Saturday, August 09, 2003
All Brits know that the French love their bureaucracy and love putting mountains of paper between you and the easy life.
What is also true is that this bureaucracy is manned by some of the nicest people on the planet. No, really! I’m not just trying to get off easy when my yearly interview with the tax man comes around.
The first thing you must know about is the ‘necessary document list’. Before any first contact with a government office, bank or public service, you will be given a list of documents you must have. This presentation of evidence is absolutely crucial. You can never hope to obtain X without showing A, B, C, D, E, and so on.
The scary one is that to get a bank account, you should be able to present evidence of your domicile. This would normally be an electricity bill with your name and address on (or a gas bill,…). Of course, the electricity people won’t even look at your request for a supply without a ‘RIB’. A ‘RIB’ is a copy of a piece of paper supplied to you by your bank to show that you are a customer of good standing with an established account from which the service may withdraw cash at any time.
You see the hitch. Chicken. Egg.
This happens all the time. Bank account, car insurance, car importation, house insurance, electricity, gas, membership of the local gym - they are all interdependent. None can be got without evidence of some other to prove your bona fide status.
Worry not. The weak point in this blockage (or rather the point of strength) is the bank. Talk to them first. You can get an account with any address - such as temporary accommodation. They at least will trust you if you offer them money (your money for your account, I mean).
Then when you want to proceed into the dark jungle of French life, you have at least one torch to hold high: your sacred RIB.
You will have many documents to obtain and registrations to perform. Before any progress can be made, you need to find out where you have to go (to the centimetre if possible) and the list of documents you absolutely must have.
The Web is good. Most French administrative offices have excellent web sites and many of these are just lists of documents.
Other sources (even better in most cases) are other foreigners who have gone before. But, a word of warning: find a foreigner like yourself. If you are a Brit, an American’s experience is bound to be different. Most Europeans (that is Community dwellers, not the Swiss) are open to the same treatment. Another word: there’s a lot of folklore about not having to actually get one of those forms or not needing to actually go in person. Mistrust all this. Take a cautious stance and take the trouble.
Often a simple act of signing on for something will grow into a multi-stage affair. Your first visit, equipped with all documents, will simply get you a docket (with a stamp: oh, they do love their rubber stamps in this country) and a handy leaflet telling you where to go next and with a list of documents - notably including the new docket. So you know that progress is being made.
Very often there will be a necessary ‘delai’ before your next visit This is to give their documents time to go behind the scenes and meet you at the next rendezvous. You wouldn’t want the other side to be under-equipped.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Let me tell you a story.
When we arrived here, we needed to get an official government-issue ‘Carte de Sejour’ - resident’s permit. My firm gave me the official handout: just drop in to the Prefecture (in Nice), anytime, with the following six documents: passport, birth certificate, recent photos, work contract, dee-dah, dee-dah… My colleagues gave me more advice. Be outside the so-and-so building of the Prefecture (which is a vast complex looking more like a university campus), standing on the right of the door, before 8:45, preferably mid-week. When the doors open, go in through the right hand door (not the rotating doors) and run into the alcove on the right. Go straight to the reception desk towards the only clerk who will be there. Try to be first. Have your documents ready. By the way, you don’t need A, but do take B, C, D and a RIB. All ex-pats have advice… and so do I.
The queueing up on the right hand side is because asylum seekers and those having a spot of immigration bother attend the same concourse but must go left on entry. Not using the revolving doors saves delay. The queue forms quickly and each supplicant takes a long time: be first.
We were. We were given a number and asked to sit in a waiting room. Our number was called and we sat and chatted to a very pleasant man who had a little English and had visited our homeland. No, he said, you don’t actually need F, G and H. Have you got your J? We had. We carried an enormous file of stuff between offices in the early days.
So, he said, that’s all fine. The forms were filled in, we checked them over with him - two Brits of good standing with no dubious records - and the happy forms were passed back to the office with the glue and the card laminator. We were instructed to return home and wait to be invited back to be awarded our ‘papers’.
We waited, not too long, returned to the same front desk and received our finished cards, thanked the man, exchanged the final pleasantries and went on our way.
In the train back I noticed that I had been laminated as a Portuguese citizen. Now I’m sure being Portuguese is very fine but I’m not. Phoning the Prefecture, we found out that mistakes like this can only be corrected in Paris but you can post the card with a note asking for re-nationalisation. You’ll have to wait for the papers to go from Nice to Paris…
A few weeks later, I was summoned to the Mairie in Biot (our village): my card was ready.
I nipped round to the Mairie and approached the lady at the counter, explained my problem. Ah, yes, she said (in French of course but let’s not get bogged down with details), we do have a bunch of permis to hand out. Now, where were they? They turned the Office upside down looking for the damned things. They were found (about a dozen permis - all of them mistaken?) under another counter in another part of the building. Here we are, she said, holding a plastic lamination and reading the attached sheet. ‘Monsieur Horner?’ ‘Oui, c’est moi, merci - mais ça, ce n’est pas moi.’ Smiling out from the card was a charming, young and certainly female face. Well, she said, its your form. And so it was. So I guess that’ll be that then. Bye.
No, she said, wait a minute. Searching through the box, she found my picture stapled (and I mean stapled - two huge holes in my identity) to another bloke’s form. And notice that: bloke. So obviously this was a continuing problem, Probably everyone’s card was stapled to the next person’s form until the last form’s card was probably in Calais.
Luckily my face was attached to my details including ‘Britannique’.
Of course the big deal is importing a car. This is a long process involving a first attendance at an office in the same Prefecture building but behind the asylum seekers’ rallying point, not very clearly marked and manned by the most dismissive individual we were ever to meet. He dismissed our entire list of offered documents and merely issued us with a stamped docket and another leaflet detailing a location somewhere up in the hills with another list of documents. He was right about the location. He was wrong about the documents.