Out of France: Mme Defarge lives

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PARIS - I often wonder what happened to extinct social classes. Where do the people whom history has abandoned go? I assume they pop up in new yet similar incarnations. Colonial civil servants, for example, must be at the European Commission or at the United Nations.

But whatever became of those toothless hags who sat knitting by the guillotine during the French Revolution, cackling with glee every time a severed head dropped into the basket?

When I first came to work in France in April 1975, I quickly met their descendants. They were all in secure jobs dishing out residence permits to foreigners in the Paris police headquarters. They did not quite cackle, but often seemed to smirk, as they turned away people who had been queueing for hours but had not thought to bring such obvious documents as a recent electricity bill.

April 1975 was a bad time to be seeking French residence permits. Phnom Penh had fallen, Saigon was about to fall and the Lebanese civil war had just begun. At the time, the only way to obtain a permit was to arrive early in the morning and join a line that stretched round the Ile de la Cite where the Prefecture of Police stands. The rudeness of the clerks was legendary and I once took pleasure in shouting so loud in reply that I frightened a battleaxe into slamming a drawer on her own hand. I cackled myself that time.

Finally, I was given a permit valid only for six months. Later, I married a French woman and, instead of getting the standard 10-year card for a European Community citizen, received only a three-year card. I solved the problem by tearing it up and nobody ever asked me for it.

In 1983, I returned to Paris after a few years' absence. The system, I heard, had changed. I first went to a local police station to make an appointment at headquarters. When the day came, I found myself second in the queue at the new EC section. An agreeable young woman completed all the formalities in 20 minutes and my 10-year card was ready a month later. Having rehearsed a string of choice phrases, I felt almost cheated by the normality of it all.

Last month, that card expired. I went to a local police station, expecting to be given an appointment at headquarters as in 1983. Not at all, said a young man, everything could now be done on the spot. If I were to return that afternoon with all the right documents - including a recent electricity bill - the whole business would be taken care of in a couple of hours.

I went back a few hours later. The man was sorry, but the computer had since broken down. I returned two days later on 23 December with my old residence card and all the right documents. A jovial Caribbean woman logged on her terminal and started the process. The joviality began to fade.

'Monsieur,' she said, 'you are not on the police computer. You don't exist.' I pulled out a paper to show that I had had no such luck with the taxman's computer. The woman called the prefecture and, taking a pair of scissors, cut a corner off my expiring residence card and told me it was confiscated. Why? Because it could be a forgery. But, I ventured, if I could forge the original, I could presumably also forge a replacement and would not be wasting her time.

She told me I would have to begin all the procedures as though I was arriving in France for the first time. I thought wistfully of another police functionary some time ago who told me that, through many years of residence, fatherhood of a French child and marriage to a French national, I could obtain French nationality at the drop of a hat and dispense for ever with such bureaucracy.

On 23 December, the clerk asked me how I planned to circulate on 'national territory' without proper papers. I said I was sure I could manage. She gave me a piece of paper asking me to return on 19 January with a host more documents, most of them concerning my wife. I did so and realised the battle was won when I spotted a new residence card with my photograph lying on a desk. As yet another clerk handed me my new card, she asked me to check it for errors. My profession was listed as 'family member'. I expressed mild surprise. 'Please,' the woman said, 'don't challenge it. I don't understand it either but it does mean you can stay for another 10 years. It would be so much easier if you were naturalised.'