Adventures in French Bureaucracy, Part 1

Old Town, Geneva

Now, let me preface the following by saying that a more reasonable person – a person with, say, better foresight and adeptness with planning – would probably go about obtaining a working visa in any country in a far more expedient and simple manner than I. That is to say, by following the proper channels. Despite my best intentions, I often take the most circuitous route I can find whenever I try to accomplish something in life. Sometimes I can get away with calling it “taking the Road Less Traveled”, which sounds considerably more romantic than the reality: taking fifteen wrong turns and winding up by sheer chance wherever I was intending to go, only to discover I could have gotten there in five minutes with minimal effort. Alas, I appear to be preternaturally disposed to taking the scenic route. And so it goes with my new adventures in French bureaucracy.

My primary obstacle in getting a working visa for France is simple geography. The French government prefers that you apply for any of its long stay visas from your home country. You must present yourself in person at the embassy to lodge your application, whereupon there may be an interview to suss out your suitability for living among the French.

Inconveniently for me, I have been living away from my home country for two years, and when I decided to move to France to be with my French boyfriend, Flo, I was residing in Australia. I questioned the French embassy in Canada in regards to applying from Australia since I was technically living there, earning wages and accumulating mail, but the answer was a swift, non.

Perhaps it would have been easier, albeit decidedly out of the way, to just get on a plane for Canada and sort it out the proper way, while visiting my family – most of whom I suspect have nearly forgotten what I look like. Instead I bought a ticket for Geneva (Flo lives in a town called Ornex about a fifteen minute drive from Geneva, on the French side of the border, which is mildly unfortunate because I have the impression that the Swiss visa would be easier to get), which had an inescapably lengthy layover in Beijing, preceded by a surprise stopover in Shanghai (they neglected to mention the Shanghai stop prior to boarding the plane). Both in Shanghai and Beijing we were required to deplane and go through immigration and customs; the sole purpose of which appeared to be relieving people of their lighters. But I digress.

My ingenious plan thus far was to enter on the ninety day tourist visa (which for Canadians is automatic, blessedly requiring no paperwork or planning whatsoever), and then “figuring it out” when I arrived (i.e. procrastinating on the inevitable). The former was easy, the latter is proving to be somewhat tedious.

The good news: a relative of Flo’s who works on the town’s council told us that it is possible to obtain a long stay visa and then apply for a working visa from within the country. All we had to do was drop by the Mairie (city hall) to obtain the appropriate forms. After a couple of false starts at the wrong Mairie, and missing office hours, we found the right one at the right time and were brusquely informed that the person who takes care of this paperwork was not present and so we must go to some DMV type establishment, the Sous-Prefecture, which was conveniently open from 10:15 to 10:27 am every third day, excluding weekends and bank holidays.

The journey was far superior to the destination: the roads are narrow and cobbled, lined with gracefully aging dusty pink buildings and street side cafes with beautiful French women smoking cigarettes and drinking bubbly drinks out of gleaming crystal glasses. The village is bucolic; nestled in a wide valley encircled by the Alpes and dotted with farms in harvest.

Mont Blanc

So, we showed up at the Sous-Prefecture at the appropriate time, waited in the appropriate line for half the morning, and upon finally greeting the deceptively chirpy woman at the counter, were told that we were in the wrong place. We needed to get the forms from the Mairie we had just been at.

We abandoned the paperwork search for the day, in fear of important blood vessels bursting or some such, and went to visit Voltaire’s castle instead. It was markedly easier to locate but, of course, it was closed; it being a week day afternoon and all. Flo pointed out the pathway our brainy patron used to take on horseback out the back entry of the castle to avoid meeting his creditors. From my brief encounters thus far with with French bureaucrats, I can’t say I blame him for keeping his distance.

The following day we returned to the Mairie and to our joint shock and mild confusion, not only was it open, but the woman we needed to speak with was in her office. There must be a catch, I thought.

And so there was. She was dour faced and cheerless and terribly unhelpful. She instructed me to go back to Canada, with a haughty sneer that said, “You think I’ll give you anything that easily? Surely you must be mad”.

I may be mistaken, but I am getting the impression that navigating French bureaucracy is some sort of hazing ritual that must be endured in order to earn a place among the wage earners of France. And in that case, you win this round, France, but I am undeterred.

Parc des Bastions


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