Saturday 18 January 2020

A Visit to the Préfecture

In 1991 I managed to find an internal transfer within my company that would finally allow me to move to France and live with my wife. We'd been married for a year, and together for three, but were still living apart, me in England and her in Paris.

French immigration law required me to obtain a carte de séjour, a residence permit, even though as a European citizen I had every right to work and live there. With the very helpful assistance of an office at the Sophia Antipolis business park whose job was to help companies based there, I applied. I received a scrap of paper which was a temporary permit. It had to be revalidated at a police station every three months.

After two years I was practically on first name terms with the lady at Antibes police station whose job it was. There was no room left on the paper for any further stamps. "Monsieur Harper," she said, "enough. You will have to go to the préfecture in Nice and find out why you haven't yet received your permit."

The Préfecture des Alpes-Maritimes close to Nice airport is a spectacularly ugly modern building. I duly presented myself there, and after waiting a while in a room full of hopeful would-be immigrants I showed my heavily stamped paper to the assistant. "Oh," she said, "it has been here for for over a year." It hadn't occurred to them to let me know. But anyway, I had my carte de séjour and off I happily went.

Even though possession of the permit was mandatory, I only ever had to produce it twice in the ten years I lived there. Once was at Charles de Gaulle airport, where an officious security guard at TWA (this was a long time ago) demanded it. I told him I didn't have it. He started to remonstrate. I told him I'd happily go to another airline. He let me pass.

The other time was when I registered my company car in my own name, when I changed jobs. The eagle-eyed assistant, again at the préfecture, noticed that my date of birth was wrong. They had transposed the day and month, as in an American format date, even though I had written correctly it the European way.

I went again to the ever helpful office in Sophia Antipolis. They made me an appointment at the préfecture, and at the set time I showed up. The waiting room was packed. There were two sets of chairs, one for EU citizens, the other for non-EU - meaning people from North Africa who make up most of the non-EU immigration in France. It was obvious which had higher priority.

I ignored these seething masses and went straight to the desk. An assistant pulled herself up to her full height. "Monsieur," she said haughtily, "you must go and wait your turn."

"But I have an appointment."

"Monsieur, all these people have appointments. You must take your place in the queue."

My appointment was with the chef de bureau, the man in charge.

"Mais madame, my appointment is with Monsieur Dupont." (Or whatever he was called).

She leapt to her feet. "Vous avez rendezvous avec M. Dupont! Mademoiselle Machin, this gentleman has an appointment with M. Dupont! You must fetch him immediately. Monsieur, please take a seat here. M. Dupont will be with you very shortly. I apologize for the wait."

As ever, a little name dropping goes a long way. Shortly afterwards, Mlle Machin [not her real name of course] led me behind the screens to a dingy office where at an imposing desk sat le chef de bureau. He looked exactly as you'd expect a minor official in the French administration to look - bald, unhealthy, middle-aged, seriously overweight, and very full of himself.

I explained the problem to him. "Mais Monsieur, surely it is possible that you filled the form incorrectly?"

I admitted the possibility, and suggested that it would be best to examine it.

"Mademoiselle Machin, go immediately and fetch the dossier of Monsieur Harper!"

Minor official he might be, but in his bureau it was the reign of terror. Mlle Machin scampered off to find my dossier. The official opened it, certain that he would be able to tell this pesky foreigner to take better care in the future. He gasped.

"Monsieur, you are quite right, there has been an error in my department! This is inadmissible! We shall rectify the matter immediately. Please accept my apologies. We shall issue a new card without delay."

I left with a new temporary carte de séjour, which this time did not need to be stamped by the nice lady at Antibes police station every three months.

I lived in France for another six years, before moving to California in 2001. I never received my new carte de séjour, even though I did occasionally ask at the préfecture. And nobody else ever asked for it. But it had given me a very enjoyable insight into the workings of the French bureaucracy.