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‘Omnipresent’: The truth about the dreaded paperwork in France

France has a longstanding reputation for being a nightmare for bureaucracy and red tape. But is it deserved? Our readers told us whether they think it's just an old, tired cliché or if there really is truth to the stereotype.

'Omnipresent': The truth about the dreaded paperwork in France
Photo: Harald Groven/Flickr
There is no doubt that life in France involves a lot of paperwork.
 
From applying for your carte vitale and paying taxes to exchanging your driving license and buying property, everyone who lives here is expected to go through a lot of red tape. 
 
But how bad is it really? Does it just mean a bit of extra printing each year or is it the nightmare that many claim it to be?
 
We asked our readers to find out what they think. 
 
READ ALSO:

The essential documents you will always need in France

Photo: Mactrunk/Depositphotos

Many said that bureaucracy in France was generally ok but admitted that it did seem to take more time than in other countries.  

“French bureaucracy is probably no better or worse than in many other countries as long as you accept the fact that they will never use just one piece of paper when 10 will do,” Harry Ingledew, 74, who lives in the Charente in southwestern France told us. 

Similarly Grégory Long, 48, living in Paris said, “It is not good or bad, just omnipresent. Every facet of life is slowed by paperwork.”
 
And Manant Maheshwari, 29, who also lives in the French capital said, “French bureaucracy is honestly not the worst.
 
“If you are proactive, have all documents in order, come prepared, and have some patience, I think it all works out pretty well.
 
“I have always chosen to arrange my paperwork myself without relying on my school or employers. Being there yourself means that you can represent yourself better, and react fast in case of any adverse situations that may lead to a delay.”
 
Others agreed that preparation was key and could save a lot of hassle when it comes to navigating French bureaucracy.
 
“We have had good and bad experiences, once you get the hang of taking everything they ask for and then a few things they haven't it's a bit easier,” said 62-year-old Elaine Gibbs who lives in the Pas de Calais.
 
'Worst I've ever experienced'
 
However Elaine said that she had had a difficult time when it came to changing the registration of the car for the first time. 
 
“We had to go to the prefecture, the tax office and then back to the prefecture. Each office wanted something different. But we got there in the end and the next vehicle was much quicker.”
 
Perhaps unsurprisingly she wasn't the only one among the readers who contacted us who had been through a difficult time trying to sort out some paperwork in France. 
 
Many said that even though they had lived in other countries around the world the red tape in France was far worse than anywhere else. 
 
Five key tips to opening a bank account in France
Photo: Dave Dugdale/Flickr
 
Josee Thollet, 58, who lives in the Rhone in southern France had a tough time sorting out her French citizenship. 
 
“The best (or the worst) example is my enormous file to get my French nationality. Plenty of paperwork in an envelope gathering dust on a shelf for more than one and a half years.

“I’m still waiting to receive the invitation from la Préfecture for my famous interview. A lot to go through after living in France for more than 30 years.”
 
Others said they found the carte vitale application to be long and arduous. 
 
Steve Mallon, 56, who described French bureaucracy as the “worst I've ever experienced” said that it took him seven months to get the carte vitale “despite the fact that I was entitled to it from the day my business was registered”. 
 
While Harry Ingledew said that he was informed that his carte vitale application had been lost and in the end he didn't receive it for 14 months — although he said his wife's took just six months.
 
Some readers suggested that the reasons for the difficulties of paperwork could be down to the fact that the French system employs a lot of people and often doesn't make use of technology. 
 
“French bureaucracy seems designed to employ the maximum number of people. It is cumbersome and unwieldy and seems specialized at asking unnecessary and irrelevant questions,” said Ken Adam, 67, who lives in Aveyron in southern France. 
 

While Bob Marly, 50, who lives in the greater Paris region of Ile de France said: “French bureaucracy is bad. Some services have no online facility and rely on printed paper forms and snail mail.”
 

But not all of the readers who contacted us viewed bureaucracy in France negatively. 
 
Photo: AFP
 
'All incredibly simple'
 
“My experience is largely positive,” Judy ni Concubhair, 50, who lives in Paris. “Our property in southern France abuts a ravine, whose sides were eroding. I wrote to the Municipality, who fixed it without any further bureaucracy.
 
Judy said that even buying two French properties was straightforward “although it took longer than it would have in USA”. 
 
Reader Deborah Eade agreed that bureaucracy in France isn't the nightmare it's made out to be. 
 
“It has all been incredibly simple. Buying our home it took about two days for our offer to be accepted, and a couple of months later we exchanged contracts.”
 
Another reader Howard Shakespeare, 81, who lives in Vence in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region said that over his 21 years in France his experience with bureaucracy has been excellent.
 
“Tax, carte vitale (& medical in general), mairie, French driving licence, work on my house (and buying the house, earlier), insurance, all have been efficiently and courteously handled. I should add that my French is good,” he said. 
 
However not all readers with positive experiences were fluent in French. 
 
