In one of the previous posts, I talked about how I became an English teacher in France. In this post, I will talk about the biggest obstacle I or any other foreign national has to face before being able to live and work in France — Residence Permit (Titre de Séjour). The application of a residence permit is seldom straightforward in most countries; yet, a country will find it hard to out rival France in its convoluted administrative step.
Like other countries, France requires a foreign national who plans to live in France to apply for a residence permit. This process is exempted if the applicant is a European Union (EU) national, a national from one of the other 26 member states of the EU. Being an EU national, you can reside and work legally, without any additional paperwork other than your national identity card or your passport. The freedom of movement is one of the biggest advantages of being a citizen within the EU.
Being a non-EU national but married to one who is staying in France, I need to apply for the French residence permit. With this permit, I am eligible to live, work and enjoy the social security benefits in France for five years. Other than not being able to vote in France and in the EU, I have basically the same rights and obligations as a French citizen. After five years, I have the option to apply for permanent residence permit in France which would be valid for 10 years and is automatically renewable.
Clear And Straight Forward
Residence permit application was on the top of my list of priorities when I arrived in France at the end of 2015 to join Silviu. We were rushing to get it done within a week upon my arrival as we had to leave for Romania for our wedding.
Based on the information available on the national government website, the application procedure looked clear and straight forward. I was to apply for the residence permit at my nearest Préfecture or Sous-Préfecture (the local administration or sub-local administration) with the list of required documents. Upon submission of my application, I would receive a temporary residence permit, a “récépissé”, while I wait for the issue of the permanent one. Even with this temporary permit, I was allowed to work.
Everything Was In French
All the online information relating to the application was only available in French. Without Silviu to help me, I would be completely lost.
Well, you might exclaim, “Of course, it’s in French! You are in France.” But think about it, from the position of a new immigrant, “The information on the website is to help me, a foreigner who is likely a non-French speaker, to settle in France. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to ask that information be translated into all languages. But, shouldn’t the information be at least available in English, the most widely spoken language with close to 20% of the world population speaking it?” Basic translation of the essential information would definitely facilitate the lives of newly arrived immigrants. As a new arrival in France, either for work or to join your family, doesn’t this little observation leave you an unkindly first impression of the country?
Back To The Future - 1999
The application process in 2015 reminded me of days as a student in Paris, 20 years ago.
An Au Pair In Paris
I arrived in France in 1999, a year after I graduated from university in the United States. I graduated the year before and was hoping to find a permanent job in the USA before my student visa expired. The plan did not go as I hoped. The restless me was reluctant to return to Singapore to find a job and settle down, like most of my peers. Giving my parents the reason of wanting to improve my French, a subject that I took for a few classes in the university, I applied for an au pair position in Paris.
An au pair is a young person from overseas, who lives with a French host family so as to learn French and immerse in the culture. In exchange for a room, some related paid living expenses, and pocket money, the au pair helps the host family with some light household chores and looks after kids. At the same time, the au pair has to enrol as a student in French language classes.
First Contact With Préfecture
With a huge backpack, a smattering of French, and youthful dreams of the Country of Love, I arrived in Paris. The initial installation was tough. Not only did I have to deal with the language barrier, I had to negotiate the red tape around securing a student residence permit by myself.
I cannot remember much about my experience with the Préfecture from 20 years back, but I guess it had to be really bad, as it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Nevertheless, a fragment of the unpleasant experience of the dim and distant past seems to have lodged permanently in my memory—memory of standing in a long queue outside the Préfecture in Paris, under a drizzle, shivering and not well-equipped for the vagaries of weather.
Has Digital Age Arrived In France?
The application process today is not unsimilar to that of 20 years ago, era when the digital age had yet to arrive. Apart from the fact that application information is now available online, application steps remain wholly unchanged.
Coming from Singapore, and then living in Hong Kong for four years before moving to France, I was used to digital government services, accustomed to efficient and painless state services. I was lost for words when I realised that services such as making appointments and submitting documents online, which I had always taken for granted, were not available for residence application process. Like in 1999, everything had to be submitted in physical copies and had to be done in physical presence.
Ready Or Not
The government website provided a list the documents required. However, it deemed details such as documents had to be in French and needed to be notarised by a French-approved notary, as non-essential. A new applicant without this piece of information would not be able to submit his application. Fortunately, based on my au pair experience and Silviu’s personal experience when he had to apply for student residence permit in 2009 (before Romania became a full member of EU), we knew that all the required documents had to be translated and notarised. We also prepared additional documents that we believed the Préfecture might ask for.
