Welcome to Bureaucracy
As of today, I have officially been back in France for one entire month – I arrived to my new chez moi on August 20th. It’s been a long month of ups and downs in dealing with exhausting administrative activities, but I am proud to say that I have survived the ordeal thus far. For those of you who have already read some of my earlier posts on the administrative legwork that needs to be done before moving to France (see How to Move to France and Visa Woes), you’ll realize that one of the pitfalls of this wonderful socialist state is the bureaucratic nightmare that affects everything you do, from opening a bank account to registering for classes. To give you a brief idea of some of the things that I accomplished:
- I submit my required “déclaration” of my arrival in French territory to OFII, the immigration center that will process and validate my visa and carte de séjour (residency permit)
- I opened a bank account
- I officially rented an apartment en collocation (with four other flatmates), paid my deposit, and paid my first month’s rent
- I submitted a dossier requesting the support of la CAF (Caisse d’allocations familiales), an agency that subsidizes student housing and helps families in need – all students qualify, whether or not we are foreign or French citizens
- I registered as a Master’s student at the University of Picardie Jules Verne
- I paid my sécurité sociale (200 €), which covers 70% of all health care costs, and found a mutuelle, a subsidiary health insurance for students that covers up to 100% of all health care costs, with an additional coverage of dental care and vision (13 € a month), and then I found a doctor who agreed to be my general practitioner (médecin traitant), and had him sign for my coverage
- I paid for a year-long bus pass
Now, all this might not seem like such a big deal, no more than the average grocery list of things to do in moving to a new country. But in order to highlight the ridiculousness of many of these activities, as well as the profound sense of accomplishment I feel in achieving them, I’d like to recount my story of the opening a bank account with BNP Paribas.
In order to open a bank account in France, you need two simple things: a photo ID (usually a passport if you are a foreigner) and proof of housing. Normally speaking, opening a bank account is not the hardest of administrative tasks in France, and it should not have been an occasion to give me fear. Yet upon arriving in France, I was already presented with an uncomfortable dilemma that faces all foreign students: in a bizarre Catch-22, I was ineligible for university housing because I needed a French bank account to qualify, and I couldn’t have a bank account unless I already had housing. As a result, I sidestepped this problem by finding private housing in the city center, with better living conditions and overall atmosphere. Luckily for me, I already had close friends in France to advocate on my behalf, as few landlords are willing to sign a lease with someone who is not yet in the country or who does not have a co-signer making a decent salary. A close friend of mine “acted” as the co-signer, having to physically sign the paper in Amiens, and Hedi faxed the documents to me on my behalf. Thus, in theory, I already had an apartment with a lease starting August 31.
In my haste to open a bank account – which I would need for various other administrative things – I made my first faux pas. Instead of waiting to present my receipt of payment for the first month’s rent, starting August 31, I decided to open an account before Hedi left for Tunisia on August 26. My rationale was that the earlier I got the process started, the earlier I could have my carte bleue, that all-important French debit card, and a checkbook to pay for my registration fees. In order to sidestep the “proof of housing” requirement, I requested that they send me an official accusé de réception, in which La Poste (the French postal service) would have me sign a piece of paper proving that I live where I live. Simple.
Thus I left the BNP Paribas on Wednesday, August 22, fairly confident that I would have a functioning bank account relatively soon. My conseiller (bank representative) promised me that the accusé de réception would arrive within a week, as would my debit card and checkbook. I patiently waited, checking my mailbox every day. Then came Tuesday, August 28, with a little slip of paper summoning me to the nearest Post Office. Since I live on the 5th floor, the mail carrier never climbs up to have us sign for mail but rather leaves us with a little rectangular slip telling us to come claim our important mail in person. I bore this paper triumphantly in my hands as I walked five minutes away to the Post Office. The man at the counter looked at the paper and then scowled at me, informing me that the illegible handwriting had specified that I come back Wednesday after 2:00 pm. I returned home rather resignedly.
The next day, at 2:00 pm sharp, I arrived at the La Poste. The woman at the counter asked for a photo ID, and so I handed her my no longer accurate Missouri driver’s license, which she barely glanced at. So much for “proof of address.” She then went in the back room and returned with a brown envelope. Inside was a copy of my “rib” (relevé d’identité bancaire, with all the numbers of my account), which I had received a week earlier. Not sure what to do with such newfound treasure, I promptly strolled over to BNP Paribas, which is five minutes from La Poste. The woman at the reception looked at my paper and told me that I couldn’t access my account until it was “validated.”
“What do you mean, “validated”?” I asked. I had done everything they asked me to: waited patiently for the piece of paper, patienté (what a great French verbe – no wonder there is no term in English for “to wait patiently”) another day before signing the damn slip of paper at the Post Office, before returning to the bank, all within a few square kilometers of my apartment building.
So the woman asked me when I had signed the slip of paper. She explained, in a monotone voice, that it wasn’t enough that I obviously had the piece of postage that proved I lived where I lived. As I had just signed the paper, the bank needed the Post Office to send back the accusé de reception before it would be processed and my account validated.
“How long do you think that will take?” I whined. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “Perhaps a few days.”
I headed back home, already sick of patient-ing, and vowed that I would return on Saturday morning, three days hence. On the morning of Friday, August 24, however, I received another piece of mail from the bank in my mailbox (I had been steadily receiving mail from them for days, so I obviously lived where I live!). It was the “coupon” for my debit card, which apparently had arrived at the bank. Clutching this important courrier, I rushed to the bank, brandishing this latest proof that my bank account should be valid.
“I’m sorry, your bank account hasn’t been validated yet.” “What do you mean? My carte bleue has arrived, hasn’t it?” “Yes, but we have to wait until the account is validated before you have access to the card.” I was advised to “come back next week – surely it would be ready by then.”
Utterly frustrated, I tried not to think about the bank account the entire weekend, and, somewhat suspicious, I stalked into the reception on Monday, August 24. Luckily, it was a newcomer, a young man in his 20’s, who was at the counter. No, my account had not been validated, and no, they couldn’t tell me when it was likely to be the case. “Apparently,” the guy said rather apologetically, “these things take place on Thursdays.” “Why Thursdays?” “Well, you see, it has to get sent to the headquarters before it’s processed at this bank.” Before I exploded at the utter nonsense of the fact that, while I live literally five minutes away from the Post Office and the bank, my little slip of paper had to be sent to Parisian bureaucrats before I could have access to a measly checking account.
On Thursday, August 30, it had been a week since I signed the damn piece of paper, and honestly, I had better things to do with my time than to wait in line at BNP Paribas to find out whether or not my account had been validated. Meanwhile, my checkbook had “arrived at the bank.” The account still wasn’t validated.
On Wednesday, September 5, I had a near breakdown at the bank account. Today was the day when I was officially “eligible” to register as a student, and I desperately wanted to pay the 462 € fee from my own checkbook. Luckily, my friend Firas helped me out, because when I arrived at the bank in the morning, my account had still not been validated. It had been two weeks since I signed the accusé de réception and three weeks since I had initially tried to open my bank account. It was time to take action.
On the verge of tears, I told the woman at the counter in sputtering French (my language had been degrading as I got more and more emotional) that three weeks was unthinkable for opening a bank account, and that I wanted to know why it wasn’t validated yet, otherwise I would simply change to another bank. Apparently it was too late to show them my copy of the rent, as the “process had been started” and couldn’t be stopped. The woman at the counter, at a loss for words, went to get my conseiller, a rather slimy and unlikable fellow who had claimed three weeks previous that it was incredible that I had arrived so early – so unlike other foreign students, such as (with a meaningful look at Hedi, as he tried to decipher his North African origins) Djibouti students who came in the middle of September. After a devastating exchange (on my own part, as I tried not to cry), he promised me that he would be in touch about the account. I stormed out of the bank.
Later that very day, the conseiller called me on my cellphone, informing of the “strange coincidence” that my bank account had been validated mere minutes after my departure! Before following through with my threats to change banks, I was thus invited to return that very afternoon, collect my carte bleue and my checkbook, which had been withering of neglect.
What are your experiences with French bureaucracy? How would you compare it with the “paper-pushing” of other countries?