Annual Trip to the Préfecture

Hugh standing in front of the Prefecture de Police, Paris

Standing in line before the riot started

On Thursday, January 7th we went on our annual sojourn to the Préfecture de Police to renew our residence permits. Our original appointment was December 10th, the day before we were leaving for a Mexican cruise vacation. It seemed then to be a good thing that the nice lady at the Préfecture asked us if we could please delay because their staff was overworked, but in hindsight it was a mistake. We got up at 8am after a late night out with our friends Cat and Jacques for our 10 am appointment at the Préfecture. We wanted to arrive early. It was also pouring rain.

After arriving at the Préfecture, we found that it was unexpectedly closed as a security precaution for memorial ceremonies being held for the killings at Charlie Hebdo a year earlier. Also there was a madman knife attack at the Préfecture de Police office in the 18th arrondissement that same morning, which may have added to the heightened security. The signboard outside the Préfecture told us they would reopen at 2 pm. We knew we would need to be early so, after getting some coffee, we went shopping (it was the first day of the semi annual government authorized sale in France). After visiting my favorite store, Zone Nordique, I had a big bag of clothes that I didn’t want to take to the Préfecture. I headed back across town to dump off the stuff at our apartment while Brenda continued shopping at some of her favorite stores. I took a 15 minute nap, then hit the road again to meet Brenda at the statue of Charlemagne in front of Notre Dame. They’ve been cleaning the outside of the Cathedral with some kind of pressure washer, so now all the black parts are spic and span.

We arrived at the Préfecture at about 1 pm. The line was already 100 yards long. We got in line and eventually struck up a conversation (mostly in French) with the Moroccan lady in front of us. She kept telling us how much she loved Michael Jackson, that he was very rich, that Americans are all very rich, that Madonna is rich (but was she as rich as Michael Jackson?). She was singing songs by Michael Jackson. He was related to Elvis, etc. Meanwhile the line had formed a U and gone back another 100 yards or so. About 5 minutes before 2pm, someone broke from the line and rushed the door. Suddenly everyone broke out of line and made a big crush of humanity in a semicircle around the door. We were, of course, at the back. The lady from Morocco was probably at the front.

Finally about 10 policemen showed up and told everyone to get back in line again, but this time in a direction different from the original line. Naturally some people who had stood in the original line for more than an hour were outraged to find that they would now be now at the back of the new line. I went to get in line, thinking surely the police would enforce their order by admitting only the people who were in line. Brenda remained with the defiant ones in the crush of humanity around the door. Eventually the door opened, and the police started to let people in. There was a great outcry from the people in line because they saw that the police started to let people into the building from all directions, despite their order for all people to line up in one direction. After about 20 minutes of pushing and shoving, Brenda called me to say that everyone around her was in agreement that I should come forward and join her, since this type of pushing and shoving match occurred every day, and cutting in line was the only way to ensure you could get in the door – so I did.

After more pushing and shoving we were in. I noted that a French lawyer, who had pulled his American client out of our original line and left the area before all civility disintegrated, somehow mysteriously reappeared ahead of us in the room for Americans. None of his client’s paperwork was complete so he kept cutting back in the line in front of us to speak to people, while all the time going back to explain and fill out her forms. She must have been one of those Platinum Club members. Eventually we appeared before our fonctionnaire (civil servant) and presented our files. Everything was in in order, and she issued us our récepassés, the documents that fill in for our cartes de séjour (residence permit) until the new ones are received. Our next appointment, where we get to fight through the line again, is to pay them 106 euros each on February 3rd to receive our cartes de séjour. Our past experience is that they won’t be ready then, and that after much waiting and presenting of the paperwork, we’ll find that we have to come back in March to receive the final product.

Bienvenue à France!

