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French Administration

One of my first experiences with French administration was when I was renewing my visa a couple of years ago. I had to get to the préfecture early enough so that I could be waited on, as the foreign service office at this préfecture is only open for two and a half hours a day. In front of the préfecture was not a line, but a bunched- up group of people struggling to keep order. Some people were claiming that they were in front of the line, some people were repeating that nobody should run. Why would anyone need to run? There is a big wooden door blocking the entrance to the courtyard of the préfecture. To be served one has to collect a ticket with a number from the attendant at the reception desk at the other end of the courtyard. When the door is finally opened everyone tries speed-walking their way to the door. Some people send their more nimble children to get to the front. It is frustrating, chaotic and occasionally nothing short of baffling, but in a way it sums up French administration. John-Paul Fortney, 13/11/2011 It can take eons to get anything done in this country, which people have come to accept in France. Long waits and mind-numbing amounts of repetitive paperwork are the norm. While in line at the préfecture you might see three guichets and four employees, and yet only one of these windows is actually open for business. Meanwhile, the other three employees are drinking coffee and complaining about how they hate the job that they hardly pretend to do. You’ll be asked for numerous documents à fournir, and upon arrival you’ll probably be scolded for not bringing others that you were not told to bring. I’ve learned my lesson. I bring every document I’ve ever received in this country, with at least one copy of each. After I’d lived in France for one year, my girlfriend urged me to save copies of my pay stubs, as I would be asked for them whenever completing an administrative task. I’ve even been asked for some bulletins de paie that were three years old, so this means hanging on to every single one I receive from here on out in my lifetime. As soon I opened a bank account, I was told to hang on to my account statements each month even though I have them online. I could at least live with hanging on to bank statements and pay stubs as they are handy to have around sometimes. However, while renewing my visa last year, I received a letter from the préfecture stating that they did not have proof that my girlfriend and I had been in a domestic partnership between June and November 2010. Oddly enough they had sufficient proof that we had been together before the end of June and after November, but not enough for the period in between. We were asked to find things that could prove we were sharing a place of habitation. It turns out we had some junk mail from that time that, for some reason, we had not thrown out. We obtained a giant envelope, stuffed the junk mail inside, and mailed it to the préfecture. It was just what was needed to renew my visa. So not only do I have to save my pay stubs and bank account statements, I now have to save my junk mail as well. Magazines from Office Depot, Google, and several clothing stores are kept in a folder, waiting for their time to be sent to the préfecture next year to prove that we still live together. Earlier this year, before one of my two or three annual visa appointments, I called the foreign service office at the préfecture to make sure I had a proper list of the paperwork I needed to bring. Defying logic, they said they could not tell me over the phone. So I wrote a letter asking for a list. They sent this but it was the wrong one. I called them and once again was reminded that they could not tell me what I needed over the phone. They sent another list, which happened to be the same wrong list they had already sent me. For my préfecture visit, I brought every paper known to man (at least to this one) in a backpack just in case. John-Paul Fortney, 13/11/2011 They love stamping things here. After waking up at 5:00 am in order to arrive on time, followed by a brisk speed-walk through the courtyard at the préfecture, we were called to the guichet pretty quickly. As usual, everything was wrong with my dossier. First, we were told that I was at the wrong préfecture. After arguing with them for a few minutes, they realized that I was at the right one. They brought out the list of things I needed to have with me, which of course was completely different from the one they had sent me. Even though I expected this and had brought every paper I knew of with me just in case, it turned out we only had 17 out of the 20 papers that we needed. Fortunately, we were told we could mail the rest in. For future reference, we asked if we could have the list of papers we needed to bring. The administrator told us that she was not allowed to give us a copy, even though she had an enormous stack of copies of this list on her desk. In what I would call a breakthrough, as she finished her sentence, she realized how illogical this was and gave us a copy anyway. Hopefully more examples of common sense will prevail to reform administrative incompetence in France. However, those that wish to change it should prepare themselves to wait in line.
John Paul Fortney's profile pic John-Paul says “Born in St. Louis, USA, I have been living in Paris since February 2008. Since November 2010, I have been running my own company called Culinary Tours of Paris, giving tours that combine good food, drink and historical anecdotes involving French cuisine and the neighborhoods of Paris! You can follow me on my blog ‘Living Cheap in France‘ or here on My French Life™.”



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2 Comments




  1. Elisabeth Donato
    11 years ago

    Great piece, John-Paul, written with a great sense of humor (and resignation) and no bitterness. I love the French habit of stamping everything. When I send paperwork for my Clarion University students to the French University of Lille, I put a bunch of stamps on that paperwork, just for the sake of making it look “official” and please my French colleagues!


  2. John-Paul Fortney
    11 years ago

    Thank you Elisabeth! It’d be one thing if I was one of very few that has had an interesting experience with the administrative process, but pretty much everyone has similar, if not more ridiculous experiences than I do. One just has to accept that it is one of the few bumps in the way of getting to live a good life in France. Every now and then, the whole experience can be quite humorous!

    I love that you stamp your paperwork so much, each stamp probably adds a little more authenticity in the eyes of the administrators here in France.

    Thanks again for writing!