Everyone who lives here has a story about being given the run-around by French bureaucrats. Last year when I had to get my visa approved in Bordeaux, my expat neighbours told me to be prepared for it to take several attempts before I received it. However, it all went smoothly as I had all the documentation they required (which was a replica of what I’d had to provide the French Embassy in Wellington), with the additional requirement of a chest x-ray for TB, so my visa was stamped in one visit.
For my visa renewal this month, I had to visit our regional prefecture in Périgueux, which is an hour’s drive north of Saussignac. I searched the Immigration website for a checklist but there wasn’t one, so I took along the same documents that I’d taken to the Embassy and the Prefecture in Bordeaux. A good piece of advice my neighbours gave me was to get there well before the office opens at 8:30am and queue with all the other immigrant hopefuls, because otherwise you have no chance of getting a ticket number that will get you in front of an official before the office shuts for the day at 12:30pm. The process starts all afresh the next day, so you can’t just hold your number over to the next day.
And so began my multi-visit to Périgueux. After waiting for a couple of hours, I sat down with an official who informed me (in French) that I had about half the documents that they required. The energy bill I used last time as proof of where I lived was no good, as I needed one within the last three months (which wouldn’t have helped them if I’d been homeless for the past two months). My current New Zealand and French bank statements were no good as they wanted a year’s printout of each. My remaining two passport photos were no good, as they needed three (even though I’d only had to provide two last time), but the biggest hurdle came to my birth certificate. Last time I’d just had to hand over the certificate as it was provided to me by Births, Deaths & Marriages. This time they wanted it stamped. The conversation was all happening in French as well, so I was picking up the general gist of what I was being told, but not the specifics.
When I returned home, my American neighbour told me she’d had hers translated and stamped by an officially approved translator, so I took the person’s details and made an appointment to see her. I was confident that with this I would have the final piece of information, so I booked flights to London to catch up with Lara and Dad for Easter. I then took the French translated certificate back to Périgueux (leaving before daylight and below zero) to queue again in the cold and rain, only to be told this time that they wanted my NZ certificate stamped. This isn’t a standard practice for NZ birth certificates and I’d never heard of it being done. I tried to tell the official that it wasn’t possible but he wasn’t having a bar of it. I also thought about saying that I was only going to be here until the end of July and therefore didn’t need a full year’s visa, but then I thought that might complicate matters and I didn’t want to get told I needed a whole different visa and a different process to go through.
I contacted Births, Deaths & Marriages who told me they could do stamp my certificate but that it’s a special request and takes up to seven working days I decided to order the electronic as well as the paper version just to be on the safe side. I figured the French wouldn’t accept anything new-fangled like electronic copies of documents (this is a country where cheque books are still widely used, you couldn’t possibly change the PIN of your new bankcard and you most certainly couldn’t set up a bank account that was outside your local area) but my timeframe was getting tight. A few days later the ‘e-Apostille’ version of my birth certificate came through and I was relieved to read in the email that under The Hague Convention the electronic version holds the same legal weighting as the paper version. I printed the email along with the e-Apostille and went through the early morning process again. This time they kept trying to tell me it was a copy, but when I told them they had to accept it under The Hague Convention, they decided they wanted the email translated into French and stamped by an official translator.
Yesterday morning I went back up to Périgueux and figured they’d either have to accept it and renew my visa, or deport me as there couldn’t possibly be any more obstacles for them to present. Sure enough, the official (one who I’d previously met) took my documents and without even looking at the translated email, processed my visa.
Over 50 per cent of the French working population is employed by the government in some capacity, including the officials in regional Prefectures. In talking with my neighbours, there is no consistency between what we’ve had to present and no consistency between what the officials agree on. It all depends on who you get on the day and how they’re feeling. I figure the circles they make us run through are just a form of job security, so they can show the higher-ups that they’re working to capacity. Perhaps keeping the office open all day might help.
Ten hours of driving, petrol and parking costs, plus unnecessary costs for documents I didn’t need (and I may go bankrupt paying the phone bill for calling NZ to sort out the birth certificate) was very frustrating and my visa was approved only three days before my current one expires. For a while it looked like I might not be going to London as I wasn’t prepared to leave France and not be able to get back in, but as with most people’s French bureaucracy stories, it all gets sorted in the end.
On a positive note, I now know Périgueux quite well, particularly all the parking lots but it’s also a pretty little town with an interesting looking church…l’Eglise St Georges.