We finally get our Cartes de Séjour (residence permits)

Up all night celebrating our new cartes de sejour and Hugh's birthday

Up all night celebrating our new cartes de sejour and Hugh’s birthday

Since November we’ve been working to assemble the paperwork required to spend another year in France. The French name for the residence permit we need is carte de séjour. A week ago we had an the appointment at the Préfecture de Police to present our dossier and receive the permit. We documented in an earlier article how we started the process and got permission to stay in France until our official appointment. In that article we showed how we had assembled all of the details we would need to provide. From there it seemed like it would be simple enough to assemble the final documents and present them to the French authorities. Not so!  What might normally be straight forward became convoluted and difficult because we don’t speak or understand French very well.

In mid-March, about a month before our meeting at the Préfecture de Police, I contacted the service assisting us to prepare for the carte de séjour, Mon Ami Andy. We met with Jennifer Denison. Since all of our translations (birth certificates, marriage certificate, health insurance policy) were more than three months old, they had to be redone. The same with the documentation of all of our assets and account balances, sources of income, etc. With Jennifer’s help we planned the following activities to get ready for the meeting:

  • We resolved questions and completed the application forms for the carte de séjour
  • We resolved that Mon Ami Andy would update the translations
  • We would need to make new copies of of our passports and the visa pages and copies of our current récépissés (temporary visa extension document)
  • We would need to include copies of the health certification from our original visit to OFII (agency who cleared us for our visa when we arrived in France).
  • We would need to rewrite our letters promising not to engage in work while in France
  • We would need to collect three months of French and US bank statements and retirement pay statements. We would also provide the letter from our French bank stating we have an account in good standing.
  • We would need to collect the latest financial account statements
  • We would need to make a spreadsheet showing all sources of income and assets, both in France and the US.
  • We would assemble three piles of documents, one of originals and all details of all documents, including our latest tax return, one with copies about Brenda, and one with copies about me.
  • We would make color copies of all color documents, black and white copies of all black and white documents. Copies of financial statements only needed the page showing the account balance. We could look at the original if there was a question.
  • We were encouraged to use a highlighter on each document, highlighting the important information we wanted the administrator to understand.

In addition to this overarching plan, we thought we needed to change our address since we moved to a new apartment in early March. Our understanding was that we needed to update it within 8 days of moving. As soon as we had what we thought were the required documents (rental contract, utility bill showing both our names, receipt showing we had paid rent, and our current passports, visas and récépissés), we went to the Préfecture at Rue Truffaut, where we had gone before, to attempt the change. They sent us away, telling us they didn’t handle changes of address. We had a difficult time figuring out where to go after that. We were told that the police station at Rue Truffaut could do it, and that might have succeeded except that they told us we didn’t have all the required documents. We needed proof of insurance, which we didn’t have with us. They told us that we could do it at our local Préfecture in the 5th arrondissement, but a policeman there told us we couldn’t. We thought maybe we could do it at the downtown Préfecture, but then found out that was not the place. Then we were told we might be able to do it at the Mayor’s office in our arrondissement, but that wasn’t correct. Finally we discovered that what the policeman told us was wrong, and that we needed to go to the 5th arrondissement Préfecture. When we finally met with them, they said we didn’t need to change the address yet, and we should just do it at our carte de séjour appointment.

By now we were closing in on the end of March, so I started in earnest getting the packages of documents together. We don’t have a printer, so every time I needed to print something I had to walk 6 blocks down the street to “Copy Self”, a local printing and copying store in our neighborhood. The guys inside know me, even though I don’t pick up much of their French chatter. I think they talk “copy speak”, mostly consisting of terms of art about toner cartridges, document settings, color correction.

I carefully planned to print as many of the documents I needed as possible. I went to Copy Self and plugged my USB flash drive into their computer. For some reason I could not print my tax return at my usual printer. The office assistant came over to help me. First he printed my tax return to another printer in the back. It came out completely distorted and sized wrong for the paper. He then asked if I wanted to print all the documents at once, which I agreed to do since it seemed easiest. He moved my USB drive to another computer, selected all the documents, and hit print. My tax return document required that I type in my password. Only one hitch – I didn’t know of any password for that document. The assistant asked his boss for assistance. They exchanged copy speak – soon the boss took over. Every document required a password, but he did something to get them to print. Everything printed in portrait even though a good percentage of the documents are set up to print in landscape. It was printing disaster!

