The Student
Lifestyle
The French bureaucratic nightmare: Death By 1000 (Paper)cuts
by Ellie Bye, 12/10/21

About a month ago, I was lucky enough to escape drizzly England to the land of baguettes and croissants, otherwise known as France. For this year, I will be living in Paris as part of my year abroad, and my time so far has been just the dream you could expect from living in the city of lights.

My days have been spent slinking between museums, sauntering around the sights, and spending sleepless nights drinking red wine. This is concluded by a long journey home on the metro, imagining myself as another chic, Parisian, cosmopolitan woman.

Behind this heavenly idyll, however, has been the bureaucratic nightmare from hell.

Before moving to France, I was warned about how rude Parisians could be, how homesick I would get, and to always be careful of pickpockets, but I was never warned about the endless amounts of paperwork. For example, most forms require a French number, but to get a French number, you need a French bank account, but to get a French bank account, you need a French number. The madness doesn’t end there.

Don’t get me wrong, moving countries was never bound to be a piece of cake, and in general, I would consider myself a reasonably organised person. Nonetheless, never in my life have I experienced a headache quite like the one induced by the gruelling 7-hour process just to begin applying for a visa. The whole process involved so much paperwork, I handed over just about every document I’ve ever received in my life, and I was pretty much ready to hand over my journal as well, just in case. Once I did finally receive my visa, a weight was lifted off my shoulders and I was ready to slot into French culture. Little did I know, the absurdity was just beginning.

My most recent dilemma has been trying to access the library. Having already picked up my student card, I naively believed I’d be able to walk straight into the university library like any other French student and seemingly blend in with the rest of the crowd. The reality was much more complicated.

Head held high, I marched up to the library entrance and waited in line to be allowed in. As I got closer, I poised my student card ready to be scanned for a swift and seamless entry. However, instead, I was met with a beaming red light that denied my entry. It felt like it shone a halo around me and seemed to scream “Intruder”, announcing my incompetence to my entire surroundings. This one interaction reawakened my imposter syndrome: “If I can’t even get into a library, how could I have really got into this university?”, I thought to myself.

Recalling this mildly traumatising incident to a friend, it turned out a student card is not sufficient; what is needed is a student library card. Slightly calmed by an apparent solution to my problem, and after stumbling around the serpentine maze-like university, I joined the queue to register for a library card. Surely nothing could go wrong now.

Reaching the front of the line, however, I had ignorantly believed I could just show up to register. Of course not! Naturally, before you register, you must complete the pre-registration registration. I clumsily completed this registration, barely able to find my way around the jarringly altered French keyboard, and rejoined the queue to eventually acquire a precious and long-awaited library card.

Henceforth, I have thankfully been able to easily swagger in and out of the library. I’m yet to acquire a separate library card for a different university library, but I’ll leave that lunacy for another day. Not to mention I must first successfully nurse my most recent bureaucratically-induced headache. 

Perhaps by the end of my time here I might have finally acclimatised to the relentless stream of admin. France is famous for its demonstrations and revolutions, and so take this as a call to arms: France needs a bureaucratic revolution! There is always another form to complete, or another file to compress. Nonetheless, this is successfully made up for by the 40 cents coffee at the university, and the prize-winning croissants just around the corner. Despite all my moaning, I am loving my time in Paris, and I encourage everyone to think about doing a year abroad. If you are feeling a little overwhelmed and put off by all of this, I present my best tips to get you through:

  1. You cannot start early enough and you cannot be too prepared. When I showed up to the visa office, I brought every document I could think of, including my personal statement and my CV. I asked what was and wasn’t needed, and the man just gave this slightly crazed smile and said, in complete seriousness, “We’ll take all of it. Can never have too much paperwork.” 
  2. Don’t panic! As with most things, it all has a way of working out. Furthermore, it’s a nightmare because it’s disorganised. They have no idea what’s happening as much as you don’t. In my experience, I’ll be going mad with stress over the paperwork, and then they never seem to mind. We’re all clueless.
  3. Don’t be ashamed to nag – I mark pretty much every email as urgent. If there’s no response, send another email. Just keep going. 
  4. A year abroad is all about learning the language, and so whether you’re working, studying, or just for the moment drowning in a sea of admin, make sure getting out into the city and immersing yourself in the country is your priority. Try not to stress about the emails that are momentarily unanswered, or the reading you haven’t quite finished. Relax, and enjoy the moment.

I wish everyone the best of luck and the best of times going into a year abroad. It is truly such a magnificent experience and makes all of the nightmarish bureaucracy worth it.

Credit: Viktor Talashuk via UnSplash