Chasing Paper

photo: palais de justice cour du mai
This is what people who've just beaten the rap see,
leaving Paris' Palais de Justice.

And Being 'Papered'

Paris:- Tuesday, 10. November 1998:- Those were the days - when we laughed at the Soviet absurdity of having 'internal' passports! Imagine; having to carry a passport around all the time, inside your own country.

But when you think of it, this is what a French 'carte d'identité' is - an 'internal' passport. If you haven't got one on you, you could be thrown in the slammer, until the cops can 'verify' your identity. You can be fined for not carrying one.

Okay; reality is you tell the cops you left it in the suit you sent to the drycleaners, and if you look like you might own such a suit, you'll just get a 'don't forget it next time.' Very few French cops hassle residents for two-bit administrative nonsense. The point is though, they can if they want to.

I got my first 'residence permit' from my local cop shop. When I needed to renew it after three months, I had to go to the cop shop in Sèvres. The time after that, Sèvres was finished and I had to cross the bridge to Boulogne-Billancourt.

The final times I had to get it done when I still lived in that department, I had to go to the prefecture at Nanterre - wherephoto: stairs palais de justice everybody in the whole department was going. It was like the international-transit bus station in Ulan Bator on a busy holiday weekend.

Through the doors at the top of the stairs, pass a lot of - lawyers.

At first I had to renew my residence permit every ten minutes; but after a while they began to last six months. This meant I would gather the necessary papers together two months in advance of the expiry date, and go to the place. The further away they were, the longer the waiting lines were. Getting to Nanterre at 8:30 was no easy business and it was downright discouraging to get ticket number 387 at that time of day.

One time, my number came up, and I handed in the bundle of paper. They lady looked through it all and then asked for my work permit.

"Work permit?"

I have no idea how many times I'd renewed the residence permit by then, but nobody had ever asked for a work permit before.

I'd been working for five years without a 'permit.' I thought it was 'included' with the residence permit. Paying for social security, income taxes and 48 other taxes including the dreaded tax-tax, and nobody bothered to ask me about the permit which enabled me to be liable for all these taxes.

That stopped the renewal of the residence permit right there and then. I had to hot-foot down the street 700 metres to some other 'permit' office. It was a tiny place compared to the world-lounge I'd just come from.

When it was my turn in front of the peek-a-boo window, I said, "I've been working in France five years and the prefecture has just told me I need at work permit. I need it now, because I'm working!"

The half-dozen African gentlemen in line behind me alertly pricked up their ears when I said 'Now!'

The guy behind the glass evidently wasn't used to people demanding, loudly and clearly, to be given a work permit. He said, "Shhht! Go to the door to the left at the end of the counter."

I went through the door and then into a typical bureaucratic office full of empty café cups and ashtrays full of dead butts, and the chief invited me to take a seat, after a flunky had been ordered to close the door firmly. "What's this about?" he asked.

They listened to my story, somewhat as if I were a visitor from Mars, and while listening, they thought about all the African gentlemen outside, waiting to ask for their work permits. There was a 'situation' here, and theyphoto: quai des fleurs handled it coolly - by giving me a long list of all the paper I had to collect before coming back, to apply for this 'permit.'

Nervous about taking photos in the Palais de Justice, I shot this nearby harmless flower stall instead.

This meant I had to go around to all the places I worked and ask the people I worked for, to give me a paper saying I worked for them. It doesn't take much imagination to figure out that they wanted to think about this a bit - about the possible consequences of having given me work when I didn't have a permit; and what might happen if they 'confessed' to this by giving me the paper I needed. They coughed up the papers eventually, and nothing at all happened.

The following time I needed a residence permit, was when I moved from one department to another. Being able to do it in the cop shop in the nearest town was handy, but because of terrorism, I unluckily caught the residence permit people in the midst of changing all the residence permits in France - and doing it with computers for the first time ever.

I got a 'temporary' permit, good for three months. This stretched into 18 months; getting renewed every three months. This was about the only time a cop ever asked to see my residence permit. He thought I'd made it myself.

When the permits were finally ready, the computer had given my wife a new nationality - mine. Three months later she got another new residence permit, and became Iranian. I raced back to the cop shop with this and it was lucky I did. He said Versailles trashed the paper application bundles three days after the notice of receipt returned there.

The cop immediately phoned down to Versailles and saved the paper by a whisker. We were great pals by then. Now we don't go there anymore; the permit office moved to the sub-prefecture - and the last renewal was without any incidents worth mentioning.

The reason I'm writing about this, is not so much about the idea of the 'internal' passport, but about the paper chase. Without thinking about it too much, I got into it again this week, and it has led to new experiences.

Getting a residence permit can be somewhat stressful, but as I've mentioned above; after getting it, you hardly ever show it to anybody for anything. If you cash a lot of cheques at supermarket checkouts, you might use this as an ID card - but they'll accept a driver's license just as well. Even the cops will accept a photocopy of a driving permit!

Yesterday a friend asked me to find some papers about a court case. Normally, part of every day I'm on the street I spend some time looking for 'coming events,' so the 'paper chase' is more or less a constant part of my life.

