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How to Work in France

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From the Christmas newsletter of a good friend of mine who just got a post-doc in France.  Reprinted with his permission. Names omitted to hinder bureaucratic retaliation.


In early March I got accepted for a position in [city redacted] France, and regardless of any considerations of career path and so forth, that was that; when life offers you the opportunity to live in the south of France, you do not say no. But many things made the transition to France a slow one. First, of course, I needed to finish my thesis and pass my defense. Then I needed to convince France to let me in, which required navigating a long and complex bureaucratic process. One example: I had to show France proof that I had completed my PhD, but [school redacted] was not willing to certify that until after their Fall Convocation... almost six months after my defense! That caused all sorts of stress. Another example: to get an apartment in France, you need to show proof that you have a French bank account, but to get a French bank account, you have to show proof of a permanent address in France. Cracking that Catch-22 was rather tricky. And a final example: since we were then residents of New York, the only place on the face on the Earth where we could apply for our French visas was the French consulate in New York City. In person. That this might be inconvenient does not, of course, bother the bureaucrats. In fact, after they process your visa application, which takes an unpredictable amount of time, you are supposed to pick it up in NYC, again in person. I came prepared with a pre-paid FedEx envelope, and asked if they could send our passports back to us using it, but they said no. In fact what they actually said was this: we don't provide that service, because too many people would want it. Rarely is the worldview of the bureaucrat stated so bluntly!

We're still not finished with the bureaucracy; it continued even after we arrived in France. I carry a folder with me that has copies of our passports and visas, our birth certificates, our marriage certificate, our rental agreement, my employment contract, my bank information, my vaccination records... you never know what paperwork a French bureaucrat is going to ask for, so it is best to be prepared for any eventuality. We have certified translations into French of many of these documents, up to and including my N.Y. driver's license. In order to open our bank account, we had to show proof that we had renter's insurance; why, none can say. Soon it will be time to begin on the bureaucracy for the renewal of our visas.

[...]

Because of the Catch-22 I mentioned before, we started in a vacation rental, which is ridiculously large for two people, and even more ridiculously expensive (and it was hard to convince them to write a long-term lease for us, too!). Now that we've got our bank account and renter's insurance and all of that, we can move to a proper apartment, and we plan to do so at the beginning of May.


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COMMENTS (17 to date)
Gene writes:

"we don't provide it because too many people would want it." LOL. And these are the people that need to be in charge of healthcare?

Foreign scholar in Marseille writes:

You usually get around the proof of a permanent address problem by having someone write you a certificate of lodging (certificat d'hébergement), basically a free sheet of a paper where someone certifies that you live at his place for an indefinite amount of time, and carry his original ID (no photocopy) and his water or electricity or gas bill with full name and address on it. The problem with vacation rentals is that I'm skeptic this will count as a permanent address, and most of all they generally don't accept leases as proof of a permanent address, but only things like water, phone, and electricity bills. I assume you are not getting any of those with a vacation rental.

Brian writes:

As a US student in a program in Spain, I can say it is the exact same here too. It leads many of my foreign classmates to not follow all the procedures and therefore study illegally. It ruins credibility when there are more (this is not saying a lot) reasonable procedures.

Jo VB writes:

I rarely post to blogs, but this is just staggering. I had to respond. How on earth do you think it is different in the United States? Perhaps you think it is equally bad, but then it seems unfair to scold France (I am not French). I have migrated to the United States twice, once on an F1 student visa to do my PhD in 1995 and a few years ago on a J1 as a researcher. France seems to be a walk in the park. The address vs. bank account conundrum is exactly the same in the United States and surely less easy to circumvent.

For a 2 month research visit, I had to pay more than 10 different fees for a total of close to $1000 (again for just 2 months). The most 'priceless' fee was a $25 dollar charge for the phone call in order to make an appointment at the US embassy in Brussels (you heard that right). A fee to make an appointment where they charge extra fees and verify whether you have paid some more fees previously. Then I had to duplicate health insurance that I already have from my home country, but that the United States refused to accept.

I have lived in 7 countries around the world (including France) and the US bureaucracy was BY FAR, by a HUGE margin, the least hospitable to me. And then I have not said anything yet about the immigration officials at the border -- but we all know about them. A disgrace for a civilized country. I have to admit that it was noticeably easier pre 9-11, but nowadays I tend to avoid traveling to the United States, much to my own professional disadvantage.

