How do I become a French citizen? 10 things the French government wants
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The ex-pat family who have taken the ultimate step, but becoming French citizens hasn't been easy, admits Howard Johnson.
I came face to face with the man trying to wreck my life – the man who ultimately made me want to become French – on May 16 this year. I know the date because it was the day Leicester City had their bus parade to celebrate winning the Premier League. Ladbrokes had offered odds of 5,000/1 against it happening at the start of the football season. I thought the chances of Britain leaving the EU were roughly the same.
Boris Johnson was travelling second class on a train out of London St Pancras. I don't know where he was going, because I got off before him. But in the 54 minutes we were sat in the same carriage I got a chance to 'people watch' the man who was loudly leading Britain's Brexit campaign.
Even in real life, Johnson's dishevelled public schoolboy shtick seemed so far removed from Britain's beating heart that it felt impossible he could ever persuade an entire nation to vote 'out'. But deep inside I must have been afraid he'd pull it off. Because towards the end of 2015 my wife Louise and I had made a pre-emptive strike. We'd decided to become French nationals.
The reasons didn't feel at all clear-cut at the time. But with hindsight I know it was fear FOB (Fear of Brexit) that pushed us into it. After all, we'd already been in the south west of France for 11 years, had kids who'd grown up here, were integrated into the local community, had almost exclusively French friends. We're here for the long haul. Yet while we'd had the right to apply for French nationality after just five years, somehow we'd just never got round to it.
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But like an itch you can't scratch, once Cameron had committed to the referendum on January 23, something nagged at us to get on with it. Sure, there were practical reasons. We're close to the Spanish border for starters, and imagine having to queue to get across for a weekend break! But applying for French nationality also felt like a statement of solidarity with our French friends, a personal 'in' statement should Britain vote 'out'. Not that it was ever going to happen. Applying would be like taking out insurance. You think you're never going to need it. But all the same…
Mind you, the minute we started looking into things seriously we almost cut and run. It's no secret that French bureaucracy is a tough nut to crack, and we already had plenty of (generally negative) experience of it. But this wasn't just trying to get someone to empty the septic tank. This was trying to become French. The stakes were immeasurably higher. Printing off the ramshackle list of approved documents we'd need to apply for naturalisation was both mind-blowing and depressing at one and the same time. Here's just some of what the French government requires…
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-Originals of all four of our family birth certificates (plus translation).
-Originals of all four of our parents' birth certificates (plus translation).
-Our original wedding certificate (plus translation).
- The original wedding certificates of both sets of parents (plus translation).
-Proof that we were correctly signed up to pay taxes at the right level (the French system is wildly complicated. Your taxes are calculated not only your income – that would be too easy – but also based on the type of job you do).
-Three years' proof of income.
-Three years of tax returns.
-Official document (P237 if you're interested) proving that we were up to date with all of our tax payments.
-Proof from the appropriate government department of our child benefit payments for the last three years.
-Proof of ownership of our house.
-A vial of blood from our first-born.
No, of course they didn't ask for a vial of blood. But you get the idea.
Six long months of digging up documents, sending documents back to England to be stamped as bona fide, translating documents (via a government approved translator), copying documents and trying to keep documents in some semblance of order later, we're finally ready to present our dossier. It's been insanely difficult (and, inevitably, costly). But the seismic shock of the Brexiteeers taking the day in the referendum has concentrated the mind.
We have to go for a face-to-face encounter in Toulouse, two hours from our home in the Tarn countryside. And this is where the fun really starts. Appointments can be made online (how very modern), so I book for June 6. So far so good, until we notice later that each person applying has to book a separate appointment. In amongst the endless dos and don'ts, we've somehow contrived to miss that. Winging it on the day is never going to be an option, so we book an additional slot – though the first one available isn't until July 19.
The morning of the first appointment we're up at six, bright and early to make sure we're in Toulouse well ahead of our 9am appointment. After six months of strength-sapping preparation you don't want to blow your lines, do you? The Bureau de la Naturalisation is a nondescript government building tucked out of sight down one of Toulouse's many wiggly side streets. It feels like it's been deliberately hidden, as if the whole affair is a bit of an embarrassment. It's not very nice waiting for opening time. People are lined up in two unruly queues, one for those with appointments, one for those without. I'm too preoccupied with checking and double-checking our dossier to wonder what those without an appointment are even there for. There doesn't appear to be any other Brits.
At five past nine a metal grille rolls up, a surly policeman pulls away a token barrier at the front of the queue, we're searched thoroughly as is now standard in all public buildings here following the terrorist attacks, and then we're in, scanning noticeboards furiously to hunt down the right office, worried that it's already eight minutes past nine.
Good news! Most likely because we're the first appointment of the day, we're called in quickly. Unfortunately, that's the only bit of good news today. A surly woman takes the dossier, all neatly arranged and with paper clips holding each relevant bit together. 'I can't work with those. Take them off,' says the fonctionnaire. She has a brief flick through. I can see by her scowl that we're in trouble. The English university degree I've proudly stuck in the dossier to prove I have a level of French at least the equivalent of brevet standard (O-level), is rejected out of hand. I need a French qualification. Less then 10 minutes into our interview and we're out on our ear! Et voilà.
It's a week later, and Louise and I are sitting arguing the toss with another fonctionnaire, this time in Albi. We're in another government building – even less agreeable than the last – being told that to get the attestation de compétences linguistiques (proof of linguistic competence) we have to take 20 hours of French classes, in two-hour lessons once a week. We'll have to pay for them, of course, and they're an hour away in Rodez. The Kafka-esque fact that we're discussing all this in perfectly competent French seems to escape the man across the desk. And no, there's absolutely no other way of doing this. Except that half an hour and one serious charm offensive later, we've both got an appointment for an exam in Albi on July 6 that will last no longer than an hour and will get us the piece of paper we need. If we pass, of course. Go figure…
And so it comes to pass that on August 6, 2016, we're both back in Toulouse. We've had to change the date again to get not two, but three appointments today. Your children are automatically part of your application for citizenship if they're under 18. But between all the faffing about our eldest has just turned 18. Now he has to apply on his own. Needless to say there have been a couple of nervous breakdowns chez Johnson trying to get a whole new dossier in place for him in time.
By chance, I end up with the same woman in front of me. Incredibly, she's had a personality transplant. She couldn't be nicer or more helpful, and waves my dossier through with a grin as wide as the Seine.
There's still time for a curveball, though. Nobody told us we'd each get a 20-minute grilling on what we know about French law, lifestyle and culture. I must admit to being stumped when asked, 'What are the obligations of a French citizen towards the state?' (answer: to defend its borders). I thought it was to pay too much tax. But my charm and wit must have won the day, because I'm told at the end of a gruelling hour and a half that my dossier has been accepted. And there are green lights for wife and son too! What a result!
And that was it. The end of a long and truly painful saga. All three of us walk out of the prefecture with our spanking new French passports…
I'm lying, of course. Nothing of the sort happened. We now have to wait between eight and 12 months while someone pores over our dossiers in Paris. Then maybe, just maybe, we'll finally become French citizens. You don't get a passport straight away, though, just a new French birth certificate. Only then can you apply for a French passport, and who knows what bureaucracy we'll have to deal with at that point?
I suppose at the end of the day, though, we should thank the British public. Imagine going through all this and then the vote had been to Remain...
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