The Préfecture: Hell in France?

The préfecture is not a popular destination in France. It’s the place where foreigners go to take care of bureaucratic nonsense like visa renewals, and it usually involves waiting in line for hours and dealing with cranky civil servants who hold your fate in their temperamental hands. Or so I hear – I’ve actually never been to the préfecture after two years in France. Well, not until Tuesday. On Tuesday I went to the préfecture.

It did not go well.

Let me back up. There is of course not one préfecture for all of France. You go to the one closest to your residence and you have to provide proof of your address. There has to be some order. Otherwise it would be a disorganized bureaucratic shitshow. (Let me just clarify that this is sarcasm. It is of course already a bureaucratic shitshow.)

I wanted to make sure that all went smoothly, so I contacted three préfectures in the area to make sure that I went to the right one with the right paperwork. It was determined that I should go to the sous-préfecture in Vienne, and I prepared my dossier all nice with those little plastic folders to keep it organized.

The sous-préfecture in Vienne was a bit of a mystery. My attempts to contact them were unsuccessful, and I don’t know anyone who has been there. But since it is a much smaller préfecture outside of a major city, I figured that there was no need to go at 6am to wait in line the way you would do in Lyon. And that part, at least, was true.

Hugo kindly drove me to Vienne and we sat in the waiting room for an hour and a half with a ticket that said “Etranger sans rendez-vous.” (Foreigner without appointment). Just the luxury of having a waiting room with chairs was enough for me after all the préfecture stories I’ve heard about camping out on the sidewalk.

Finally, my number (A008) was called, and I ran up to the window with my dossier.

“Good morning, I’m here to renew my visa long séjour.”

The woman looked at me confused. “Les visas, c’est pas nous.” We don’t do visas here.

I was pretty sure I was in the right place. “Um, my titre de séjour? Travailleur temporaire? I want to renew it?”

She fished out a piece of paper and started to read me the dossier requirements.

“You’ll need a copy of your passport, four ID photos–”

I pulled them out of my neatly organized dossier and started to hand them over.

“Oh, but I won’t take anything today,” she stopped me.

My jaw dropped. WTF? Then why did I come here?! 

“You don’t have an appointment, so I can’t take any of your paperwork.”

I explained that I had tried to contact them beforehand without success, and that I certainly would have made an appointment had I known it was an option. How does one make an appointment, by the by?

Oh it’s perfectly straightforward. You simply go all the way to the préfecture in person, wait until someone has time to see you, and then they tell you when the next available appointment is, in a month or two.

Is there seriously no better way to do this?!

I made her confirm several times because it seemed impossible that I had understood correctly, and she managed to act like it wasn’t remotely absurd.

So I was at the préfecture with all the right documents in front of the woman who is supposed to take the documents and process them, but she refused to take them because I didn’t have the formality of an appointment on the books (literally – they write their appointments in a giant spiral notebook.)

Crazy World
Are we in crazy world?

To add insult to injury, she didn’t understand how the titre de séjour renewal process worked. I had to explain it to her. Um, isn’t this your job?

“I don’t have any appointments available until September,” she informed me brusquely. “You are supposed to come two months before your visa expires.”

“Really? The Office of Immigration actually tells us that it’s one month.” At the préfecture in Lyon, you’re not even allowed to start the process until you have less than four weeks left on your visa.

“I don’t know anything about OFII, but here it is two months. ” She managed to be defensive and snooty at the same time. Does it strike anyone as at all strange that the people who deal primarily with foreigners immigrating to France have zero knowledge of the Office of Immigration?

What choice did I have? “Fine. I’ll take the appointment in September. I’ll just need the récépissé since my visa expires before then.” A récépissé is a receipt that shows you are legal while you are waiting for your new visa or titre de séjour.

“I can’t give you a récépissé. You don’t have an appointment. Right?” she turned to verify with her coworker.

Are you kidding me?

I explained to her that it was 100% standard for me to receive a récépissé, and what did she expect me to do when my visa expired?

Apparently, that wasn’t her problem.