Pedro Albuquerque writes:

This is all true (I've moved to France and went through some of the same problems, including the bank catch-22, which is a bug of France's legal system), but problems like these are not particular of France. All countries are immigration unfriendly these days, and will make you go through incredible amounts of bureaucratic waste so you can get in. Getting my green card in the US was one of the most incredibly complex bureaucratic tasks I've been through in my life. I had, for example, to take all childhood vaccines again because the "immigration doctor" wouldn't accept my Brazilian records. And I had to pass a driver license exam again in France (which is a very bureaucratic procedure) because many American states don't bother signing (or don't want to sign) agreements of licensing equivalence with other countries (I couldn't convert my American driver license but I would have been able to convert my Brazilian one if I had it yet). Much worse, my wife's professional certification from Switzerland, which is accepted in France without the need of any paperwork, had zero value in the US. To work in the US, she would have to go to university again!
And there is much worse: when compared to Latin American standards, France is a libertarian paradise.
But there are many advantages of living in France, among them, here at least I'm (yet) free to buy Habanos and smoke them in (almost) any place I want, as long as I stay within the limits of civilized behavior. The French are among the most socially libertarian people I've been in contact with, and this is very important to me, a dimension that, by the way, most economic freedom rankings don't measure.

The Friend writes:

Hi all. I'm Bryan's friend; I'm interested to hear people's comments on this experience. A few quick notes. One, we only heard about the "certificat d'hébergement" possibility after we were already here in France, but in any case it seems problematic since we were not, in fact, going to live at someone else's place; someone would have had to lie in writing on our behalf. I wouldn't ask my supervisor here to do that (and he certainly didn't offer!), and we didn't know anyone else in [city redacted]. It also doesn't seem like it would solve the Catch-22, because it would still be impossible to arrange an apartment rental without having a French bank account, and it would still be impossible to get the French bank account prior to having moved to France. The vacation rental seems like the only way to break the cycle, and it is what others that I have talked to have done, unless they knew people in the city they were moving to.

Regarding "they generally don't accept leases as proof of a permanent address", actually all the bureaucrats here have accepted our lease as a proof of address; we've gotten no pushback on that whatsoever. Perhaps it is different in Marseilles. But note that it is a proper lease agreement, not just a vacation rental contract; that's the part that was hard to set up. I agree that the bureaucrats would not accept a vacation rental contract.

The Friend writes:

Pedro writes: "Getting my green card in the US was one of the most incredibly complex bureaucratic tasks I've been through in my life." Yeah, friends who have gone through the U.S. immigration processes assure me that they are much worse than what France has put me through.

Jameson writes:

I have to say, after reading what other people have been through (this is not the first time I've read such complaints), I'm really thankful for the way my post-doc was handled in France. I never had the housing Catch-22, they simply opened a bank account for me using the school where I worked as an address. The visa was pretty annoying, as the author mentioned, but I know it can be just as annoying for people going to the US. My biggest problem has been getting social security (public health insurance) here, which is something to which I am in theory entitled, but there was a problem: I didn't have an "apostille" on my birth records when I came over, and getting them attached from abroad is complicated. I don't know why the social security system is the only bureaucracy that needed this apostille, but that's how it goes.

I think anyone's experience will depend more on the employer than on the country (although I've heard the Nordic countries are exceptionally easy to deal with). A good employer who has experience in and/or a desire to hire foreigners will have a system figured out to welcome them, which especially includes getting around administrative nightmares. There will always be bumps in the road, but that's life.

Grieve Chelwa writes:

This is what a lot of people living away from home have to go through on a regular basis. Whilst most people are going about their festivities, I worry about the Herculean task that lies ahead of renewing my visa.

Someone from the other side writes:

Conversely, it is incredibly easy to go through the process in Singapore (the housing thing is a bit of a pain when you do it from afar but that is more a function of the retarded way the housing market works over there). It's also fairly straight-forward within the EU.

More to the point: Why anyone would voluntarily go live in France is beyond me...

Methinks writes:

I'm shocked he found a French bank willing to open an account for anyone in America's tax jurisdiction. Because of FATCA most foreign banks won't deal with Americans at all.

Years ago, before my husband acquired U.S. citizenship (an act we now regret, but that's another story), he had to get a visa every time we went to France. The French bureaucracy prides itself on torturing people. For instance, after standing in a queue at the consulate in NYC for almost two hours just to hand in his visa application, the bureaucrat refused to accept the application because I did not have any proof that I was the applicant's wife. I pleaded. This was not a requirement detailed anywhere on the French consulate's visa application instructions and lots of tour firms were handing in large numbers of applications on behalf of their customers. The bureaucrat dug in his heals and berated me for holding up the long queue.

