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France ensnares foreigners in baffling tangle of red tape

"Monsieur Kafka, to desk five please." Maybe I did not hear these precise words as I dozed in the Prefecture de Police waiting for my French identity card. It might have been a similar-sounding name; maybe it was a hallucination, brought on by boredom.

I sat blankly with my numbered piece of paper, of the kind made popular by supermarket delicatessens. I was number 242. The monitor on the ceiling of Room 114 said that applicant number 187 was being dealt with. Room 114 is the place that all citizens of the European Union must go to (several times) if they wish to live permanently in Paris.

This was my fourth visit in seven months. On my first visit, after waiting for an hour, I was told that, malheureusement, nothing could be done because it was a Friday and the following Monday was a bank holiday. The office was open but only to tell people to come back on another day.

The second time, after waiting 90 minutes, my application was accepted. All my papers were in order. Malheureusement, I could not be issued with a Carte de Sejour because I was a foreign journalist. I had to have my official foreign press card before I could have a Carte de Sejour. The Foreign Ministry insists that you have to have a Carte de Sejour before you can receive a press card. Catch-vingt-deux. The first of several.

The Prefecture de Police gave me a receipt for my application. I faxed a copy to the Foreign Ministry. Could I have my press card now? No. I would receive a "convocation" (summons) to the Interior Ministry to be questioned on whether I was really a journalist or not. For two months nothing happened. I rang the Foreign Ministry again. Had I been forgotten? The next day a cheerful police sergeant called from the Interior Ministry.

I entered by a side door. A guide led me down a flight of stairs, along a corridor, down in a lift, along another corridor, through a courtyard, up in a lift, along a corridor. By this time, we seemed to be in a different building a half-kilometre away. The cheerful police sergeant asked a few fatuous questions and stared blankly at my newspaper cuttings.

The next day I was called to the Foreign Ministry to receive my press card. I went back to Room 114 at the Prefecture de Police, an elegant fortress between Notre Dame and the flower market on the Ile de Cite. After queuing for another 60 minutes, I was called to a guichet (desk). All was in order. I could see the completed card lying, tantalisingly, on the desk in its un-laminated form. Could I have my Carte de Sejour? Malheureusement, no. It had to be printed. How long would that take? Two months.

And so this week, I made my fourth visit to Room 114. After waiting 75 minutes, I handed over a tax-stamp for 150 francs (pounds 15) and received my Carte de Sejour...

All of this is maddening, unnecessary, and probably illegal under European law, which guarantees freedom of movement. France has a right to issue Cartes de Sejours to EU residents, because they are equivalent to its own identity cards. But does it have a right to make life so difficult? The European Commission has already warned Paris that it is considering taking legal action.

If EU citizens have such problems, imagine the difficulties facing would- be immigrants from the rest of the world. Proposals were announced this week to simplify the immigration rules which have been made deliberately complex and capricious in the last 10 years. My experiences suggest (and not just my experiences) that the circumlocutory bloody-mindedness of French officialdom is immune to any change in the law.

Are my bureaucratic troubles over? Not in the least bit.

My wife has still to apply for her Carte de Sejour. She could not begin until I received mine. We also have to be formally accepted into the French health system (which is becoming an increasingly urgent matter: Margaret is six months pregnant).

For both these steps, I was informed that we would also need a Certificat d'Etat Civil, proving that we were married and that our children were, in truth, our children. Where would you set about acquiring one of those? The Interior Ministry? The Prefecture de Police? Galeries Lafayette? The Louvre? No, the town hall of your arrondissement.

Thinking myself crafty by this time, I rang the town hall several weeks ago to ask what I needed. Just your marriage and birth certificates, said the charming lady. And French translations of all of them. Translations of marriage and birth certificates? Yes.

The translations did not take very long; there are not many words in a birth certificate. I deposited them at the town hall and went cheerfully back the next day.

Monsieur, said the official gravely, who has perpetrated these translations? Er, me. Malheureusement, he said, that was not admissible. Translations had to be perpetrated by an officially accredited expert. There was a list on the wall.

I telephoned an expert. Yes, of course, she could perpetrate the translations. It would cost F480 (pounds 50) per certificate. Fifty pounds a certificate? It had only taken me an hour to perpetrate all three myself. If you can do them yourself, she said, why are you asking me...

Because, I said, as you know perfectly well, the town hall will only accept translations perpetrated by an expert from their list. Then, she said, that is my price, you can take it or leave it.

I rang the other experts. Remarkably, their prices were almost precisely the same as hers.

The expert I chose promised to finish the arduous task within a week for pounds 150. That was three weeks ago. Still no translations. I telephoned the expert yesterday for the third time. Malheureusement, she said, since she was an expert, she had to appear in court and had not yet had time to attempt the translations (she made them sound like the complete works of Dickens).

But I need them now, I spluttered, wishing my command of the French art of understated insults was better. Then do them yourself, she said. Pause. As you know, madame...

Fact: One in four of the French working population is employed by the state.