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My Own Personal Refugee Crisis – Nanterre Prefecture by Way of Brexit

August 22, 2017

doubling back snaking line up at Nanterre prefecture for people with rendezvous

doubling back snaking line up at Nanterre prefecture for people with rendezvous

NANTERRE, France – Thanks to the non-democratic and fixed Brexit referendum in the UK – the population most concerned by the vote, that is, the British passport holders living in the EU, were not allowed to vote – I have entered into a nearly full-time job of seeking out French nationality. I’ve been working on this since July 2016. I have yet to hand over my documents to the French authorities to start the process. Today, I arrived at the Nanterre police prefecture to do just that, only to find that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of refugees and other foreigners standing outside in three different line ups, and by the time I figured out where I was supposed to go, I had already missed my meeting. This was the second meeting I missed, and it can take weeks or months to get a meeting. But this time, rather than feeling a huge sense of anger and frustration, I felt only sympathy for the refugees and others who could not even get the official convocation that I had, and who have to wait hours, days, nights, in front of the prefecture.

This, I learned, by both speaking to people in the lineup and then doing some research online, has been going on for months. It is due both to the refugee crisis in Europe as well as problems within the administration of the public offices of the prefecture. It has been particularly bad since June, although the last time I went with my convocation in hand in early June, there was not any such line up. Otherwise, I would have been warned that it was necessary for me to arrive at least 45 minutes in advance of my 10-minute rendezvous if I wanted to get into the building.

tail end of line up at Nanterre prefecture

tail end of line up at Nanterre prefecture

I was struck by the incredible changes we are seeing in our world today and over the last 35 years. In 1983, while I was preparing in Toronto, Canada to come to study French at the Sorbonne, a colleague of mine at the Globe and Mail newspaper where I was working, said to me: “Your father was born in England, wasn’t he?” I said he was, although he had lived since he was 2 years old in Canada and had never held a British passport, so could hardly be considered English. My colleague said that by virtue of my father’s birth in the UK I was eligible to become British myself. If I became British, I would then be able to work legally in the European Union. So why not try?

It seemed like a great idea. I called the British Consulate in Toronto, asked if this was true, they said it was, they sent me the four or so pages of the application form by mail, I filled it out and sent the relevant paper or two proving my father’s birthplace, and seven days later I received in the mail my British passport and nationality. I never had an interview, never set foot in an embassy, consulate, police station or other official place. I had no lines to sit in, nothing to do but claim my citizenship, then take the flight to Paris, fall in love with the city at first sight, learn French at the Sorbonne, find a job and stay at that same company for the next 33 years, marry a Frenchwoman, father a couple of French (and Canadian) children, and live happily ever after.

Until, of course, the non-democratic, fixed referendum in the UK about Brexit.

Small part of a line up at Nanterre Prefecture

Small part of a line up at Nanterre Prefecture

No, wait. In the early 1990s, by point of comparison, I did decide at one point after the birth of my two children to take French nationality for myself. This would be around 1993 or 1994. I went to the prefecture in Paris, took the application form, and filled it out, gathered together the significantly greater number of papers to that of my British nationality experience, and I filed them with the relevant authorities. I then found myself having to go into one personal meeting after another with the prefecture of my arrondissement, then the main prefecture of police in Paris, also I think with my local mayor’s office – although I’m not completely sure about that one – but in any case, I found myself frustrated at a very busy time of my life having to do one meeting after another, and often finding “long” queues of perhaps 30 people waiting for interviews as well.

When comparing that experience to my British nationality experience, I finally decided that it was too time consuming, and anyway, I had the British nationality, and the Canadian nationality, so why did I really need the French nationality. Would it not be cool, I thought, for my two children to really have a Canadian father, without the French nationality part. Would it not be cool that they could really say their Dad was a foreigner?

So, in what I now regret massively, I ended the process of seeking nationality. I was then told that I had to write a letter explaining to the French authorities exactly why I had ended this process. So I wrote the truth: There is far too much bureaucracy to go through, far too many meetings, far too many lines to wait in, etc.

more line up at Nanterre prefecture

more line up at Nanterre prefecture

I still have my original application form and the paper that says what pieces of identity and other paperwork were necessary to obtain French citizenship. It is minuscule by comparison to today’s necessary paperwork. Minuscule.

Yes, flash forward 2016 and the fixed, undemocratic Brexit vote in the UK forcing British expats to seek out local nationality in their country of EU adoption – or wait with crossed fingers that some kind of solution can be found for these people to not have to return to the UK in a future glut of refugee proportions. The first step was to download from the Nanterre prefecture – the relevant authority where I live – the application form and list of necessary documents. The list is as long as the Bible, and now includes such things as an official paper to prove that you comprehend the French language. This has been instituted since 2012. It is not necessary that you actually comprehend the language, just that you have a paper that says you do. According to my researches, my diploma from the Sorbonne will do this trick, so I felt lucky on that.