Even with Silviu’s usual meticulous research and preparation work regarding the application process, we could not shake away the foreboding that things would not go smoothly. We proceeded to our nearest Préfecture with dread.
One morning on the first week of December 2015, a couple of days after I arrived in France, Silviu and I went to our nearest Sous-Préfecture. It was around 5 o’clock in the morning. With a thick folder of documents, a flask of hot coffee, our rain jackets and iPads safely tucked into Silviu’s backpack, bundled up in bulky winter wear, we stepped out of our cosy Mickey Mouse apartment into the chilly predawn morning, temperature below 10-degree Celsius.
The Sous-Préfecture is located in Palaiseau, a city two times the size of Orsay, the city where we live, and is only 10 minutes away by the intercity train. At half past five, we boarded the first train to Palaiseau. Pray not be mistaken. The public service for immigrants does not start that early. Officially, the Sous-Préfecture opens at half past eight. However, being experienced residence permit seekers, we knew that if we arrived at the stated opening hour, or after, it would definitely be a wasted trip. Not known to first time seekers, and it is nowhere stated on the website that there is actually a daily quota for the number of applicants, around 100, and the little paper number tickets given out to every applicant are usually used up by the first thirty minutes.
Located five minutes away from the train station, we found the building without much difficulty. The sky was still dark, and the neighbourhood was lit by tall street lamps. Under the orange glow from two of these street lamps in front of the small, gated pedestrian entrance of the building, we noted that the non-public knowledge of the application quota was not that unknown after all. A quasi-orderly line of about 30 people had already been formed along the perimetre wall leading to the entrance. We located the end of the queue and positioned ourselves behind a young man of Arab origins.
The 30-odd people were in various states of position. Most of them were standing, while a few were either squatting or sitting. Some squatted or sat with their backs against the wall. A few came well prepared and sank comfortably on portable folding chairs. I was the only Asian, and Silviu was one of the handful of Caucasians. The rest were either of African or Arab origins.
It would be another three hours before the Sous-Préfecture was opened. To make the wait more comfortable, I took out my raincoat, spread it on the ground, and sat down cross-legged, leaning against the wall. While I got myself settled down, Silviu walked to the front of the queue to check out the scene.
A few minute later, he walked back with a piece of slightly wrinkled A4-size paper and a plastic ballpoint pen in his left hand. Some self-appointed monitor had come up with the idea of a numbered name list, to ensure that the applicants queue up in an orderly manner. On the paper, I scribbled my name besides the number 32, and wondered whether everyone would really abide by this list.
Time crawled. I removed my iPad from the backpack and tried to read one of my several e-books. Surprisingly, I was not sleepy at all. It had to be the combination of caffeine from the flask of coffee and the refreshing intermittent light drizzle that chased away any possible sleepiness. I found it hard to concentrate and was easily distracted by comings and goings of the queue. From time to time, new arrivals would pause and ask where the name list was. Once or twice, commotion could be heard near the front of the queue; it seemed that fracas ensued when some recalcitrants tried to cut the line.
I was not the only applicant who was accompanied by family members or friends. There were people waiting in the few cars parked along the road, next to the queue. Once in a while, a person would exit from one of these stationary cars and walk towards the queue and took the position of someone else in the queue. The replaced person would then leave the queue, enter the same car and stay there for some time. It is a smart way of reducing the discomfort of queuing, provided that one has a car.
The streetlights were turned off soon after the sunrise at around seven. The queue was longer, with as many people in front as behind me. As half-past-eight drew near, the any signs of lethargy or sleepiness of the crowd disappeared. The initial murmurs became louder, more excited. Various sounds of zipping, packing up, folding, closing could be distinctly heard.
Half-past-eight arrived and left. The gate did not open. At twenty-to-nine, the security guard, finally graced us with his presence. At his approach, the people in the queue became agitated, and visibly pressed forward urgently. A few rogues tried to jump the queue but was harshly held back by disgruntled applicants. The security guard, with a look of boredom pasted on his face, disinterestedly swung open the gate. The queue completely disintegrated, as everyone swarmed towards the gate. As I passed through the gate, I saw the name list on which I had scribbled my name three hours earlier, lying drenched on the ground, a few metres away from the gate.