I returned the next day with our marriage license, stood in the queue for two hours and produced the document to prove that the person merely handing over the completed application is related to the applicant. The bureaucrat recoiled, glaring at me as if I had two heads and presented her with a severed hand. Of course this compelled me to explain to her why I was troubling her majesty with my marital status. This new bureaucrat spat out with as much derision as she could muster: "No, madame! We do not require it and we have never required it!"

I was delighted by the introduction of the Schengen visa. We could enter France by way of another Schengen country and I could run across the street from my office to the Belgian consulate where the only question I faced was a shocked "A tourist visa? You're going to Belgium for tourism????!!" before receiving the required stamp without further hesitation.

Anon writes:

Jo VB, nothing in this post says anything about the US system being better. You're inferring a fight where none exists. Since Bryan Caplan is a staunch critic of immigration restrictions in the US, I doubt you'll see him defending the American bureaucratic hurdles.

@The Friend: the solution to bureaucratic problems in countries like France usually relies on acting less impersonally and on finding a paperwork handler more inclined to help - and I'm not talking about corruption. Bureaucrats in Napoleonic code countries tend to have some degree of discretion when dealing with special situations, and this is necessary because rules tend to be more rigidly codified. In contrast, in common law countries codes are more lax but tend to be applied more strictly. For example, I know someone whose bank account was opened under a gentleman's agreement to bring the lease contract back to the bank clerk once it had been signed a few days later, the lease contract showing a retroactive date. This allowed the bureaucrat to "complete the file" before an auditor would drop by.
Once you learn how to make the best use of it, you may discover that the inbuilt margin of maneuver found in Napoleonic code systems can in reality be quite useful every time life takes a hard turn.

Gabriel Rossman writes:

Thanks, I now have the cultural background to fully appreciate the "The Place That Drives You Mad" segment (41:30-51:00) in The Twelve Tasks of Asterix.

Those rules apparently target illegal immigration given open borders, and when the French liberalized their academic labor market they forgot to fix some of those rules for easier treatment of newcomers. The bug is so glaring that I and my wife were affected by it even though we are both French nationals. How, you may ask? Because, although nationals of France, we've never lived in France throughout our lives! A case indeed so rare lawmakers and regulators never thought about it.

Julien Couvreur writes:

Immigration is a major source of bureaucratic nightmares, and it is not just France.
A few examples come to mind: conditions that only apply to nationals of specific countries (getting a Chinese tourist visa is different for an American than a French, for some reason), arbitrary "interviews" for entrance to the US (and people getting rejected without being given a reason), and the unexpected requirements (you need more documentation than was listed).
The last two are particularly annoying because they create uncertainty (it becomes hard to plan how to get bureaucratic steps completed).

Regarding France, one thing is particularly annoying. It has become increasingly difficult and bureaucratic for citizens to renew their own citizenship documents, over the last ten years. Are you really a real French?!

Hans B Pufal writes:

Having now lived in France for over 15 years I have all too many stories about bureaucratic machinations.

I will limit this post to two :

Re "certificat d'hébergement" : My mother was coming to visit back around 2000. Being an Estonian citizen with a refugee passport (issued to people who did not want to return to their homeland after the end of the war in 1945) she needed a visa. To get a visa needed the infamous "certificat d'hébergement". I duly presented myself at the local town hall and was told no problem, we just need proof of your residence. Unfortunately the lease I had brought with me was in the name of my employer - hence no certificat d'hébergement. A little research revealed that a certified hotel reservation could also be used. I went to the nearest hotel and made a reservation and received the precious note. Once my mother had visa safely in passport I cancelled the reservation.

My other story relates to my "carte de sejour" or French equivalent of Green Card. My card expired over a decade ago and since I had never been asked to produce it I neglected to renew it. For various reasons I decided to renew it a few months ago. I presented all my documents and after the three week wait was summoned to the prefecture to collect my new card. Upon inspecting it I notice that its expiration date was marked as 2010. I queried this with the official who took the card into the back-room for some time. He returned with the explanation that the cards were now permanent and that the expiration date meant nothing. I was skeptical but had no means to argue. A little later I presented my "expired" card when trying to open a new bank account. You guessed it : refused since the card was expired! Returning to the prefecture was a complete waste of time, no-one wanted to address the question of how an official document could have been issued after the date it had expired. I left the useless card on the counter. I still have not needed to show it, but I do not have a new bank account either!

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