The following are my top five observations about dealing with the French bureaucratic machine. They are based on my own experiences, but I’ve added a little levity because … well, if you can’t laugh about it, you’re just condemning yourself to a heart attack or a stroke, or at least a stomach ulcer.
- Set aside that Jeffersonian adage that you should never put off till tomorrow what you can do today. If something expires on a certain date, there is no reason to do anything about it before then. Above all, DO NOT go to a bureaucratic office a month early … a week early … or even a day early to get something done before the deadline. You’ll just be sent back home empty-handed. (I learned this lesson yesterday, which is why I have a repeat performance tomorrow.) Clearly Thomas Jefferson didn’t spend much time at the Prefecture of Seine-Saint-Denis when he was here in France.
- French bureaucrats are schizophrenic when it comes to punctuality. While you should NEVER arrive before a deadline (see above), you better show up at the crack of dawn the day of the deadline. My dad has a saying about punctuality: “I’d rather be 30 minutes early than 3 minutes late.” In France, you need to take my dad’s advice and multiply it by a factor of 5 or 6. Got a 10 am appointment at the Prefecture? Get there at 7 am to get in line, or you’ll be wondering why you didn’t pack yourself a brownbag lunch. “Is it really necessary to show up three hours ahead of time?” you might ask. Why, yes. Yes, it is. Just call it the “international departures rule.” Trust me on this.
- “Going Green” has everything to do with the color of the paper your forms are printed on, and absolutely nothing to do with environmentalism. To put it simply, French bureaucracy is a paper company’s dream. (Maybe Sarkozy owns Georgia-Pacific futures?) It doesn’t matter what you need to do, you’re going to do it on paper … and lots of it. Given the level of literal paper-pushing in France’s bureaucratic machine, it’s a wonder that France remains 28% covered in forests. I guess maybe they get all their pulp from England, and that’s why there aren’t any trees left over there.
- Process, process, process. The French love a good bureaucratic process, and by “good” I mean one that includes lots of forms, lots of visits, and lots of offices. You shouldn’t be surprised to have a visit to a bureaucratic office (with the requisite interminable wait) for the sole purpose of picking up those green paper forms (see above) and asking for an appointment to come back later. You should also not be surprised if the documentation they ask you for on those green paper forms doesn’t end up being necessary (like, say, a birth certificate translated into French by a translator sworn before the Court of Appeals of Paris … at a cost of about $70), or if they end up needing things they never asked you for in the first place (like a gas or electric bill). You should also not be surprised if that subsequent appointment is at a completely different venue, or if you have to wait for a self-addressed, stamped envelope to arrive in your mailbox telling you where to go. French bureaucrats apparently like to keep the details mysterious until just before they spring them on you. Oh, you guys are such pranksters! Too funny!
- Finally, try not to get too worked up if there are delays, glitches, and sidetracks along the way. I assure you there will be. The French are masters at the art of rolling with the punches. As I’ve said before, there’s a reason we have adopted the words nonchalance, insouciance and blasé directly into the English language. If something doesn’t go as expected, just breathe in, breathe out, and practice not caring about it. Believe me, the bureaucrats you’re dealing with certainly don’t.
It might not be a well-oiled machine, but French bureaucracy is a machine. You can’t speed it up, you can’t slow it down, you can’t change the gears. You can’t even really understand the owner’s manual. You just have to learn to go with it … wherever it takes you.
Now, if I can only heed my own advice about breathing in and out tomorrow morning, when I venture back to the Prefecture for my fifth visit in six months!
© 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved