People often ask me what I like and dislike about France. The like part is pretty simple : food, wine, amazing cheese, public transportation, health care that is worth a darn. The list could go on and on. The dislike part makes all my French friends laugh because I imagine they feel my pain : French administration. French bureaucracy has a horrible reputation. It is known to be inefficient, incredibly bloated with personnel that are considered to be pretty lazy. The statistic that is often cited is 1 in 5 French people are "fonctionnaires" or government workers. They get 10 weeks of vacation, they work from 9 AM to 4 PM, while the rest of us poor souls get less vacation and work from about 9 AM to 6 or 7 PM. I cannot really describe how they treat the French people, but as of late, I have had my fair share of "war stories."
I have been in the process of changing my immigrant status from "student" to "employee". Getting any sort of titre de séjour (resident permit) in France is a headache in and of itself, but I would imagine thanks to the current economic situation around the world, becoming an employee in France has become a more difficult than usual process. I have many great stories. Lost files, racist comments made by government workers, and getting three different answers from people who work in the same office, and who should forcibly know the same rules. The really ridiculous thing about the people who staff the immigration office is that they CANNOT be fired. They might get transferred to a crappy job in some stuffy office in a sketch part of town, but they still have a job. So no matter how badly they do their job, and no matter how it ends up affecting people who are just trying to be honest and get their legal status and keep it, there is no fear of losing one's job. Which I guess on the bright side, I should be thankful, because that would be one less thing I could write about...
In 2009, when I first came to France, I put in my file to get my first titre de séjour and it was ridiculous. Immigration fact #1, they invent documents. I was very meticulous about going online to their website, downloading the list of necessary documents, and making sure I had everything I needed. I even put the documents in order of how they were presented on the list. I get there, and I apparently forgot to get a certain certificate from the U.S. Department of State for my internship. But the document wasn't on the list. When I asked them why I needed it, I got the usual shrug of the shoulders and a "ben, c'est comme ça en France." Being an American, who believes that what you see is what you get, I cited their website. Response : "You shouldn't really rely on what is published on our website. It is rarely updated." Great. Thanks so much...
Eventually, I got the magic missing document, and was able to leave my file in their capable hands. I came back when I was told to in order to pick up my card, and was told it wasn't ready yet. "C'est normal" they told me. It was the famous vacation period in August, when 40% of the French economy just shuts down because they are all on vacation. So I waited for another month, and came back. They scrambled to find my documents. Nothing. My file had been lost. Immigration fact #2, they lack any sort of information technology. It had all been lost I imagine, because they had to transfer my paper file to another office across town. I have lots of funny options in my head, because seriously, if you can't laugh about these experiences, it will just make you crazy. So I had to start over from the beginning, get new documents, and resubmit my file. The worker with whom I conversed told me with a laugh that these sorts of things happen. I was less than amused. When I inquired about whether or not they were going to pay for my train ticket to come back to Paris from Strasbourg to pick up my titre, the smile she had been wearing was quickly gone. "It's not our fault!' she decried. Immigration fact #3, they cannot admit they are wrong.
Today, I've become a pro. I have learned what to expect, and am generally quick about getting in and out. However, while I have been waiting for my titre de séjour, some issues have come up in the USA and I have to head home. I am on an "expired" titre even though I have a letter stating that I have authorization to be in the country. I called to ask what to do, and was met with dramatics of the sort that I could be deported if I try to leave and come back, blah blah blah. I asked if there was any way for me to get an appointment prior to my departure for my medical exam, and she declared that it wouldn't be possible (when you only work 5 hours a day, I suppose it is hard to fit in hundreds of immigrants needing a medical visit). A few hours later, I received a fax with my date and time for a medical visit. Monday, 7 February. I bet she surprised herself with how it was indeed possible. I at least hope she felt proud for helping a desperate immigrant.
So how can you survive Immigration in France? I have compiled some tips to help out:
1) Take the cited amount of copies you will need for certain documents, and double it.
They inevitably don't know how many copies you really need, so they just pull a number out of thin air. I sent in 14 photos for my current titre de séjour, even though they only requested 7. In the end, they sent me 4 back. You do the math...
2) If you forget rule #1, just remember to bring lots of change.
The offices are nice enough to supply copy machines, but you have to pay for copies. And they don't have coin machines. So bring change or else you could find yourself coming back later than expected for immigration fun.
3) Insistence is key.
Immigration workers don't think outside the box. They don't get paid to do it. They get paid to take long coffee breaks and harass people just trying to live in their country. So it is best to inform yourself beforehand, and then insist that they see it your way. Be nice yet forceful, because if you get angry, then they have done their job for the day, and it will only satisfy their inner sadist. If you can't speak French, bring someone with you that can. Because let's be honest. They don't get paid to be bilingual either. And you should want to speak French as a condition of wanting to live in their glorious country.
4) Get good at harassing.
Once your file is in with Immigration, it does not mean that it is being worked on. When I called the other day to see why I hadn't had my medical visit yet, the woman said, "We get three months. It's only been two and a half. We still have time." *blink* If you keep calling and harassing them about the status of your file, you will eventually see results. They will get tired of you calling and robbing them of their precious gossip time. Plus, it feels good to return the favor of frustration. So pick up the phone and call!
5) Don't get too used to having your titre de séjour in hand.
Congratulations! You got your titre de séjour! It must be so nice to have a thick, laminated identity card that doesn't fit into any sort of wallet. Except, since it took them 5 months to finally get the card to you, you have to renew it. I think I have had a physical card in my hot little hands for a maximum of 6 months. Every other time, I get it for a month and then I have to turn it back in for renewal.
The administration française is an excellent example of the old English joke poking fun at the French. God created France, giving it the greatest butter, wine, cheese, and the prettiest land. The other Europeans came and complained, jealous that they had been slighted in what He had given them. God scratched his head, and exclaimed, "You know what, you are right. I will fix it and make it fair!" And what did God do to rectify his uneven generosity?
He created the French. And the Europeans were satisfied.