Getting Papered In Paris

photo: tourists rear notre dame

Visitors performing year-round ritual, at rear of Notre Dame.

Less Fear and Angst Than Usual

Paris:- Thursday, 2. December 1999:- Nobody ever talks much about getting their papers - 'Green Card' - or the French 'Carte de Séjour,' because it is more painful than going to the dentist.

I don't know why it is an unspeakable subject. It is a process full of anxiety; sometimes tragedy or comedy, and it can be very literary too, because it can make you think of Kafka's administrators.

The 'Carte de Séjour' is portable proof that I have passed a paper-test that I have a permission to live and work in France. French citizens have them too; they are like internal passports, or universal ID cards.

Sometimes, officials ask to see them if you are trying to conduct some official business or are mistakenly rounded up with 'all the usual suspects.'

Cashiers at hypermarchés will ask to see them if you pay with a cheque. In both cases, a driver's license is often a good substitute because these are good for 'life.'

Last summer, my moving guys threw my stuff off their truck and carted it into my new apartment in Paris on Monday, 19. July. Myphoto: exit metro cite arrondissement city hall is two blocks away and this is where I went to officially change the address of my 'Carte de Séjour.'

A form says this has to be done within eight days. It can't be done within eight days, because to prove residence you have to provide copies of new utility bills. It takes at least a couple of months until the first ones arrive.

When I finally got around to it, the local city hall told me they didn't do it anyway and I had to go to the police instead. This isn't far away, but when I finally got around to it there was a little confusion.

The cop shop had a small hall for everybody 'not French.' This includes citizens of some 250 countries; but does not include those of the European Union.

For this, I went back to the policeman at the door and he showed me down a hallway into a tiny room full of big cops.

The cop with the least experience got to do my change of address. We didn't get far into this before it occurred to all the other cops in the tiny room, except me, that I was not changing addresses within Paris, but from another Department in France, to Paris.

All went dead stop. They said I'd have to go the main Préfecture de Police on the Ile de la Cité in the center of Paris. Gloom settled in.

This is the rumored horror or horrors - maybe even worse than the huge birdcage of a Préfecture at Nanterre for the Hauts-de-Seine Department, which I have already experienced.

But - ray of hope - the information sheet the cops gave me said I could save myself the trip by doing it by mail. I telephoned to confirm this. The response was, 'Yes, but you'll have nophoto: entry prefecture passport or Carte de Séjour and no receipt for your application in the meantime.' Gloom fully descended.

There are 'stories' about the Paris Police Préfecture; people have had to go on 'cures' after the experience of it.

The line forms to the left of that door over there; with a roof for rainy days.

When I first moved out to the Yvelines Department, the Versailles version was in computer turmoil, and their 'in the meantime' took 18 months. Versailles also assigned my wife two new nationalities as well: first Canadian and then Iranian.

The whole system was new on account of a wave of terrorism at the time. She was terrified to be checked by the ticket controllers on the commuter train to Paris. Iranians were having a hard time.

When I took her Carte de Séjour back to the cops the second time - for the 'Iranian mistake,' our 'personal' cop went orbital and got on the phone to Versailles right then and there.

After issuing a card, the paper dossier would be destroyed - they had computers! - after only five days. To correct the nationality once the papers were vaporized - it would be back to square one.

We were saved in the nick of time by our alert 'personal' cop. Ten years afterwards, the renewal was routine. Impeccable new cards came back.

Now again, years later, my 'finally getting around to it' has taken some time. I also have a personal deadline for getting the address officially changed on the card. I want to register to vote for the next city elections in Paris, and the deadline for signing up is only 28 days away.

To change the address on my Carte de Séjour - still valid for another eight years - I have to show my passport. I looked at this and it said, 'expired in April.' I was under the impression 10-year passports lasted forever.

Getting a new one is not difficult, but it took its time on account of the Irish national saying - 'there's time.' Any old photos are okay, so I got a set for the passport and the Carte de Séjour too. My new dentist witnessed my signature.

After waiting five weeks I called up the passport office and the lady said she'd been on holiday, but sent the new passport, good-for-ten-years, two days later.

It is a hand-made one. If you have never seen one of these, they look like you made it yourself on your kitchen table. One time, the police in Palamós thought it looked fake. They are just as valid as any other though.

