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Thursday, November 3, 2011

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 prefecture early enough so that I could be waited on, as the foreign service office at this prefecture is only open for two and a half hours a day. In front of the prefecture was not a line, but a bunched up group of people struggling to keep order. Some people are claiming that they are in front of the line, some people are repeating that nobody run.

Why would anyone need to run?

There is a big wooden door blocking the entrance to the courtyard of the prefecture. To be served at the prefecture, one has to collect a ticket with a number at the other end of the courtyard from the attendant at the reception desk. 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.

It can take eons to get anything done in this country, and people have come to accept that in France. Long waits and a mind numbing amount of repetitive paperwork are the norm. While in line at the prefecture, 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 have ever received in this country, with at least one copy.

After I had lived in France for one year, my girlfriend urged me to save copies of my pay stubs, as I will be asked for them whenever completing an administrative task. I've even been asked for some bulletin 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 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 prefecture that stated that they did not have proof that my girlfriend and I were in a domestic partnership from between June and November of 2010. Oddly enough, they had sufficient proof that we were together before the end of June and after November, but not enough for in between. We were asked to find things that could prove that 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 prefecture. 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 prefecture next year to prove that we still live together.

Earlier this year, before one of my two or three visa appointments per year, I called the foreign service office at the prefecture to make sure I had a proper list of the paperwork I needed to bring. Defying logic, they said they cannot tell me over the phone. So I wrote a letter asking for a list of things to bring. They sent the list, but it was the wrong one. I called them again to ask, once again being 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 prefecture visit, I brought every paper known to man (at least to this one) in a backpack, just in case.

After waking up at 5:00 am in order to arrive on time, followed by a brisk speed-walk through the courtyard at the prefecture, we were called to the guichet pretty quickly. Per usual, everything was wrong with my dossier. First, we were told that I was at the wrong prefecture. After arguing with them for a few minutes, they realized that I was at the right one. They bring out the list of things I needed to bring with me, which of course was completely different from the one that they kept sending me. Even though I expected this and brought every paper I knew of with me just in case, it turns out we only had 17/20 of the papers that we needed. Fortunately, we were told to mail the rest in. For reference, we asked if we could have the list of papers 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.

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