As If We Were Struck By Lightning
After we entered the compound, we hurriedly moved towards the entrance of the main building. Once we entered the building, we had to join another queue to get to the front desk. When it was our turn at the front desk, we were asked the purpose of our visit. When we explained that I was there to apply for the residence permit, and that Silviu was not French, she told us that we came to the wrong office, and that we should have gone to the main office, the Préfecture, and not this Sous-Préfecture. The main one was farther away, an hour away from Orsay. To get there, we had to change the trains twice. It seemed that this office managed only applications where the spouse was French.
We felt as if we were struck by lightning when we heard her pronouncement. Four hours of waiting in the cold, in the rain, at ungodly hours—all for nothing. Nowhere was it written that residence application for a family member of a non-French EU national had to be done at the main office. Frustrated, yet resigned to a situation that was beyond our control, we left. Our earlier foreboding was not unwarranted.
It was like a déjà-vu. Few days later, carrying the same backpack stuffed with the same items, we left our apartment at the same time to catch the first train. However, we arrived later at the main office, the Préfecture (not the Sous-Préfecture), since it took us an hour to get there. Fortunately, for reasons unknown to us, there were not as many people in the queue before the opening time.
The gate was opened promptly this time. We entered the main building and were directed to the front desk. After we stated our purpose, the lady, whipped out a one-page document, waved it in front of us and asked, “Do you have this piece of document?” It was a paper stating the list of required documents for the residence application. Silviu calmly replied, “No, we don’t have the document, and it’s not available on the government website for download. But we have brought all the documents as stated on the website.”
She continued, “I will give you this document. You can come back once you have all the documents as stated on the list.” Silviu tried to assert that we had all the documents and wanted to show them to her. However, she brushed aside his explanation, and added, as if was granting us a reprieve, “You do not have to queue up the next time. Just come directly to me.” She then scribbled quickly something on the document, pushed the paper towards us, and turned her face towards the person behind us. There was nothing else we could do.
It was absurd. It was a complete farce. We wanted to cry and laugh at the same time. How could the lady be so rigid? Was it just her or was it the French system? A glance at her list confirmed our initial belief that we had all the required documents in our bag.
We returned to the main office the following day. This time, arriving just before the opening time. Once we entered the building, we made our way directly to the front desk, showing the same lady that we had her list. Her face did not show any sign of recognition when we greeted her.
How many foreign nationals had she turned away so far? Did any of them manage to convince her that she was wrong to dismiss the rights of the applicants to be treated fairly?
She took back the list and asked us to pass her the various required documents as she read out each item on the list. We held our breath as she examined these documents. The whole ordeal ended in a few minutes. We passed the first round of examination. She gave us a piece of paper with a number on it. We were to go to the main room and wait for our number to be called.
It was a big room with a row of counters on one side. The rest of the room was filled up with chairs that were mostly occupied. Each counter was managed by an officer who specialised in a type of application. For the residence permit application, there were only two counters. By the time our number was called, two hours had passed.
We handed the whole set of documents that were previously verified by the front desk lady to the office-in-charge. The officer did not pose many questions to us as she reviewed these documents. The review took only a few minutes. But it seemed an eternity to us. We were tensed.
We would have shut out, “How high?” if she had asked us to jump, just so that she would accept our application that day.
The officer looked up from the files, and announced, “Your file is complete.” An expression of titanic relief must have been clearly revealed on our faces. “You would be notified on the outcome of your application in three months’ time.”
And Claudia lived happily ever after. Of course not. A few weeks later, I received a letter informing me that my application was not “regular” and that I would need to pay a fine of 300€. According to the letter, I was supposed to have applied my residence permit before arriving in France.
Silviu and I were surprised because we had not read anything about having to apply for the residence permit before coming to France. Silviu believed that the Préfecture had made a mistake as that particular rule only applied to spouses married to French nationals. As such, it did not apply to us. However, he felt that it would be in our best interest to just pay the 300€ fine. He was afraid that further pursuance might lead to more red tape for us.
Three months later, I received my five-year residence permit.
Ever since those few days of experience with the Préfecture, it fills me with dread each time I have to go to them for other administrative matters such as the conversion of my Singapore driving permit to the French one and the change of address. Fortunately, the French are more efficient in these matters, as my last two trips were almost painless. Almost painless. Well, firstly, online services were still not available. Secondly, the officer-in-charge of updating my address nitpicked on the documents required.
Four years have passed since I obtained my residence permit. I would have to renew my residency next year. I cringe just at the thought of having to go through the whole rigmarole again. Based on what I read in the last four years, the French residence permit process remains as ponderous as the 45,000 chateaux in the country. It’s a wonder that an applicant does not throw up his hands in despair and return to his country having made to face such ordeal. Or perhaps, that’s what the French hope.