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

“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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