Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Going to the Préfecture

My permission to live and work in France is conditional on my continued employment, and renewable in (kinda) 1 year increments from the date of my entry into France. I came to France just over 2 years ago in early Novemember, so every October I have to head down to the local préfecure to exchange money, photographs, and truely ridiculous amounts of photocopies for a 1 year extension on my stay here.

Now immigration procedures in most countries are pretty strict, tedious, expensive, and seem to be crafted solely to discourage legal immigration as much as possible. Having dealt with immigration in the US, and having friends who have dealt with it in various other countries, I think I am pretty safe when I say France takes the cake in terms of unecessarily complicated and useless bureaucracy.

At least the building looks cool

For most federal legal proceedings one has to go to the local préfecture and speak with a fonctionnaire. Préfectures are kind of like states, or maybe counties, and France is split up into 100 of them. My préfecture is fortunately just a 15 minute walk from my house, pretty much right in the middle of Lyon, but other than that little bit of fortuitous, there is nothing remotely pleasent about my (bi-, sometimes tri-) annual trips there.

As mentioned above, my permission to work here lasts for a period of one year, and then I must renew it for another one year period, ad infinitum. But that is only kinda true. Since my Id expires in November, I must go to the préfecture in October with my stacks of paperwork and in return, they give me permission to stay for just 3 more months, and at the end of that 3 month period I can return for my id card which at this point is now only valid for about 9 months (since it is dated from the expiration of my previous card, not when I actually receive it). So Id renewal therefore takes a minimum of 2 trips--one for the request, one for the pickup.

I say minimum, because this requires extraordinary preparedness on the requester's part, as well as a bit of luck that the préfecture is not too busy. Last year when I came back in 3 months, they apologized and said my card wasn't yet ready and they gave me another 3 month extention and told me to return for my real card. So by time I actually got my 1 year Id card, it was already 6 months old.

This year was a-whole-nother level of suck.

The worst thing about dealing with the French government is that everytime you pay them a visit, they have absolutely no idea who you are. Despite the fact that the French government has approved my stay in France 3 times (once for the initial visa, and two Id cards), every time I go for renewal I must bring all the same documents--birth certificate, marriage certificate, passport, work contract, proof of address, etc. Of course bringing an up-to-date work contract and current proof of address makes sense, but birth certificate and marriage cerificate. I'm pretty sure my birth details haven't change since last year, and fortunately neither has my marriage status.

But that is the French way. Apparently they just toss all that paperwork I give them every year into the trashcan, and when I bring it all back the next year, they are so happy that a brand new person has immigrated to France.

So per usual, George and I get up early to get a nice place in line and head to the préfecture with our dead trees and passport photos. This is exactly the same paperwork I gave them last year, and the year before, with the exception of the work contract and my last electric bill which need to be up-to-date. After 4 hours of waiting we hand our paperwork to the nice lady and she tells us that the rules changed this year and we are missing a few documents and that we have to come back with all the proper papers.

The new rules require photocopies of EVERY PAGE in your passport, as well as a signed affidavit to not be a polygamist. Seriously, as if signing a piece of paper promising not to break the law was the magic bullet for ending crime. Okay I said, I have my passport, can I just use your photocopier to make those extra copies and we can continue? "Out of order" she says. It is at this point that I notice every single machine in the office has an out of order sign on it. From the freshly stocked vending machines to the coffee machine to the photobooth to the array of photocopiers in the corner. What, did an electro-magnetic bomb hit this place?

You'll have to excuse my cynicism if I do not believe that

Well, rules are rules, so we collect our things had to the nearest photocopier and come back in two days to enjoy another half-day at the government offices. After another 4 hours of waiting, we happily give our documents to the functionnaire expecting success to hear "I cannot accept this translation of your birth certificate, it is not certified by one of our certified translators".

What? We had this translated in the US, and it is the same document we used last year. Well, the rules have changed she tells us, here is a list of certified translators.

Well, 3rd times the charm right? After 500 Euros (about 700 bucks) worth of translations (work paid for them, not me) we came back and this time we are treated to seeing the police drag a guy out of line by his hair for cutting in line (right in front of us :-), so with this little enjoyment boost and our confidence that we finally have all the documents together we hand them over and finally get our 3 month temporary card in exchange. Yay!!! And it only took a combined 13 hours of waiting in line, and about 15 minutes with the functionnaire. I'm crossing my fingers that they will actually have our official card when we return in 3 months, but I'm not holding my breath.

Dealing with the government officials themselves is not an overly unpleasant experience, but the environment itself couldn't be more uninviting. The préfecture opens at 9am, but by this time already has a line of at least 200 people waiting outside. The interior space of the office is tiny, and all your paperwork is checked BEFORE they let you in, so most of your waiting is outside the office. Being outside by itself is not really a bad thing, but coupled with the fact that 35% of French people smoke (and about 95% of people waiting in line at the prefecture) and the French (and apparently most of those who wish to be French) genetic inability to form an orderly line, this ~4 hour wait ranks right up there with some of the most unpleasant experiences of my life. People bumping into me, cutting the line, and blowing smoke in my face while I am trying to stay warm in the early winter mornings is definitely not something I look forward to, and once inside things do not get much better. Sure you cannot smoke inside, but trying to cram 100s of people into a space made for about 50 has its own problems (seriously, there are only about 20 seats in this place, and standing room for about 20 more).

And to top it all off, a recent article in the French newspaper Le Figaro ranks the Préfecture du Rhône (my prefecture) the 5th worse in France for issues of immigration and identification. That is 5th worse out of 100! Some procedures take 13 times longer than the more efficient offices.

red is bad. I live in a red one :-(

Thank God for my iPod and GameBoy.

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