But snooping around in courts is something new for me. Not knowing where to start, I decided to start at the centre, at France's and Paris' number one courthouse, the Palais de Justice, on the Ile de la Cité.

A very big cop stops me from just walking right in. He sends me to the entry for the sightseers, going in to see the Sainte-Chapelle church. I get my bag radared and cut out of there into the Cour de Mai and trot up the high and wide stone staircase.

Lawyers are rushing about, wearing their to-the-floor black dusters and there are other civilians wandering about, looking lost - and this is only in the Galerie Marchande at the entry.

I find the reception after pounding some marble and crank out my incoherent request. It's keywords are in English and do not correspond to anything inphoto: boulevard du palais this building. But it is treated seriously and the monsieur gives me a map, on which he draws directions to two different places, with a red Bic.

The closest café to the Palais de Justice, is always full of - lawyers.

Puzzles have always been a puzzle to me - as I find again as I stare at a dead-end at the right end of the salle des Pas-Perdus. There is no other way, so I go back and up an odd, double-sided staircase in another direction, and through a doorway, to a large room with a bridge in the middle of it.

After the bridge and the marble finery, to the right there is a really narrow wooden staircase going up to a rabbit-warren of offices.

The doors up here do not have consecutive numbers on them. Painters are redecorating too. Room 312 is nowhere near room 311 or 313; in fact, these don't seem to exist. Room 307 is at the end of a hall to nowhere, and 312 turns out to be hiding in a recess, on the way back.

Room 312, which is also has a badge saying 'room 302,' turns out to be my target. It is a big room with a number of plants and ladies in it and one of them takes my scribbled notes and disappears for a while, and when she comes back she tells me the case's real name.

She says I can get the copies I need in room 310. This is not next door nor next to any other door nearby, and the recess I find it in, is possibly the deepest one in the building.

The ladies here say I need to get a 60 franc tax-stamp. With it, they can turn out my papers in three days. Great! With this office firmly in mind, I don't lose more than 15 minutes being lost, to find the way back; getting to see a bit of the fourth floor while I'm at it.

Back at the reception, I am doubtfully directed to another office; this one is down the Galerie des Prisonniers and is called 'Cassation.'

This is main floor marble, with an elaborate door which opens when you look at it. Inside, the antechamber looks like the reception of a spacy funeral parlor. There is a highly-polished, quarter-circle brass hood with 2000 ventilation holes, hiding a computer monitor, which sits on an oval glass table. There are two seven-metre-high mahogany pyramids too, and - what the hell - the overhead lights are suspended from sort of a chromed steel wishbone between them.

There are two work stations and I wait for my turn. When it comes, the lady is 'on my case' right away. She is concerned. She is confident. If the room 312 found a trace, then what we're looking for exists. She consults the gleaming brass hood.

But her search, in 14 different ways, turns up zilch. She leaves the antechamber and goes into the interior, to see the big shaman, the 'Greffier.' When she returns the verdict is that one of my bits of information is incorrect. She is even a bit upset with her database.

My time has run out and I have to run for the métro, with my fifty- percent success. I also have to come back another day with the tax-stamps, to order the copies.

Going down the big marble staircase outside, I see a bit of sun across the way, towards the Hôtel Dieu. About a year ago I was here and it was in the middle of a big thunder and rain storm. Sophoto: interior hotel de ville, boulogne I take a couple of quickie shots because it's dumb to go home with an empty camera.

The cops guarding the big iron grill don't care if I leave this way at a trot and I snap off a couple more shots. I hit the métro at Cité on the run, but the connection at Châtelet hangs me up and I miss the train at Défense, and get home 30 minutes late.

This is the interior of Boulogne's city hall, which I write about in this issue's 'Café' column.

When I catch my breath to think about it, the stress of getting back on time for the kid collection, was far greater than the paper chase in the Palais de Justice. Compared to the old days at Nanterre, it was almost like a vacation.

Although the Palais de Justice has its severe security measures, nobody asked to see my 'internal' passport. My 'carte de residence,' or 'séjour,' or whatever it is.

On its reverse side it says I can do any kind of work I want. So it is a work permit too. I am good and 'papered.'

Note: The 'tax-stamp' mentioned above is not, strictly speaking, a tax-collection device. These stamps, in a variety of denominations, are available in all tabacs. They are used for paying traffic tickets and other minor items. For the case above, the price of the stamp covers the cost of making photocopies of the court papers, and I think includes the charge for postage to mail them to me. They save administrative offices the bother of keeping track of petty cash.

In Metropole Paris
Latest Issue
2008 Issues
2007 | 2006 | 2005
2004 | 2003 | 2002
2001 | 2000 | 1999
1998 | 1997 | 1996
In Metropole Paris
About Metropole
About the Café Club
Links | Search Site
The Lodging Page
Paris Museums List
Metropole's 1996 Tours
Metropole's 2003 Tours
Support Metropole
Metropole's Books
Shop with Metropole
Metropole's Wine
metropole paris goodblogweek button
Send email concerning the
contents to: Ric Erickson, Editor.
Metropole Midi © 2014
– unless stated otherwise.
logo, metropole sml midi logo No matter how good it tastes,
there is no such thing
as a free lunch.
Waldo Bini