I took my 80 plus pages of financial documents home. That night I lay awake worried about identity theft. The next morning I assembled another package of summary financial pages and pages that needed to be printed in color, plus my tax return. I returned to Copy Self and kept things under control this time. By then my packages were coming together, but I was sick of getting ready for this meeting. All my time in France was being spent preparing to get a residence permit. I complained to our French tutor. I complained to Brenda. They tried to make helpful suggestions, but I was having none of it. I wanted this monkey off my back. I complained to my coach, who pulled me up short to ask how was I taking care of myself. We figured out that I needed a rest. Also I needed to recognize that others were making suggestions to try to help me because they could recognize better than me that I needed help. My real job at that point was to help myself.

A few days remained until our appointment. I agreed to take time off – we surfed the web at the Luxembourg Gardens and walked around town. I went to the gym and went to bed earlier at night. I resigned myself that if there was a problem, they would give me more time to fix it.

Our package was assembled. We had another meeting on Skype with Jennifer from Mon Ami Andy to go over everything. I highlighted the places in our documents where the income stream on my spread sheet showed up as deposits in the three months of US bank statements. I highlighted where transfers occurred from the US to France, and provided copies of the transfer documents themselves. I downloaded and printed the Tricare Overseas (retired military medical insurance) pages to show that we were enrolled and to show the list of recommended physicians and hospitals in France. I created an example of a bill from our doctor that I paid and for which I filed a claim and received reimbursement. I went over the checklist again and again, finding a few more mistakes and fixing them (and trudging back to Copy Self to print new copies). Brenda and I rehearsed how we would assemble our documents, how we would present them, and what we would say. On Sunday before our Monday appointment, we rested.

On Monday we went about 2 hours early to our official appointment at the main Préfecture office on Île de la Cité. We got through security and lined up outside of the room where we were to have our meeting. A man at the front door greeted us and quickly checked our paperwork, which he pronounced as “magnifique”. Then he gave us each a ticket and told us to sit down. In our room full of people, there really weren’t others like us. There were corporate employees with their families and a corporate attorney to shepherd them through the process, spouses one of whom is a French citizen and the other requiring to establish residence, students following the instructions from their schools, and others who spoke good French. People always ask us, why are you here, to which we shrug and say because we thought we would like it.

We were finally called to our meeting with a young woman, I would guess in her ’20s. She first went through Brenda’s paperwork and then through mine. She asked questions about our medical insurance, but after we demonstrated the process for reimbursement, she checked with her supervisor and accepted the plan. She was happy with everything else. Finally she wanted to know why Brenda’s last name was neither mine nor her maiden name. Brenda had been married in Australia in the ’70s. The woman asked for a copy of the divorce decree. I told her that I didn’t have it with me, but could get a copy at our apartment. She said she was going to lunch, and for us to get it and meet her back afterward with it.

We raced home and got our copy of the nearly 35 year old document, which I had attached to an original copy of our marriage license in an envelope of extra stuff I had brought first to San Francisco and then to France just in case. 25 years ago we sent to Australia for it so that we could obtain a military ID for Brenda when I was in the Navy. No one had ever asked about it since. We raced back to the Préfecture, entered back through security and waited for our inspector to return from lunch. When she finally returned I gave her the document, and she asked me for the translation. Checkmate – I told her I didn’t have a translation. She consulted her supervisor and bought back three documents for us to sign, two swearing that we were married and one for me to agree to accept whatever liability France might bear for our not having a good enough divorce decree [my interpretation]. Since I have already signed many software end user agreements, I readily signed what was put before me.

Our inspector printed new récépissés for us to verify and sign. We are once again legal residents in France. She also gave us each a Convocation (appointment slip) to pick up our real Cartes de Sejour on or after June 25th. The new permit is good through the end of January 2015. To renew that one, we need to start 5 months ahead of time, which would be next October.

In the aftermath I came down with a cold, which I’ve now passed on to Brenda. Still, we celebrated our new cartes de séjour and my birthday with our French friends Cat and Jacques, including a night of dancing. I just hit 21 for the third time (63), still trying to grow up.