I phoned the Préfecture de Police two days ago, to try and find out about their situation. They said, 'don't come on Wednesday.' I should be there at 8:30 at the latest. The last time I had to go to Nanterre, there were 500 people already in line at 8:30.

Yesterday, I put my packet of paper together. The old Carte de Séjour, the new passport, the electricity bill and the phone bill, my lease contract, my social security card and my unemployment card; and photocopied the works. It's best to be over-papered for these things.

This morning radio France-Info wakes me at 7:00 by blaring the latest news about the civil war at Seattle's WTO convention. Sounds as hairy as Chicago in '68. The protestors outnumber everybody else, but are claimed to be losing.

When I come out of the métro at Cité I see that at least 100 people are in line already, stretched from the entry to the Rue de la Cité. Not too bad; for this line includes citizens of 250 countries, citizens of EU countries and French citizens who have business here.

After a couple of minutes the line starts to move. Inside, it is the usual security check and I pass myphoto: sign rue de la cite camera around the bypass of the X-ray scanner - so it gets impounded. No photos allowed of the cop shop.

When I find the EU nationals' office in the back of the interior courtyard, I get ticket number 99. The reception lady gives me a form to fill out. The displayed numbers are about 392, so I wonder what the system is.

When I see '402' appear, I look at my ticket closely and see there is a three hidden beneath a paper clip, making my number 399.

I crash the closest workstation and the lady manning it agrees to take my case. She is pleased that I have also brought photocopies of the vital papers. Minor confusion arises when I give her the photocopy for the electricity bill and the original of the phone bill.

She says, "Two photos please."

I know exactly where they are not, and where they are - at home.

I don't have change for the photo-automat. At the main entry they tell me to try entry 'F' in the courtyard because I'm not allowed go out the entry to the newspaper kiosk and get change.

It is the cashiers' place, with signs all over it saying 'no change.' The guy behind the thick glass changes my 50 franc note while looking at his dwindling supply of change.

The first photo-automat cabin is out to lunch. A Chinese-looking guy takes ten minutes before he gets a pose he likes in the second one.

I don't bother adjusting the chair wheelie, and stretch my neck to get my head into the mugshot zone. Scratch the first pose: the second is no better, but shoot it anyway.

When I get back with the photos, the lady stiffs another guy with his bundle of papers and photocopies; and complains that the photos are still wet - but gives me the receipt, and gives back the new passport, the old card and the utility bills. The pickup date on the receipt is Tuesday, 11. January 2000.

At the entry I pick up the camera from a lady who says she remembers my name from the phone calls. The cops let me out by the entry, which is forbidden; but we are all pals by the time I finish my usual chit-chat.

In thanks, I shoot the Préfecture entry from the Place Lépine, which is also probably forbidden. You can look at it all day or sketch it, but taking a photo of it might be a serious crime.

The sun is peeping timidly through the clouds so I tour the Cité a bit, taking other photos; especially of the Japanese who are taking photos of each other behind Notre Dame.

In front, the years' old scaffolding is almost all down. I think they want it ready for Christmas. From most angles, the old cathedral looks almost new.

When the camera's batteries start to show 'low' I ride the bus up to my place and hit my city hall for the voterphoto: notre dame registration. I still have the utility bills. These alone are good enough. They care not a pin for the address-change Carte de Séjour receipt.

Once the guy finds out the obscure computer-name of the village where I last lived and was registered to vote, he has us in business. I sign off the old registration and sign up as a voter on the new Paris address.

Notre Dame is almost ready to have millions of new photos taken of it.

Last June I voted in the European elections. It was the first time in 30 years of taxpaying in Europe that I've been able to vote. Next time will be for the Paris municipal election, in the spring of 2001.

Not that I am considering it, but I believe I am also now eligible to run as a candidate for the European parliament. Riding up to Brussels on the TGV may be quick, but Brussels has lousy weather.

But all - how many? - of the Irish who live in Paris' 14th arrondissement need representation at the European level. Even though I am not running, if elected, and I if need to attend a session in Brussels, I'll have to run a raffle to pay the fare.

Getting 'papered' makes one power-mad. Your 'Ed' in Paris is street-legal to ignore all the laws in sight again. Almost like any bona-fide citizen.

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