequent I visit doesn’t have a bathroom at all and they send out outside and over to the cafe nearby!
  • Bring a good book to each visit. Preferably something fluffy and humorous.
  • Who you get is like the lottery. My first visit to the Prefecture I was so upset that I thought I got the worst woman ever helping me. Turns out, she saved me and helped me out with a missing document (I think she remembered me from a previous visit when I asked questions; perhaps she knew I was responsible?). The two “cooler,” younger people who assisted me in subsequent visits, were much harder to charm, and made me miserable. (Note: my scenario is notably worse than most, mainly due to my particular status, but always go in with an open mind, as anything can happen. I’ve never had so many curveballs as I have in this country).
  • No one is going to volunteer any information. You need to figure out what questions to ask, and then find at least 3 ways to ask the same question so that “c’est pas possible” results in some sort of solution. Make sure you write down your questions so you don’t forget anything (or force an un-needed visit), as the waiting room is know to suck brain cells and make you eager to just get out of there.
  • Don’t assume anything. I never in a million years imagined that I’d essentially be starting the carte de séjour process from scratch every three months. It’s better to ask up front (because it is never noted on the papers they give you), no matter how dumb you think the question will be.
  • Learn to laugh about it and find humorous ways to tell other about it, because quite frankly, otherwise, it’s an incredibly boring topic.
  • Most importantly, every case is a really individualized case. It’s best to talk to an expert. When in comes to expats and understanding the various Jean Taquet knows it best (don’t be fooled by the blended double flag rainbow on the website). You can also read/subscribe to his informative newsletters in order to feel better about the fact that you do not have to deal with this bureaucracy yourself! They provide fascinating insight into the issues facing life in France.
At the end of the day, one must also realize that bureaucracy is a bonding force. Every day it binds me closer to my fellow expats, and I’d even argue it’s part of French national identity!
{Un}Glamorous Paris is a column looking at the humorous and less than perfect parts of life in France. Find all my posts on Life in France right here.

24 comments

  • oh, oh… always interesting to deal with French adminsitration, isn’t it? I am french but have been living in eastern Africa for the past 6 years and I am coming back in France in July. I will then set up my own company as a photographer and an international criminal justice consultant. While I will not have to deal with visa stauffs, I am already bracing myself for the rest (and I am a lawyer…), that is creation of business, getting back into social security system, etc….
    but as you said the best way to survive French bureaucracy is to be prepared, patient, have humour and always have a good book to make the best of your time!!!

  • This cracked me up – especially the advice to be as ugly as possible in passport photos!
    The French are stubborn about a lot of things, paperwork obviously being one of them.
    Courage expat, courage!

  • Great post — I too recommend Jean Taquet’s newsletter full of great questions and in-depth responses.

    Cheers for continued progress with your paperwork in 2012!

  • I feel for you! I am in the middle of buying a flat and the whole bureacratic process has been ongoing since end of October. I’ve never seen anything like it. One day maybe we’ll finally manage to get the keys to our new home!

  • I’m going back to the States next week to get a long-stay visa and then to return to PACS with my (French) bf here. He can’t understand why I routinely wake up in the middle of the night, panicked that I’ll forget one piece of paper… And those Photomaton machines that are everpresent? When I needed it, the one at our mairie was gone (during contstruction) so I used their online tool to find another, and when I got there, the repairman was fixing it. No matter, 10 minutes later I had a set of 5 very unflattering photos to scratch off my to-do list.

  • Expats should also know that they aren’t the only ones to endure his bureaucracy nightmare. My in-laws and French friends will tell you of their nightmares in dealing w/ gov’t types. The difference is they’ve grown up knowing that the man/woman behind the counter isn’t there to ‘help’ you. Once you know this and arrive prepared (to wait, to ask questions, to wait some more) you should be fine.

    Great post and good luck!

  • Hello there, I feel for you too! I am French living in California, I have been going through immigration non sense for a few years now. Most of the paperwork you list is required here too. And let’s not talk about the photo ID requirement. I do have a break about the frequency though.

