I’m Fighting the French Bureaucracy (And I’m Not Sure Who’s Winning)

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“Vote Casted”, graffiti on a garbage can in Nantes, France

Every citizenship comes with a burden. Americans abroad constantly have to explain they are not that fat or that dumb, Canadians have to survive six months of winter… and French have to fight their bureaucracy.

I had forgotten how often I got lost in the French bureaucratic maze, how often my questions were unanswered, how inflexible and impractical the system is. But now I remember. It started when I was a kid, because my hyphenated last name (parents aren’t married, hippie style) was “illegal.” Later, as a student I had to argue for weeks to get my scholarship paid—I never won this battle, it was invariably paid as a lump sum in the middle of the academic year instead of monthly starting in September, as it should be. More recently, last summer, I fought French bureaucracy to renew my passport.

These days, I don’t have many administrative ties to France—no bank account, no tax returns, no French address. I only have a valid carte d’identité and French passport, although I rarely use these documents—like Feng and Mark, I travel with my Canadian passport.

Unlike many immigrants, I never officially moved to Canada. I came and stayed, going from tourist status to temporary visas, from permanent residence to citizenship. As far as the French bureaucracy was concerned, I was still living at my parents’, in Nantes, the only address I ever had in France—I left the country at 18, I never had the chance to live on my own over there.

But in 2012, my parents received a letter stating I had been called for jury duty in Nantes. I sorted it out explaining I was abroad and I realized I’d better update my address to avoid further misunderstanding. I reached out to the French consulate in Toronto and was added to the very official “registre des Français à l’étranger” that I pictured as a giant handwritten notebook filled with misspelled addresses of French living in Canada.

My new “French abroad” status allowed me to vote in person at the French embassy in Ottawa for national elections. I was also periodically invited to various French-only gatherings during which a new French colonial empire was probably planned while eating cheese (I wouldn’t know for sure, I never attended these events). My email address was also shared with every French political party, which resulted in a major spam issue whenever an election was scheduled (i.e. fairly often, in France).

As you may know, French will elect a new president in a few weeks—first round on April 23, second round on May 7.

On March 14, I received an email from the Consulate in Toronto. Without any further explanation, it stated that my name had been removed from the voter register. I emailed the Consulate, then when I didn’t get any reply, I reached out on Twitter.

Eventually, an explanation was provided. It turned out that the registration as a French national abroad is only valid for five years—in my case, expiring in December 2016. Not a big deal, except this registry is now linked to the voting registry.

“So how do I vote?” I asked. “Proxy voting? Can I designate one of my parents to vote?”

This is how I used to do before I registered as a French aboard.

“Well, no, because you don’t exist.”

Right. French logic. If I don’t have an address in France or in Canada, I don’t exist. Ta-da, problem solved!

What pissed me off the most is that after talking to other French in Ottawa, I discovered we were several people in the same situation and despite what the consulate claimed, we had never been notified our registration needed to be renewed—most of us had no idea it was only valid for five years. Sure, I can miss a reminder email. But I’m confident I wouldn’t have missed a reminder letter from the Consulate and it seems doubtful all of my friends also missed it.

After several angry emails, the Consulate called me. We both behaved like proper French and agreed a mistake had been made and it was the government’s fault. This is France, you can’t hold anyone accountable–it’s gotta be the government.

The only way to fix the issue was to email the Tribunal de grande instance in Paris. Considering the High Court of Paris has nationwide jurisdiction for matters of crimes against humanity and war crimes, corruption and tax evasion, among others, I felt kind of bad—I mean, they must be really busy with serious matters.<

I wasn’t expecting a reply, especially to an email.

But last Thursday, voilà, a very official and badly scanned PDF was inviting me to appear before court and plead my case on April 10. Fortunately, I’m also able to mail supporting documents. Damn. I almost wish I could have come in person.

And now I’m going through the list of documents I have to provide—bad news, two should have been issued by the Consulate in Toronto.

