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Integration 101

I do see a light at the end of the tunnel. This past week I had my first experience with the Préfecture.  The motivation was to finally get my driver’s license exchanged so that I have an official French one.  Something that would be more legal obviously as well as a task that my insurance requires that I complete within the first year of residence.  I am very fortunate to be an ex-Pennsylvanian regarding this matter.  France and Pennsylvania have a reciprocal negotiation that they will honor each other’s permit de conduire.  So all I have to do is get my license officially translated in French and file the paperwork.  Then the Préfecture will grant me a driver’s license, flat out.  No tests.  No driving classes.  (Of course the same would be true of a French person moving to Pennsylvania.)  Interestingly this relationship varies from state to state.  My colleague at work who is from Texas unfortunately has to start from ground zero.  She has to pay to go to driving school, accumulate several driving hours and take the test within the first year.  It is extra money if you need a translator during the test. 😦

So the Préfecture opens precisely at 9:00 a.m.  and it is very easy to get there.  From my apartment there are actually 3 bus lines that will take me to Central Administrative.  I enter the building shortly after 9:00 a.m. as I knew this whole experience is about waiting in line.  It was teeming with people all waiting a document of some kind (passports, vehicle registration, work permits, driver’s license, etc.).  I find the driver’s license room that was all the way in the back and of course you take a ticket and wait for your number to be called.  It wasn’t yet 9:15 and I was already number 27.  There was only two windows serving this room of people.  I sat down and began to play with my iPhone, listening to music and reading some e-mail.

Let’s pause for a minute. The Préfectures of France are the disdain of the French and Foreigner alike.  You could say they are big zits that are on Marianne’s face (remember France refers to itself as feminine).  Yes, the States do have the advantage that their governmental agencies are straightforward; the government states clearly what is needed for everyone and if you have it, you get want you want.  Here (sigh) on the other hand is something else.  The government will state what paperwork is needed but this is the minimum of what is needed.  The civil servant of the Préfecture that is sitting at that window to serve you has the power to demand for more paperwork.  So you can easily get all the way there with what you think is needed to accomplish the task but that civil servant can easily demand for more.  Consequently requiring you another trip to the Préfecture.  One learns quickly to bring your life (in paperwork) every time you go.

Mail it in!

Mail it in!

Let’s go back to the scene. As time ticked on the clock on the wall, I witnessed three Niçois get into a verbal yelling match with the civil servant behind the window.  They were all various scenarios and I honestly couldn’t tell you the exact details as my French isn’t that good to decipher yelling French.  What I could gather was these folks were tired of having to come back and refused to leave without getting what they want.  At the same time I am reading a posting from Jean Taquet, a lawyer who helps foreigners, particularly Americans, to integrate into France on a legal level.  He has a regular newsletter that I have been reading faithfully.  The recent posting was an American sharing frustration about the Préfecture and ended up yelling at them just as I was witnessing in front of me.  What was Jean Taquet’s legal advise?  It is never advisable to be confrontational with civil servants. Clearly the French need to start reading Jean Taquet’s newsletter as much as Americans living here.  Jean’s logic is clear – behind these civil servants is literally the national police, the next person in line.  He reminds the American that the full name is Préfecture de Police de Ville (Nice) – the police headquarters.  So if you demand to see their ‘manager’ (a typical American response), then you will be talking to a police officer.  Now we are getting into issues of contempt.  Handcuffs in France are just as uncomfortable as in the States.  The point to be taken here is that the States is definitely more black and white on legal issues; more pragmatic.  The French way is a little more loose as the Préfecture has the power to assess how the law applies in your specific situation.

Let’s really get back to the scene. How did my session go?  Well I got a Get Out Of Jail card and never had to speak to the civil servant.  About 45 minutes into my wait I notice the sign shown above hastily scotched taped to the wall.  It reads that just back in July, all requests for a foreign driver’s license exchange must be mailed in via post.  They no longer do it in person, same day.  So I made sure I had the proper form from the rack and left to have a coffee.  They were only up to number 15 and there is no need to wait another hour to have them tell me to mail it in.  Kinda of a let down on the punchline, eh? Well be assured I promptly mailed my paperwork the next day.  I am sure to keep you posted as I will have to go back to pick up my French driver’s license.

Where I had to take my "integration" classes

Where I had to take my integration classes

But it doesn’t stop there with the Préfecture, don’t forget my previous post about the OFII. This Saturday I had to attend my Formation Civique, an all day class on French civil law.  At first it can be slightly unsettling that you are going to something that looks like a military barrack.  So one voice says sarcastically Bienvenue en France.  Yet the other rational voice comments Well at least they aren’t wasting tax Euros and are being resourceful.  You can make your own judgement by the pictures.  In any case it was a worthwhile Saturday.  It is smart that the government requires this class for everyone becoming a resident of France.  It gives you a clear view of the history, laws, symbols and governmental structures.  Of course it is delivered in French so I had to concentrate all day to make sure I understood everything.  A lot of it was review for me, since I had been studying French culture for such a long time.  Yet there were still new facets of information. The debate of no religious symbols in schools is not new to France; that law was created back during the Napoleon era.  The recent news is only a modern challenge to an old law.  I also didn’t realize the Sénat is not directly elected by the people.  Other bodies of the government elect them; only the Assemblée Nationale is directly elected.  Then I was curious how some of the women in room were reacting to the clarity of French law that women and men are treated and respected as equals being that they come from more patriarchal cultures in the developing world.

The Classroom (at least they served coffee)

The Classroom (at least they served coffee)

We were a sizeable class of roughly 25.  All corners of the globe were represented such as El Salvador, Brazil, India, China, Japan, Guinea and with Tunisia taking the lead as the most represented.  With the current European Union laws, you will never see another European taking this course.  I was the only American in the room.  The teacher was a good presenter and interacted with the classroom.  He knew the material could get dry and made the best of it.  Of course, lunch was provided by going to the local brasserie down the street.  In the end I got my certificate which I need to keep forever as it is official and it proves my residency here (along with several other documents).

I still have more certificates to collect as I have to go back next Saturday too.  That class will be on the life and culture of France.

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