But … I Can’t Even Read the Owner’s Manual!

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.

Who knew that Hugh Laurie was at the Prefecture yesterday, too?
  • 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


5 thoughts on “But … I Can’t Even Read the Owner’s Manual!

  1. If this is what I have to look forward to when I renew my visa next year, I’ll need to revisit this post and your handy tips. I just hope I’ll at least be speaking enough French by then to get more confused than I currently would. Best of luck!!

    1. If you’re in Seine-Saint-Denis, yeah … it’s kind of like this. (I think it may be the département with the largest immigrant population, so they are always stretched thin.) Keep in touch and let me know when you start the process and I’ll be more than happy to give you some pointers. I wish I had known all along the things I know now!

      Thanks for the luck; I’m sure I’ll need it. Keep your fingers crossed for me as I venture out tomorrow morning around 6:30 or so to go get back in line! Ha ha!

  2. On a Wednesday I went in with the documents to get my French driver’s license. (Did you know that SC license-holders could exchange an SC license for a French one? With, of course an official 50-euro translation of both the front and the back of the license.) The lady in the booth who gave out numbers, looked over my documents and told me that they didn’t do licenses on Wednesday. “What day, then?” “Every day except Wednesday.”

    So next time I had the opportunity, I went back, documents in hand. This time I made it all the way to the window where business gets done. The lady looked at my documents and said, “You’ve only had your license for two months. You’ll have to start out as a ‘nouvelle conducteur’ with an astronomical insurance payment.” “But I’ve been driving for 37 years!” “Look at the date on your license. It clearly shows that you’ve only had it since June of 2003.” It was true that I’d just had it renewed less than a month before leaving for France, as I hadn’t wanted to let it expire. So I asked if there wasn’t any way around the nouvelle conducteur designation, and she told me that I’d need a document from the SC driver’s license bureau stating that I’d been driving longer than a year. Phoned them, found the right form to officially request it on the internet, but had to mail it to them, of course; waited several weeks to get it in the mail, got it translated for another 50 euros, and finally in September of 2004, I received my French permis de conduire.

    Honestly, I’ve forgotten a few of the steps, because I had to go back a couple more times before that last step. I can’t remember precisely how the story went, but I know ~ and I saw ~ that the bureaucracy here is legend. Good luck with it all!

    1. I didn’t know you could exchange your license for a French one. I believe it’s too late for me now, from what I understand, because I’ve been living here for 18 months without taking any action to do anything. Plus, I have a DC license, so I’m not sure if that would convert. Your headache sounds typical for dealing with the bureaucracy here. It really is battle!

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