Calling them Monday, first thing… the fight continues.

I take voting seriously. We are dangerously close to be electing our very own Trump.

Notice to appear before court

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

14 Comments

    • Maybe I’m biased because it’s the system I’m most familiar with, but I find the presidential elections process fairly straightforward. Easier to understand that the US electoral college!

      Do you vote in France?

  1. I once registered as an absentee voter in the Philippine Embassy here in Berlin. That said, I didn’t exercise my right to vote. It was a bad decision, I know, but at the same time I was so disaffected. I haven’t been living in the Philippines since 2005, and even though I can vote, I am not affected, and in the place where I am affected, I cannot vote.

    Of course, after seeing who the country elected as President last year, I am kicking myself in the butt. But at the same time, I cannot shake off the idea that it is such a far away country from me, and the only ties I have at the moment is that I am using the passport that it issued to me.

    • When it comes to voting, I don’t think there are good or bad decisions, it’s really a personal choice. I can perfectly understand why you didn’t vote and your ties with The Philippines are looser than mine with France, I think. Would you be open to getting a new EU citizenship, if possible?

      • Oh definitely. I qualify for permanent residence and German citizenship in 2021, and I won’t hesitate to apply. I have met other people who had the chance to naturalize, yet hesitated at first because they felt like they had their identity being removed. But I don’t see that as a problem in my case. Heck, even within my family, I have a Philippine passport yet my sister who simply because she happened to be born in Colorado, also carry an American passport. Somehow that made me think that citizenship is to some degree random, and therefore if there is a chance I can acquire another one, I definitely would. And yes, I would exercise my right to vote here once given the chance.

        • It’s funny, when I read “2021” at first, I thought it was a date in a very distant future, like one of these random dates in sci-fi movies 🙂 Then I realized it was only four years from now. Boy, I feel the 1990s were yesterday…!

          I also think citizenship is quite random, especially when you are assign a citizenship just based on your place of birth. I find it cool to choose to belong wherever it fits best for you 🙂

  2. Lol, the Tribunal de grande instance also keeps marriage and PACS registries for non-French-born residents, so I’ve written to them multiple times for totally banal things.

    Anyway, that sounds like a huge mess, and I totally understand why you’re determined to get it fixed. I voted in both primaries because I am taking NO CHANCES. (I probably wouldn’t have voted in the Republicains’ primary if Trump hadn’t been elected.)

    • Oh, I didn’t know! Man, they must be VERY busy. Was your experience positive (… as far as French bureaucracy goes…!) with them?

  3. I hear you! I want to renew my French driving licence and my passport expires soon (I got my first and only one made in Scotland!) and I am dreading it!
    I however do not vote in France. I would also like to avoid LePen as president but given that I haven’t lived in France for over 10 years I don’t feel that I am legitimate in voting in the election. I totally understand you voting though! It’s just the way I personally feel about it

    • I wish I could give you practical advice to renew your passport but I think I’ll stick to “bonne chance!” 😆 How come you still have a French driver’s license? And they expire now???

      I can totally understand why you don’t vote in France and I certainly wouldn’t judge your decision! It’s a personal choice. I’m weird with voting 😆

      • No, I only had my original one, but they took it from me when I got a BC Licence. And get this, I had to have it translated by an approved translator before I could get a BC one… So much for a bilingual country! I simply wanted a French one for when I go home and for the sake of sentimentality.

  4. Oh Boy, seriously? De notre côté on est pogné avec une affaire d’examens et d’école en France qui oublie d’envoyer les papiers à la salle d’examens au Canada, avec le décalage horaire c’est insortable comme affaire… Et impossible d’obtenir une réponse alors que côté canadien ils se démènent pour nous aider… Mais je peux pas croire que t’en sois rendu là simplement parce que tu demandes à exercer ton droit de vote, vraiment j’y crois pas…

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