Fiscal stamps and other adventures: one Australian’s journey to obtaining a titre de séjour
When I first moved to France I was careful to negotiate the commissioning of an agency to take care of my visa matters. I had benefited from the same service in Germany (where, as a side note, the centre which handled these matters was hilariously called the Alien Office) and in the efficient style that this country is known for, this agency took care of EVERYTHING. I remember towards the end of the process receiving a very apologetic phone call from the lady who was handling my case, saying that she was very sorry but I needed to actually accompany her in person to the Alien Office. This seemed quite reasonable given that this office was supposedly giving me to right to live and work in the country for 3 years. The least I could do was to show up for the appointment.
If I expected the same kick-back-and-relax service in France I would be sadly mistaken. Well, to be fair, the lady from the agency was very nice and very competent. However she also had the unenviable task of trying to navigate an administrative system which is so mysterious and unfathomable that it wouldn’t be out of place in a Dan Brown novel (I’m pretty sure that the Priory of Scion could have just as easily operated out of the Prefecture de Police).
The process started off innocently enough. I was required to fill out a bunch of forms with very specific instructions such as “please write only in black pen”, “do not let your signature surpass the outlines of this box”, “touch your nose three times and turn around in a circle.”
I dutifully completed and returned said forms before receiving the following email several weeks later:
“The Prefecture de Police is ready to see you. You can go on Monday or Wednesday in between the hours of 9.00 qm qnd 2.00 pm. Please bring with you 200€ in fiscal stamps.”
“Wait, what? What the f**k is a fiscal stamp?”
“Oh, it’s a form of currency. You can buy them at any tabac.”
I didn’t dare ask what a tabac was but, dear readers, I was about to find out. It turns out that a tabac is where you go to buy cigarettes, lottery tickets and fiscal stamps, and/or to be ogled at by creepy old French men.
So before this story goes any further, I need to clarify an additional fact which is going to change everything. The week that I received this email, I was feeling pretty lazy. Maybe it had something to do with working five days a week in a language I didn’t really speak; maybe it was the strikes of the metro and garbage collectors; or maybe it was the jazz band that was playing outside my window until 1am every morning. I don’t really remember, but suffice it to say that Monday and Wednesday passed and CBF going to the Prefecture de Police!
The only problem was that on Thursday I woke up (in that dramatic American-movie fashion, where they have suddenly changed genders, or become 30) to remember that I was going to London on Friday for a wedding, and that my temporary visa had already expired.
I got straight on the phone to the agency.
“I’m going to London tomorrow, I need the carte de séjour today. Is there any chance they will see me on a Thursday?”
“I’m sorry, but I really can’t answer that. It all depends on who you get and what sort of mood they are in. Maybe it will help if you tell them you are going to a wedding, maybe it won’t. You will just have to wait and see.”
I was initially taken aback by the agent’s vague and supremely unhelpful response. However I have since come to see this piece of advice as applicable to basically every situation in France. There are rules for everything, but they are so complicated and convoluted that they are open to interpretation, and therefore EVERYTHING depends on who you speak to, how grumpy they are, and whether they find your stilted, heavily-accented French endearing or grating.
There was only one thing for it. Off I went on a mission to sweet-talk my way into an off-day carte de sejour appointment.
(“But hang on — why am I only allowed to go on Mondays or Wednesdays anyway?”
“I guess it’s to try to regulate traffic.”
“Well then why don’t they just give you an appointment?”
“Hmm.. I’m not really sure.”)
There were so many questions. But one thing that was clear, and that was my first stop: the tabac.
Although the tabac was only called upon to supply three products, it apparently couldn’t even do that, as I had to go to three separate stores in Saint Germain before I found one with had an adequate stock of fiscal stamps (ogling old men, however, were in ample supply). When I finally hit the jackpot, I handed over by debit card to pay.
“I’m sorry, you can’t pay for fiscal stamps by debit card.”
Oh, sorrry! How stupid of me! What shall I exchange with you in order to obtain your outdated form of currency? Ten oxen? Five virgin brides?!
By the way — would you like to see what a fiscal stamp looks like?
Somewhere in France (I don’t know why, but I’m imagining a factory in Alsace) there is a French company rubbing its hands together every time a poor foreign sucker like me has to buy a fiscal stamp (and vehemently striking every time a politician suggests to do away with them).
After having obtained the infamous fiscal stamps I headed to the Prefecture de Police practically shaking as I waited in the queue, knowing one wrong move and I was going to miss my friend’s wedding. I guess I have someone out there watching over me who thought “righto, this chick has gone through enough shit over the last couple of months, let’s humour her just this once”. Because I was eventually called to the counter by a very nonplussed gentlemen who took my fiscal stamps and calmly processed my off-day request without so much as batting an eyelid.
A lot of people complain about the French administration, but personally I kind of like their defiant unpredictability. Had I rocked up to the Alien Office on a Tuesday, Thursday or Friday I would certainly not have been served (admittedly, I would probably have been given a specific appointment in the first place). In France, nothing is certain, but there is always the chance that someone will bend the rules for you, and that everything will work out anyway. I kind of like that!
The Prefecture de Police is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.
What do you think about the French administration? Do you see the silver lining, or JPP?