50 shades of French bureaucracy


It’s exactly one year since we left New Zealand on this big adventure.

Tomorrow we celebrate by heading to the local prefecture to see about extending our visitors’ visas.

Working through the bureaucracy will be an exercise in masochism.

France has seduced us with her wit, charm and good looks – and now that we’re gagging for more, the old madame is going to make us pay.

It’s not that the individual bureaucrats are particularly malevolent.

It’s just that they don’t give a crap – in that single-minded, bounce-anything-that-resembles-work-off-my-desk kind of way New Zealanders old enough to remember the eighties will recall.

(In the bad old days, it took three months to get a phone connected or order a passport or send money overseas from New Zealand. Nowadays I can pick up the phone to Internal Affairs, as I have several times this month, order and pay for a birth or marriage certificate over the phone and have it arrive in my letterbox on the other side of the world before the week is out.)

France isn’t there yet.

My first taste of real French bureaucracy was at the embassy in Marseille last year with the doctor who carried out the health check for my residents’ permit.

Nice enough bloke – just not what you would call committed.

It wasn’t so much that he didn’t want to talk to me, it’s just that he was on the phone to his wife discussing kitchen renovations for 19 out of the 23 minutes I spent in his office. When the call finally ended, the benchtop and tile issues resolved to his wife’s satisfaction, the good doctor sighed, listened to my heart, asked a couple of questions about the weather in New Zealand, scratched a signature on my form and sent me on my way. There’s a man being paid by the hour and not by the patients – who were gathering in ever larger numbers outside his door.

The same indolence could be found in the young woman who processed the initial application to extend our Carte de Sejour last month.

“Are you both applying?” she said with a frown, when our number was called after spending the mandatory hour or so in the waiting room.

“You need two numbers.”


“You need two numbers if you want to approach together.”

She glanced at the disbelieving expressions on our faces and decided not to insist that we go to the back of the queue – though she would not continue until Sabbatical Man had returned with another number.

She looked at it and put it to one side, then tapped something into a computer, pulled out a couple of forms and shoved them over to us.

“Sign there and don’t go over the green line.”

Ligne vert?” Sabbatical Man repeated, scanning the white page for evidence of green.

Ligne vert. Ligne vert. The green line. Don’t go outside the green line.”

Then we saw it. An impossibly finely etched rectangle of green.

The woman’s colleague wisecracked about her English and roared with laughter.

“C’est fatiguant [it’s tiring],” she said to her colleague through her teeth, without looking at him. “You say it every time. It’s extremely tiring.”

She pushed the forms toward us and told us to come back when we had all the documents listed.

“No, no, I think we have all the documents here already,” I said.

For the first time she looked me in the eye.

I saw that she had no intention of allowing this paperwork to remain on her desk.

I gave her my warmest smile.

I had spend hours scanning the internet to find an official list of documents required to renew a French Carte de Sejour. There isn’t one.

So I had come up with my own list based on on-line accounts of other people’s bewildering experiences with immigration procedures. It took me five hours, half a ream of paper and an entire printing cartridge to put the file together and I was pretty sure I had nailed it.

“Everything is here,” I said, patting the papers.

“You have translations?” she said, eyebrows raised. “Of the birth certificates?”


She sighed and indicated all the other things I could never have guessed that she would require:

  • A signed statement promising not to be a polygamist
  • A signed statement promising not to work
  • A signed statement promising never to put our elbows on the table or cut the lettuce at the table
  • A birth certificate for each member of the family, translated into French
  • A marriage certificate translated into French
  • 20 mugshots of the family
  • Proof of residence
  • Proof of income
  • Proof that our children will never have bare feet in public or eat with their mouths open

We sighed and gathered up our useless pile of papers – the travel insurance, medical certificates, bank statements and other documents that, this time at least, would not be needed.

“Your translations must done by an official translator,” she added as she pushed the last remaining papers as far away from herself as possible. “You can get the list next door at the welcome desk.”

“Thank you,” we said, silently wondering why the hell she didn’t just have the list on her desk.

We went next door to the welcome desk.

“Can we please have the list of translators?”

“No we don’t have that here. You have to go to the Palais de Justice,” said the receptionist.

Sabbatical Man laughed all the way through the the historic centre of Aix to the courthouse. Which is not very far.

“No we don’t have that list,” the woman there explained gravely. “You have to go online. Here’s the the four-step search process that we have gone to the trouble of printing out on a piece of paper so that you can go and look up the information for yourselves.”

The “link” eventually took us to a 300 page pdf file.

On page 296 or thereabouts was the name of the one woman in Aix-en-Provence who is a certified English-French translator.

Sabbatical Man and I looked at each other and decided to laugh.

Tomorrow we go back to the prefecture to try again.

We have a feeling it won’t be our last visit.



7 thoughts on “50 shades of French bureaucracy

  1. How bad is that! When I was Dad’s little administrative “gofer” the WINZ office in New Plymouth made me wait for my whole lunch hour to queue to pick up a form. The next time I went to the Stratford office and there was a cabinet top of forms you could just help yourself! I get livid when time is not valued!

  2. Are you sure about the elbows on table, cut lettuce, bare feet and open mouthed children?? Things no well brought up New Zealanders (especially your children) would do anyway – God forbid! Perhaps if NZ would let France win the World Rugby Cup just once …. improve French/NZ relationships. Anyhow – the effort will be worth it and it does make a marvellous story!

    • Thanks Paulene – only a small proportion of my facts are entirely fictional and I’m not telling which. xx About to write the follow up as the rendezvous today was quite hilarious.

  3. Pingback: 50 shades of French bureaucracy – the follow-up | cat in my throat

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