But I have spent a couple of hundred euros or more having official translations made of things like my long-form birth certificate, a proof of my parents’ place of marriage and date of marriage (in 1953!, and both are dead), and one or two other items. I have had to provide a proof that I have paid my taxes in France for the last three or so years, and this proof can only come in the shape of a particular official paper from my local tax office. Obtaining that paper is what caused me to miss my first appointment in June, by the way, as the local tax office blamed a computer breakdown that morning for them being unable to get the document. (Although I could see instantly that the person whose job it was to get the document did not want to do the job that morning. She did it that afternoon, but it was too late.)

I have to provide proof of ownership of my apartment, my employment history in France, my personal addresses for practically my entire life, a stamp to pay for the work of the bureaucracy…the list goes on and on and on. And it takes forever to accumulate all of these papers.

But the worst part has been the part of the process that has been automated to help the unfortunate, under-staffed civil servants of the prefecture of Nanterre: In order to obtain a rendezvous of 10 minutes to hand over all of these documents and begin the process of naturalisation, I have to go onto the web site of the prefecture and make that rendezvous via a special dedicated page and system. This, I learned after months of trying and failing, can only be done on Mondays at high noon!

Yes, every Monday only, the Nanterre prefecture reboots the citizenship rendezvous system and the charge begins. Try it out for yourself! Go to the site, and at noon, start your slot machine going. I have tried week after week for up to an hour and a half each time to try to get through the process of booking a rendezvous. That period is spent getting through various stages of the process before I either find that the place I am being promised no longer exists – it’s first come, first serve and the computer seems to accept hundreds of people for each spot before the fastest mouse manipulator wins the meeting – or the site simple “times out.”

view from across the street of Nanterre prefecture and its refugees

view from across the street of Nanterre prefecture and its refugees

What is happening, of course, is that there are thousands of people, perhaps even 10s of thousands of people, every Monday logging in at the same moment and trying to win the lottery. This kills the server of the prefecture. The whole process goes on until all of the rendezvous spots have been taken, and then it goes dead for another week.

I first learned of this process in around January or February, and scored my first successful rendezvous hit in around early May for the meeting in early June. I missed that meeting by about five minutes thanks to the tax office mishap, but even then it was hopeless as I did not even have that tax office piece of paper proving that I had, yes, paid all my taxes for the last 3 years (as well as the last 33 years).

As an aside, although the tax office sent me that piece of paper that afternoon and told me that they would send the original by post, it took another three emails over the next six or eight weeks to actually receive the original by post, and ensure that I had all the documents ready for this morning’s rendezvous. (Which, by the way, I was able to score in a record three week period of seeking.)

Today, having left 40 minutes early from my home to do the 17 minute-drive to the prefecture, I was feeling very proud of myself until I encountered traffic on the quays due to a car stopped on the edge of the road, which resulted in my not arriving 20 or 24 minutes early for the meeting, but only about 11 minutes early. And that is when I encountered the refugee crisis and realized that I had once again missed my appointment and would have another couple of months of waiting to do before I could even leave my papers (which I keep having to update in certain areas with newer papers as time moves on, by the way).

Today, I spoke to a couple of people in the line ups and realized they came from all over. One guy was a Sri Lankan trying to get a refugee visa for his passport. He told me he had been coming for days without success. He was in the line yesterday for three hours before being refused entry.

There were three different line ups, including the shortest line up being for people with the piece of paper I had, the convocation. But that line up was being controlled by policemen, and they were holding off the line up and sending people in through the gate in groups in order to go through the security check before being allowed to enter the building. That security check line was about 25-people thick when I had already hit the deadline for my meeting, and I knew that I would be 15 to 20 minutes late for a meeting that was set for precisely 9:55, with only a 5-minute allowance for lateness.

It was a lost battle. Again. But my heart went out above all to these unfortunate refugees and others – I read in one of the reports (in the Huffington Post) that a 77-year-old man who has lived in France for more than 50 years slept out in front of the prefecture in an effort to renew his papers, after a career of 40 or so years working at Renault and many other years elsewhere. (Update: Here is yet another article from the French press about the crisis at the Nanterre prefecture, this time Libération, published as recently as yesterday and sent to me today by a friend after they read this story by me.

It all made me realize that my own refugee crisis is nothing compared to theirs…but ultimately it also did anger me once again about the spoiled children of the UK who rigged the election in a country that has it so good it has lost its sense of proportion. The UK doesn’t like being in the EU? It wants to create the sorts of difficulties I am now facing for millions of people on every level of society and business? Look at Syria. Look at many African nations. Look at Afghanistan. Look at the countries in the world with REAL problems, and why make more rather than thrive?

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