French Bureaucracy, Explained

One of the things about having a social media presence and clearly being an expat in France is that people can easily find me. Hence I get a lot of questions and emails that go something like: Dear Anne, I want to move to France. I’ve sent dozen of email responses which I tend to never hear back from (I fear it’s because what I say isn’t always what people want to hear). After numerous blog posts on the topic as well, I thought it was time to pull together a mega post with all my ideas, insights, and resources on the topic. Life in France is everything – amazing, humorous, inspiring, frustrating, invigorating, amusing, and … nonsensical. So here is my attempt to make sense of it for you.

First things first: think about if you were France. You have this large, beautiful house which is rich in history. It is also is where your job and welfare takes place. Everyone sees pictures and stories from vacations and “knows” how awesome it is and comes knocking at your door wanting to enter your house. Ok, so there’s an application process, and you need to pay the people who manage it. You also want job security, so you make sure there is plenty of paperwork to keep them busy. Internet age? That will be another 10 years until the service provider can have this house fully wired.

But who do you actually let into your home for more than just a visit? That awesome but poor struggling artist type who is trying to figure out life and can’t really pay rent or that boring rich guy whose going to pay taxes and contribute to the economy. This is by no means to say that this is always the case, but it does start to shed some light onto why it can be so convoluted and frustrating to live here no matter who you are. (There is a Competences et Talents 3-year visa aimed directly at creative types – although I have yet to meet someone who is on said visa). Status is important (more soon), but social influence in terms of internet clout doesn’t count, as it did not exist in the time of Louis the XIV. French society doesn’t want promises, it wants to see something measurable and tangible of how you are going to contribute to this fine house (ahem, show me the €€€). Ultimately, this house is a house rooted in tradition.

Systems are in place and change comes slowly. France had the minitel long before the internet, and hence was slow to adopt. Digital pictures at the Préfecture? Pmph, that’d be too simple and would take a job away from the Photomaton repairman, and we can’t fire him because labor laws are very strict and extremely expensive when letting someone go. Besides, c’est comme ça, it’s always been la programme to take ugly, non-smiling pictures with hair out of your face and glasses off in a way that really looks nothing like you, and get a set in bulk for all your official visits (or to get a 3-monthly pool pass). It’s just another step in the scavenger hunt to prove that you are suited for life in France. It’s like a real life pop quiz in attempt to weed out the weakest links.

Even people + machines have to go through certain hoops to get to the level of being honored by bureaucratic measures. It is by no means a “less is more” approach to design. Birth certificates must be translated by certified translators who have jumped through a lot of hoops and paid a chunk of money to earn their status. Often theses birth certificate translations run 50€ and are composed of words learned in French 101. Similarly not every photo booth or shop can give you regulation photos. You must follow instructions to the T. This is your mission should you choose to accept it.

So now that I’ve painted a glorious picture of what the House of France looks like, let me remind you that my home, and the homes of most of my friends look more like this.

Given that we are talking about Houses, with a cameo by a king, it only appropriate that we bring status into play. Conveniently the French word has a similar ring: statut. Here, it is not just us étrangers (foreigners, with a literal translation of stranger) that have a statut, but the French do too. In fact, just last month a French illustrator friend “launched” a second status for herself so she could now sell stuffed dolls. Despite having a highly illustrative quality that looks much like her work on paper, there are even limitations for truebloods as well. Her existing status as an artiste (under La Maison des Artistes – yes, the house of artists!) specifically defines what forms her art can be created in. (And no, I cannot make this stuff up). So she created a new société under the Auto-Entrepreneur status to test out this business. Yes, there is a lower tax rate, but any savings is lost in the time you could have been used creating. She will then lance a proper French business should this endeavor succeed, where once again she will lose time in bureaucratic measures making sense of her new status and getting all her ducks in a row rather than generating income to contribute to society economically.

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