Friday, July 18, 2014

Dealing With Bureaucracy, French-Style

It is a strange truth that, the longer you stay in a country, the more irritating their bureaucracy becomes. Maybe the French are just tired of me and want to speed me on my way.  Maybe I'm just burnt out on doing taxes and taking ever-more-hideous passport photos for visa applications.  Or maybe I just don't see eye to eye with these upholders of the Napoleonic Code.

A few weeks ago, I found a notice in my mailbox that a registered letter was waiting for me at the post office. I was bound to need some iron-clad identification, so I scooped up my passport and carte de sejour, waited for the designated pick-up time, and wandered over.

I eventually found my way to special guichet 15, where, as all the world knows, registered letters reside.  I handed over my notice and my ID, and waited to be sent home.

It is an ironclad rule of French bureaucracy that you are sent away at least once for even the simplest of tasks. You might need to provide a power bill, or a letter from your employer, or a used ticket stub from when the circus came to town when you were six. It doesn't matter.  The formula remains: you go, you get sent away, you return with a nonsense item, you get your service/letter.

The woman at the desk quickly found my letter. She frowned at it, checked a binder, then consulted with her colleague. They both returned to me, shaking their heads.

"I'm sorry," said Postal Clerk 2, "We can't give you the letter."
"Oh?" I asked, not surprised in the least. "Why not?"
She pointed to my notice. "It is addressed to Mr and Mrs Schaefer. You and Mr Schaefer need to pick up the letter together."
I stared at her for a moment. "Together? Really? We both have to show up?"
"Even though my name is on it,I can't have it."
She pointed again. "It is addressed to both of you."
I took a deep, calming breath. "The problem is, Mr Schaefer is out of the country for work."
Postal Clerk 1 consulted the binder. "We will keep the letter until the 15th."
As luck would have it, Erik was due back very late on the 10th. If we could get in on the 11th we would make it - the 12th and 13th being the weekend (closed), and the 14th being Bastille Day (extra super 10x closed). But, considering how often Erik is forced to change his travel arrangements, this was by no means a sure thing.
I explained his schedule. "Could you put a note with the letter to indicate that my husband is out of the country, but we will come back?"
"Could you at least tell me who sent the letter?"
Service at its finest.

I won't leave you in suspense - we did get the letter, but it was a close thing.

But this was a mere warm-up in the French Administrative Wars.

While Erik was home, we had to fill out a massive packet of forms for a visa application.  I knew this was going to be a tricky bit of business, as we were Canadians temporarily residing in New Caledonia applying to enter Papua New Guinea by way of the consulate in Australia, and that is at least two countries too many for most people to deal with.  

But these things need to be done.  Even though my hours of work were destined to sit in a filing cabinet until the apocalypse comes, unlooked-at, uncared-about, still, the hoop needed to be jumped through.

I perused the checklist, and discovered a number of documents needed to be certified copies.  When asked, my Australian contact breezily told me: "Just go to a Justice of the Peace."  Which is fine if you are in Australia, but such an animal doesn't exist here.

A lawyer friend in town directed us to the town hall.  He knew they used to be in charge of that sort of thing, although maybe the police were taking over the service.  Erik and I packed up everything we could think of, and marched off to the mairie.

We were pointed through the labyrinth.  The nice lady at the desk barely glanced at our stack of papers.
"Where is your letter?" she asked.
"What letter?" asked Erik.
"You need a letter translated into French stating that you need these documents for a visa application."
Erik and I must have both made the same face, because the woman called her supervisor over.
"You need a letter," repeated the supervisor.
"Because..."asked Erik.
The supervisor snapped her fingers; the subordinate at the desk instantly produced a photocopy of Décret no. 2000-1277 du 26 décembre 2000 portant simplification de formalités administratives et suppression de la fiche d'état civil. It wasn't very illuminating.
"We are only allowed to certify documents for foreigners obtaining a visa from a non-French-speaking country," she snapped, as though this were obvious to everyone. "And to do that, we need a letter."
"That makes no sense," said Erik.
As he and the supervisor got into a heated discussion, I turned to the subordinate.  "Will an email do?" I asked.
"An email is fine," she whispered.

And so we went home to obtain a letter.

When we got back a few hours later, the new woman behind the desk gave our letter 0.03 seconds of attention, handed it back, and started patiently certifying our passport scans.  Erik and I chatted with some (French) friends who were there on attempt #3 to do something regarding an old and battered identity card.  Suddenly, the stamping and signing stopped.  The woman walked away.

"I think we have a problem," I said, watching her go.
The supervisor swept back into the room.  She stalked over to us, quivering with barely-suppressed rage.
"These are birth certificates!" she spat.
Erik and I exchanged a look. "Yes."
The supervisor huffed. "We can't certify those!"
"Why not?"
"It is against the law. They aren't in French. They aren't passports.  They are birth certificates." She was rattling off excuses like she was reading a list. "When you were here this morning, you only said passports. Nothing about this."
"We had the very same documents this morning," said Erik. "And all of these are Canadian." He pulled out a birth certificate."Everything here is in English and French.  All of it.  Numéro de certificat.  Bureau du registraire général.  French."
The supervisor started stabbing the page. "There is English on there!  We can't be expected to translate English!"
"Now, hold on," said Erik.  "No one is asking you to translate anything. All your stamp does it certify that this is a true copy of that. It doesn't matter what it is. No one is asking you to assert this is a legal document.  Just a true copy.  It could be anything.  I could give you a photocopy of my arse and then show you my..."
I'm a little surprised the building didn't blow up right then.

"Nice, Erik," I said as we left the town hall. "I don't think that poor woman is ever going to get the adrenaline out of her system."
"She was pretty mad," he agreed cheerfully.

Our lawyer friend helped us out with the forbidden birth certificate copies. And hopefully the next functionary down the line won't have a heart attack that these copies weren't signed by an Australian Justice of the Peace.  Frankly, I have visions of cooling my heels in Australia for weeks on end while this all gets done.

And then, when the last stamp has been stamped and the last approval signed, when the last staple pierces the stack, our precious certified copies can finally retire to their little corner of a storage facility to molder quietly until the building comes down around them.

(Simpsons still from You Only Move Twice, season 8, episode 2, aka Best Episode EVER.)


Anonymous said...

This tale vies with your German experience. Dad & I laughed until tears streamed down our faces. Priceless.

Karen said...

Shhheeeesshh!! I thought Service Ontario could be a pain!!
I must say I enjoyed picturing your facial expressions as I read. In my mind Erik's face was quite red and Amy, your eyes were rolled waaaayy back!! As for the clerk, well a bit phsycho mabye?? Just toooooo funny!!!

Anonymous said...

I am sure I would fail in this environment. The amount of patience required for these meaningless requirements is insane. Erik you should send her a certified copy of something for christmas, although as its illegal to certify anything other than the passport she could lock you up. Oh my... Haha ha

Love Kate