A few days ago, I wrote about how, for me, springtime in Paris will forever be associated with renewing my residency permit. Because my permit expires each year on August 15, I have to start the process of renewing it on May 16 (the requisite three months ahead of time). Last year’s renewal—my first—was fraught with anxiety, frustration, even despair, as I witnessed for the first time just how screwed up the immigration system is here … at least in Seine-Saint-Denis, the département where I live. This time around, though, I knew what to expect, so I approached this May 16 with a certain nonchalance … a certain nonchalance that dissipated rapidly as the day wore on …
Knowing how crucial it was to arrive early at the préfecture, I showed up at 6:30 a.m. to secure a spot in line. You see, this is way it works: When they open the doors at 9:00 a.m., they hand out tickets to people who have business at the préfecture that day but, of course, there’s a limit on the number of people they can see in a day. If you show up late, you may not get a ticket and, by “late,” I mean 7:30 a.m. Having a good spot in line is so crucial that some people sleep on the sidewalk the night before, as if they’re waiting to buy tickets for a concert. There are also the “spot brokers,” who make their living selling places in line to latecomers.
When I arrived in line, I quickly assessed my position and was a bit disappointed. By arriving early, I had hoped to be further ahead, but I calculated that there were probably a few hundred folks in front of me. “Well, it has to better than last year,” I thought to myself. You see, last May when we showed up at the préfecture, we ended up waiting six and a half hours to see an agent. At the end of that interminable wait, I got just five minutes at the agent’s window to show my residency permit, pick up forms to fill out, and schedule an appointment to come back again in July to drop it all off. It was an excruciating experience. Six and a half hours is a long time to wait for anything. It’s that much worse, though, when you realize that you endured it so you could do something in person that you should have been able to do online. I mean, this is France, after all.
At around 8 a.m., Michel showed up with a croissant aux amandes to give me some sustenance for the wait ahead. It was very sweet of him to accompany me. I now speak French well enough that I can manage these types of administrative tasks on my own, but it’s nice to have him there for ad hoc translation and, most importantly, moral support.
About an hour later, the doors opened and our line started … ever so slowly … to advance. When I finally got my ticket, I allowed myself a tiny moment of celebration: I was number 1194 and there were only 194 people ahead of me. You see, last year, there had been 430 people ahead of me. So, doing the simple arithmetic, that would mean just a three-hour wait this time. Right? I’d be home by lunch. Right?
Last year, you see, there were always four or five agents processing files throughout the day. This year, however, the four agents who started working in the morning had dwindled to two—yes, two—by noon. By 1 p.m., there were still 60 people ahead of me and the pace had ground almost to a halt. And then, inexplicably, one of the agents just got up and left, leaving one single agent to manage the rest of us. It’s hard to convey the level of frustration that gradually mounted among those of left in the waiting room as the clock ticked on and on, and the room emptied more and more slowly. At 2:40 p.m., I calculated that there were still 34 people ahead of me, and I realized that the single immigration agent who was working had processed only two people in last thirty minutes! I couldn’t stop myself from doing the math, and the answer I was coming up with wasn’t pretty. And then, it happened …
Now, to set the scene: They have these “security guards” at the préfecture. I’m not sure exactly what I should call them, because they don’t really make you feel very secure. They’re supposed to manage the crowd and make sure that the process flows in an orderly fashion. But more often than not, they’re
outside taking a smoke break nowhere to be found. In any case, when the head security guard came into the waiting area, an older gentleman decided to ask him why only one agent was working to manage so many people. The security guard looked at this patient, yet increasingly frustrated gentleman, and told him point-blank that he was wrong: there were actually three windows open. Now, maybe he was technically correct, because someone had failed to lower the curtains on a few of the now unoccupied windows, but the question deserved better than that smart-ass remark. The immigrant (certainly thinking to himself, “Okay, so this wise-guy is calling me a liar to my face about a fact we can all see with our own eyes”) corrected the security guard, and that didn’t go over very well. It was hard for me to follow everything that was said after that, but I definitely didn’t miss it when the security guard called the immigrant a con. (“Con” is hard to translate, but it means something akin to “stupid jerk.”) Now that‘s professional.
Eventually, the security guard left, but he came back a while later with the police to have the man arrested for “a lack of respect” or some such nonsense. Michel, having witnessed the episode, came to the man’s defense and argued with the security guard and the police. It’s likely that his actions singlehandedly preempted an arrest, which probably would have resulted in that immigrant’s deportation. Of course, while all this was unfolding, I was oscillating between immense pride and anxiety. “So, if they clap some cuffs on Michel and haul him away, too, do I stay and wait for my number to be called, or do I try to go with him?” I was asking myself. Thankfully, the reason and bravery of an indignant citizen ended up saving the day for a frustrated and mistreated immigrant, and nobody ended up in the can.
Meanwhile—even with a second agent back on duty—we were still waiting.
With 20 people ahead of me and the 4 p.m. closing time quickly approaching, I started to worry that I might not even see an agent. I started to think that they’d close the windows and announce that the rest of us would have to come back the next day and go through it all again. Michel eventually asked one of the security guards what would happen at 4 p.m., and he said that everyone in the waiting area would be seen that day. Not to worry. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Finally, at 5:05 p.m.—10 hours and 35 minutes after having arrived—they called number 1194 and I got my turn at the window. This time, I even got seven whole minutes with my agent as she handed me some forms and scheduled my July 11 appointment to come back and drop things off.
And now, a little French immigration vocabulary lesson:
titre de séjour : residency permit. A carte de séjour is the card an immigrant receives after one year of living legally in France, which acts as the titre de séjour. The first year’s residency permit is usually a yellow sticker affixed inside the immigrant’s passport.
préfecture : the prefecture. The préfecture is the capital of a département, the administrative district that ranks between region (kind of like a state) and commune (kind of like a city or town). Here, préfecture refers to the office where certain administrative functions for the département take place … like making immigrants wait for ten hours to make appointments to come back later.
pèter un cable : literally, “to fart a cable.” In slang, it means to snap psychologically. The idea is that the tension is so great that a cable (like a big, thick undersea telephonic one) snaps. Happens occasionally at the préfecture.
récépissé : a receipt. You can get a récépissé for many things, but in the immigration context, it’s the piece of paper you get at the préfecture attesting to that fact that you have submitted an application for renewal and you have the right to remain in the country legally even after your titre de séjour expires. Récépissés are usually valid for three months which, in the case of the préfecture of Seine-Saint-Denis, is not long enough for them to renew your titre de séjour, so you will undoubtedly have to go back for a second one.
rendez-vous : literally, “render yourself.” In current French usage it’s an appointment … just an appointment. It lacks the romantic undertone it usually carries in English. For one of those, you have to add “galant,” as in, “un rendez-vous galant.” Believe me, your rendez-vous at the préfecture will not, under any circumstances, be a romantic moment.
guichet : counter or window, especially for service. These are the little windows behind which sit the immigration agents who manage your immigration file at the préfecture. At Seine-Saint-Denis, there are 10 of them, of which one or two will probably be open and servicing people at any given time. You’ll spend a lot of time looking at them, but not much time at one of them.
en avoir ras le bol : literally, “to have a bowl full of it.” In slang, it means to be fed up with something. Usually, you use this expression in the first person, say, for instance, when you’ve been waiting for 8 or 9 hours to see an immigration agent and you cry out to no one in particular: “Putain ! J’en ai ras le bol !“
© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved