Liberté, Fraternité, Absurdité: On the Joys of French Bureaucracy

Ah, the French government. A splendid paradigm of the art of taking a perfectly simple process and spinning it out into a complicated, frustrating web. The private sector is not free of bureaucracy either…

I’ve been in France for a few months. This is my third time in France. The first time, I didn’t really observe much. I was wrapped in my cocoon of self-discovery and depression, much too distracted to notice much beyond the filth/poverty/tourists/food in Paris. In addition, I was on a study-abroad program that took care of everything from university registration to housing arrangements. What’s more, since I was staying only five months, I didn’t have to open a bank account as my bank let me use my debit-card to withdraw euros from the ATM. The second time I was here, I stayed ten days – it was simply a stretched out layover.

This time around, my stay in France is long term – a year, maybe more. I came to train at a circus school. Before I left home, I’d already had a dose of French impracticality from the French Consulate. Apparently, in order to get my visa to go to France, I needed to already have accommodation in France. The problem with that was, in order to get accommodation in France, I needed to be in France. I don’t know who made that rule, or what they were smoking when they made it, but it’s just plain dumb. I spent 2 weeks and lots of phone credit contacting landlords and landladies, trying to convince them that a)I wasn’t some kind of scam artist or crazy person,  and b) I REALLY would show up in France, but only after they had rented me a room without actually meeting me in person. As luck would have it, there was a landlord who was familiar with his country’s ridiculous rule regarding student visas, and I actually found him. So I got my certificate of accommodation and was on my way to France one week late for my training.

Having somewhat sorted out housing (I moved to a different place after a month), the next important thing on my to-do list was opening a bank account. “Easy peas”, I thought. I’d already opened 3 accounts in 2 countries… too bad none of those countries was France. It took me one week (9 days if we count the weekend) to open the account, and almost a month to get my debit card. The problem with this was that all my money was 1) in cash (and could only be deposited into an ATM with a debit card) and 2) in US dollars. I needed to pay my rent and (understandably) my landlord wouldn’t accept a foreign currency.  I don’t trust bureaux de change as they have rather sketchy exchange rates1. To buy food, I’d been using my American debit card, but between taxes and international usage costs, this wasn’t very sustainable. Each time I went to the bank, I had to schedule an appointment in order to talk to an agent. Apparently, walk-ins don’t happen here (or at least not in the bank I chose) so a process that could easily have taken two days was dragged out, especially because I didn’t have all the documents required – notably the infamous justificatif de domicile2. When I finally opened the account and got the card, I found out that since my money was foreign, I had to go to their head office (I mean, schedule an appointment to go to their head office) to deposit my money…

…Eventually, I got the bank situation under control. The next important step was to get my residence permit. For people staying in France 3 months or less, a French visa is the only document necessary. For a longer stay, we need a residence permit or titre de sejour, which is a document stamped/glued to our passport that says our long stay is allowed. Moreover, I needed my titre de sejour in order to get state-backed health insurance, a housing stipend from the government, and to be able to travel home and back for Christmas without a hitch. The French consulate back home had given me the required form to fill and the address to send it to when I arrived in France.  I followed their instructions to the letter and sent my form. I felt so organized, I would have given myself a pat on the back if I could have. I felt much less smug when, 6 weeks later, I still had no word from the French Immigration office acknowledging receipt of my document, or giving me an appointment to come and get my passport stamped. I finally decided to contact them instead of just waiting.

I went online to look for their contact information, and noticed that the address of the office closest to me was different from the one I was given. No big deal, I thought. There is probably more than one immigration office in each region. I went to the office the following day and showed the receptionist the address I had sent my documents to. She told me that office had been closed for over 2 years…  Many different thoughts and emotions assaulted my mind simultaneously, but thankfully I was able to keep them at bay and ask the receptionist what that meant. Apparently, it meant that I had effectively not sent my documents and needed to send them. It was already mid-November and I needed to go home in a month. Too bad. It takes between 6 and 8 weeks after the documents are received for an appointment to be set up. And no, you can’t hand in the documents (I had brought copies with me) you have to mail them. I think there is a certain point in frustration beyond which you just go right back to being calm. I had reached that point. In any case, there was no one to carry out my frustration on directly – the French consulate that didn’t bother to keep track of the locations of its own country’s immigration offices, the offices themselves that require 2 months to schedule an appointment, and the bloody receptionist who was downright unhelpful are just parts of the big, murky, intangible mass that is French bureaucracy.

It would take another two and a half months to get my residence permit. I had no health insurance (I won’t even start on the red, black and blue tape that surrounds that) and I had to pay my full rent, no stipend. I did go home and back (which was dicey, but thankfully I got away with it). The next big thing to sort through was money. I receive fellowship money from my alma mater in order to do what I do. The money comes in two halves; the first cheque I received in September, and the second was supposed to get to me by the end of January.  It didn’t. Someone, somewhere had sent it to the wrong address. I was sent a replacement mid-February and I promptly went to deposit it at the bank because my account is not looking too good at the moment. The receptionist said it would take two weeks for my account to be credited. She lied. After 18 days, I went back to the bank to ask why my account was still quasi-empty. The receptionist then explained that it was another office somewhere else that handled international cheques but that she’d ask them to get back to me the next day. Two days later, I got a phone call from the bank (or maybe it was the mysterious office that handles cheques) saying that in fact, it takes 5 to 8 weeks for the cheque to be credited to my account. I cut the line. And cried quietly. I owe this month’s instalment of my school fees. I owe last month’s rent. My landlord has kindly informed all of us that if we do not pay up by the end of this month, we should please pack up and leave (funny enough, all three of us living here have money troubles at the same time). I tried to explain my situation to him. He listened, then he also explained his situation to me. He also has bills to pay. I didn’t push it. I’ll wait until the end of this month to see how things pan out…

I know that bureaucracy is not unique to France. Still, this is the first place where it’s hit me like a brick wall (and sucked me down like quicksand). So, the next time you think of France and you think of wine, cheese, the Eiffel tower and Paris fashion week, think also of the convoluted, insidious network of paperwork and indeterminate waiting that could possibly bring you to tears.


1. I base this on experience. The first time I came to France, a bureau de change took my $100 and made it €60. I later found out that at the time one euro cost $1.33 so my $100 was actually worth €75. I want to imagine that the missing €15 was absorbed by the agency as some kind of fee.

I did end up having to exchange some money with a Travelex. I was not happy about it. They offered to buy each dollar for €0.63. I knew this was far from the exchange rate and I made to walk away when the agent suddenly changed his mind and offered a rate of €0.70 to the dollar. I grudgingly accepted – I had a feeling I was still being cheated, but I really needed cash in euros.

  1. A document or group of documents, which prove that you live where you say you live. In my case, because I was renting a room in a house, that meant I needed a letter from the homeowner affirming that I lived in his/her house, a photocopy of the homeowner’s id card, and a gas, electricity, water or phone bill with the address printed on it. This is a very basic part of the French bureaucratic system: you need your justificatif de domicile for everything in France, as I would later learn.

    UPDATE: After 5 weeks, my cheque finally cleared. The only reason I still have a roof over my head is because my landlord decided to be nice. And apparently, I am not the only one who has been pissed on by the French system. My Colombian friend arrived in this country at the end of 2013 on a tourist visa. He then decided he wanted to stay and sent in his request for a residence permit in July of 2014, one month before his visa expired. The prefecture pretended like they didn’t know what he was talking about and did not get back to him. Without a titre de sejour, he could not open a bank account, get health insurance or travel by plane anywhere, unless he was going back to Colombia – which would be possible if his folks could wire him some money… but he didn’t have a bank account. He finally got his permit this March (2015). I do not understand how he managed to be so patient and zen all this time. And the only reason he got the permit was because he went to the prefecture and flipped a shit, so the people took him seriously [I think this is because French government workers are getting scared these days of being attacked by frustrated civilians and with good reason; this seems to be happening every two weeks now].

So now he has his permit, and he went to the bank to open an account, armed with all the documents he needed. He went there on a Friday morning hoping to get an appointment for the same day, and (surprise, surprise) was told to come back the next morning because there were no agents available that day. So at 9.30am on a Saturday when sensible people were still in bed, he was waiting at the bank. Everything was going nicely, until the agent asked for his id and saw that he was from Colombia. I am going to have to talk to my superiors and get back to you. Why is that? Because I don’t know what our policy is regarding opening accounts for people from Colombia… 

It’s like being in a really bad never-ending film where the plots get more and more illogical. And I am not the only one who thinks so. 

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