Paper chase proves a test of French culture

The red tape encountered on a quest for a national identity card makes storming the Bastille sound easy.

It wasn't as if I actually needed to be French.

As a British subject, I am allowed to live and work in France with the same rights and obligations as a Frenchman, thanks to the European Union.

But when I married a Frenchwoman 13 years ago, I decided to take French nationality pour la beaut du geste, as they say, a noble gesture of respect for my new wife's culture. And anyway, I didn't have to give up my British citizenship.

Now, this gesture has drawn me deep into the bowels of French bureaucracy, in a paper chase that says a lot about this country and the complexities facing a foreigner trying to turn himself into a certified Frenchman. And as a white European, I often remind myself, I have had it easy compared to my African and Arab counterparts.

First, I have discovered that the French passport I sometimes carry is not proof of French nationality. "It is nothing more than a travel document," sniffed a clerk at the mayor's office.

I had shown it to her because now that we live in France, after many years abroad, we thought it would be a good idea to get each member of the family fixed up with a Carte Nationale d'Identit, the basic ID that every French person carries as a matter of course.

Since our second son, Simon, was born outside France, the woman at the mayor's office told me, and since his father - me - had also been born outside France, I had to show proof of French nationality before my son could get a French ID.

Hence I showed her my passport, and she sniffed.

It is true that I had not been subjected to the most rigorous of tests when I was first granted the passport. The law at the time gave any foreigner the right to apply for French citizenship after six months of marriage to a French person. In those days, my wife and I were living in Nicaragua, so I filled in all the forms at the French Embassy there, waited several months for them to work their way through the system, and then went round to the ambassador's home for the final hurdle.

I was obliged to prove that I was "adapted to French culture." The ambassador, a friend of ours, designed the test: He gave me the choice of enjoying a glass or two of Burgundy and then singing the Marseillaise, or singing the French national anthem first and then having a drink. I passed.

According to the woman in the mayor's office, I would never have been issued a French passport without showing someone my Certificat de Nationalit. "Where was my certificate?" she wanted to know.

I must have had one once, but I certainly could not find it any more. I must have sent it off to a government office somewhere, I told her.

"Eh bien," she said with a smile, (and I realized I had failed this real test of adapting to French culture). "That is proof positive that you are not French. No French citizen would ever send away the original of a document like that. They send a copy, and never let the original out of their hands."

What I did have, though, was an eight-year-old letter headed Rpublique Franaise, Ministry of Solidarity, Health and Social Protection, Directorate of Population and Migration, Sub-Directorate of Naturalizations, and embellished with a stamp of Marianne, symbol of La Rpublique, saying that the ministry had studied my case and had found no reason why my application for French citizenship should be refused.

But, it added, "this attestation is not a certificate of French nationality. Only judges in courts of first instance may issue such certificates."

After being sent out by said court's clerk for a notarized translation of my British birth certificate, I received a Receipt Acknowledging Application for a Certificate of French Nationality.

Some time in the autumn I hope to receive a notice to appear before the court. Then I can go back to the mayor's office with the certificate and a photocopy of same, my marriage certificate and photocopy of same, French passport (ditto), two photographs of myself, two utility bills with my name and address, and a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Then I can apply for my national identity card.

Once I get it, we can start doing what all this was meant to be about in the first place: applying for Simon's ID.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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