    Good luck!

  • It’s contagious, too: when I applied to the US consulate in Paris for extra passport pages I mis-typed one digit in my SS number. BIIIIIIG mistake, because they then wanted to see my SS card. Who carries their SS card? But I got the “c”est pas possible” runaround for a week from French fonctionnaires employed by the US government. It took a conference call to Washington, where a SSA person verified my on-record-for-decades SS# — you could practically hear her rolling her eyes.

  • This is right on. I’m stateside, but just wrote the 20th email to my French bank about getting an unnecessary charge off of my account. It goes in circles. I keep my old Carte de Sejour as a badge of courage! And I, crazy as it is, want to do exactly what you are doing. Keep the advice coming!

  • Eek! That sounds horrible! After hearing this, and about friends trying to move from Dublin to America after marrying Americans, I’m so lucky I moved the other way. I waited 12 hours at the Immigration office, told them I married an Irish man, and they gave me a card that lets me work and stay for 5 years, when I can apply for citizenship. Stunningly easy compared to what it takes to move anywhere else! Perhaps because Ireland loses LOTS of people every day because the economy is so terrible…Good luck!

  • Great post – thank you for sharing! I love your blog, and the honesty and humor with which you write, and it’s also great that you provide such detailed information. There really is a huge difference between visiting and living in any given city! (Though it sounds like Paris bureaucracy is a world of its own. I hope they recycle).

  • Thank you all for your amazing response to this post! It’s comforting to know that others can appreciate (the humor) in it all as well! Such a rollercoaster, but so thankful to have your support. Thanks for cheering me on!

    Anne

  • Having both recently obtained a titre de sejour, my kiwi husband I TOTALLY empathise!! We just simply had to sit back and laugh, at every step – otherwise we would have cried with frustration.
    Sarko is definitely involved in some kind of paper production racket.

  • Yes, this is all 100% true. Just knowing someone else has gone through exactly the same thing, every time, really helps. The DMV is often similar in the U.S., I find. Even worse, though, is that I often feel that in France I benefit (if that could ever be the word) from a pronounced racism in the process, in that I see Africans come and go at the window and automatically they’re treated much worse than I am, with my American passport and blonde hair and blue eyes. This is before the papers come out. Then it REALLY shows.

  • Thank you for this informative post. I think I will apply for Irish citizenship 1st and then move to France – it could be easier.
    One advantage – I can sketch while waiting but the stress could get in the way.
    merci carolg

  • I am going to Bordeaux for a 7 month internship as a language assistant. I know (well, I thought I did!) what to expect (been to France before, but never to the prefecture) and read stories, but after reading this, I want to cry! =( Lord help me! I am not a born Canadian and am going there with my Canadian passport, so fingers crossed about what else they’ll dig up wanting from me! (other than my birth certificate which I have in 3 languages! :p)

    (deep breaths, deep breaths….)

  • Anne, I just want to thank you — though we’ve never met, I sort of consider you my paperwork guardian angel. Because of your blog, I’ve been ultra-prepared for every immigration meeting I’ve had here, and so far it’s been smooth sailing (I’m not an auto-entrepreneur, so that helps too…). But if I hadn’t read your tribulations, I wouldn’t know to bring *more* documents than they ask for, in triplicate, color printed, hyper-organized, etc. Sure, I’ve waited 45 minutes outside in -5C weather to get a récépissé, then 3 hours after my RDV at the préfecture to get my promise of a titre de séjour, but I knew that this was standard operating procedure — thanks to you!

    • This just made my day, Lynn. Bon continuation with the smooth sailing. I go back for a follow-up visit myself in a few weeks. Eek!

  • Dear Anne, thank you for your post, which I just came across today. Knowing what you went through with the auto entrepreneur process, would you do it again? As an American, it’s rather tough to stay in the country, but I bought a home there and would like to live in France full-time as I love it and have pretty much my whole life. I was thinking of trying the auto entrepreneur route, but now I’m shaking in my boots. :)

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