In hindsight, I can’t believe I was naïve enough to think I was just going to waltz into the préfecture with my dossier and that everything would go smoothly because that never happens.  It’s actually an anomaly when things go well. Ask anyone who lives in France, including the French.

Moral of the story? Stay far, far away from the Sous-Préfecture in Vienne, and bring a flask to your next bureaucratic appointment.

Oui In France
P.S. You can read what happened next here.
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18 thoughts on “The Préfecture: Hell in France?

  1. Oh you really do need to write a book about your (mis) adventures! I had no idea it was so bad; it … almost … makes US bureaucracy look efficient … almost …

    WHY do we put up with this nonsense? Because the bloat is so pervasive it can’t be stopped, I fear, absent a revolt of all us “little people” !!

    Besides your excellent anecdotal-telling skills, I love how you intersperse the French and English dialogue since I know un petit bit about French language and love having that part of my brain sparked by you 🙂

  2. I had to renew my visa when I lived in Nord-Pas-de-Calais (because the French consulate initially gave me a visa that was 20 days too short and refused to change it, even when I showed them the work contract that I had initially provided stating the clear end date of my job), and I literally left in tears of frustration every single time. Glad to see that complete ineptitude at the préfecture is a nationwide malady!

    1. Oh no, that sounds awful!! It’s true that I haven’t really heard any positive stories about going to the préfecture… maybe this year I’ll have a happy visa renewal story to tell! (wishful thinking?)

  3. I’ve also been through this process in Lyon at the Préfecture, 69003 Lyon.

    After waiting in line twice and being sent home to spend more money on translated documents I’ve obtained some good information on this VERY frustrating process.

    My particular situation involves having a long stay visa (carte de sejour) and being the spouse of a scientist/ student in Lyon. While my wife way able to go to the MUCH simpler OFII (7 Rue Quivogne, 69002 Lyon), as her spouse, I was made to visit the Préfecture, 69003 Lyon.

    **As a STUDENT/SCIENTIST you do NOT have to go to the prefecture in the middle of the night and wait for hours. Do not wait in EITHER line! 🙂 Simply show up at about 8AM. Yes, they’ll call all the people in the right hand side line in @ 8:30AM. Don’t panic. Just before letting in all the people in the left hand side line in, they’ll call out “ALL STUDENTS!”. Students then form a small line outside (usually 10 or so people) and they go in BEFORE the other 9AM line!

    I’d really wished that someone had let me know this prior to arriving at 5AM.

  4. What a headache! I feel your pain… that feeling of stuck-ness and you think you’re the only one that thinks it’s a crazy, inefficient process. I admire people like you that move to France and have to go through this. Luckily we were transferred with a company to France and they took care of it, but I’m experiencing something similar in the UK now (without said help from our employer).. You’d think it’d be easy, at least we know the language here, but it’s like running around in circles.

      1. Thanks for stopping by! Your blog is absolutely beautiful. I have been pretty tranquille in France since the initial carte vitale / carte de séjour battles that I wrote about here, but now I get to have fun with American immigration as my French partner and I move to the U.S.! Good luck with the U.K. bureaucracy… doesn’t sound like fun at all!

  5. Hi: After six years and multiple visits to the sous-prectecture, documents in duplicate etc. I am happy to say that is behind us for now. Good-luck my strategy was always to take a good book and hunker down until my number was called. Thanks for posting in #AllAboutFrance

    1. Thanks for stopping by! A good book is always a good way to pass the time at the préfecture. For the really long waits I even brought a chair so I didn’t have to sit on the sidewalk for five hours. Now we’re dealing with it on the other side as we move to the U.S. So far, less waiting in line, but more waiting for things to get processed, and a lot more $$$!

  6. I’ve had a few good experiences at my sous-prefecture but I’ve also had some maddening ones like you described. The rules and the copies are enough to drive a sane person crazy. One time back when my French was terrible, I left in tears after being told I needed some document I didn’t have to process my paperwork for the carte vitale. It wears you down!
    #allaboutfrance

    1. Oh noooo that sounds horribly frustrating! I had to submit my dossier like four times to get my carte vitale – it took almost a year!! When I was thinking about moving back to California, I was like, no, I can’t leave France, it took so long to get my carte vitale!

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