Jennifer Dovey, 63 said: “Everyone we have dealt with: banks, notaire, prefectures, sous prefectures and bureau des impôts has been charming and helpful.
 
“We had French plates on the car 21 days after arriving; we exchanged our driving licences; found the process for obtaining our Titres de Séjour in advance of Brexit so simple and efficient that we almost wrote a letter of appreciation and thanks. I say almost as I have only very basic schoolgirl French and my husband never learned French at all.”
 
Healthcare in France: a beginner's guide
 
How to handle it
 
Our readers also had some advice for those who are yet to experience French bureaucracy for themselves, with several saying the key to getting through it was to stay calm and be patient. 
 
“If you don't speak French, or don't speak French well (like me) find out as much as you can via Facebook forums and seek out companies that can assist you,” said Steve Mallon.
 
While others said it was preparation that would get you through, such as having translations of important documents ahead of the game. 
 
“Get good certified translations of your birth and marriage certificates. Keep the originals safe and take copies, you'll need them for all sorts of things. Keep notes of the documents you need for each application in case you need to do it all again,” Elaine Gibbs said. 
 
If in doubt find someone French who's in the same situation and exploit them and if all else fails, find an English-speaking accountancy firm geared to British citizens working and living in France.
 
And finally Belinda Noble, 40, who lives in the Charente had some very wise words to share. 
 
“That's life here. Just keep chipping away at it and finish the day with a delicious (and affordable) high quality glass of French wine to remind you that there are positives to balance out the negatives.”

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BUREAUCRACY

Volunteering in France: What are the rules and do I need a special visa?

Looking to give back to the community in France? Here is what you need to know about volunteering in France and the rules for doing so.

Volunteering in France: What are the rules and do I need a special visa?

In France, there is a distinction between the terms benevolat and volontariat.

Bénévoles

Those looking to do occasional volunteering – perhaps helping out at a soup kitchen a few times a month – are considered to be bénévoles.

These are non-contractual volunteers who assist an organisation based on their spare time and availability. The French government does not give this type of volunteering any legal status or protection – the work is unpaid and it is not full-time. These activities are seen as part of one’s vie privée (private life).

That means that if you are already in France and want to do this type of work you would not need to change your status, even if you are on a visitor visa that stipulates you are not allowed to work.

If you’re coming to France and you want to do this type of work, you don’t need a special visa, you would just enter on the visa type that suits your status – perhaps a study visa or visitor visa.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What type of French visa do you need?

Voluntaire

In contrast, being a volontaire is a contractual commitment. While being a volontaire is different from being an employee, it is still seen by the French government as contractual and exclusive. Volunteers typically receive some form of stipend or living allowance – though not a salary.

The volunteer agrees formally to join a mission for a specified amount of time and will usually be expected to turn up at agreed times. The volunteer can break the contract, though they may need to give some form of notice before doing so.

If you are coming to France in an explicitly religious capacity (ie as a missionary or priest), you may qualify for a visitor’s visa if you can provide official documentation that you would be exercising your religious duties in France. This visitor’s visa would not give you the right to work, however. 

If you are looking to do volunteer tourism – or voluntourism – while visiting France, keep in mind that there may be language barriers and while there are English-language NGOs operating throughout the country, charitable organisations may not be able to offer you the hours that best fit the timeline of your vacation. Try reaching out ahead of your trip to see if it would be feasible.

Volunteer residency permit

The Titre de Voluntariat is a temporary residency permit specifically for non-EU nationals who want to volunteer in an official, contractual status with a French NGO (ie be a voluntariat).

The volunteer’s day-to-day job should involve some social or humanitarian purpose. 

The NGO must, according to the French government, be recognised for serving the public interest. This is defined as being “aimed either at promoting the autonomy and protection of individuals; strengthening social cohesion; preventing or correcting the effects of social exclusion or carrying out solidarity actions in favour of disadvantaged persons residing on French territory.”

What are the rules of this permit and how can I apply?

The key thing about this permit is that you must already have a long-stay visa (meaning one that allows you to enter and stay in France for more than three months).

The permit is basically for people who are already in France, perhaps doing some informal voluntary work, and then get a contract as a voluntariat with a charity organisation.

Keep in mind that sometimes people are rejected because the French state judges the capacity of the host organisation to host volunteers and it sets quotas for the number of foreigners who can hold this permit.

The organisation must certify that they have agreed to host you, and they must be authorised by the French government to accept volunteers. 

In order to apply, you must also already have a volunteer contract in place, which you will need to provide as part of your application. 

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How to get a visitor visa for France

Your application must also include an agreement to leave the country once your contract has ended.

As for the permit itself, it is only issued for the timeline of the volunteer’s contract. Thus, if your mission is only nine months, then that is how long your residency permit will be good for too.

The residency permit is issued by the préfecture for the département where the host organisation is located. 

You can find more information on the French government website (in French) here.

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