One important thing you need to understand and appreciate in order to successfully live in France is the dossier. The dossier is the compilation of the infinite number of forms and documents required for completing any bureaucratic process. You will end up purchasing folders specifically for the purpose of maintaining your dossiers. You must anticipate that in addition to any requirements listed, there will be other materials almost certainly requested, so your dossier must be prepared for all eventualities.
This week, we were determined to acquire French driver's licenses. We had gone to the OECD about this months ago, and had been told that the OECD is no longer "involved" in this process. Which, understandably, we took to mean that we had to figure it out on our own. You have one year from the date of your Titre de Sejour (official residence card) to exchange a foreign driver's license for a French license. I wasn't even convinced why we needed French driver's licenses, but I do love to follow the rules. So we began to work on our dossier.
Through my expat moms' network, I learned that the first form we needed was a form from the U.S. Embassy in Paris called "Translation of U.S. Driver's License." Not surprisingly, this form is in French, and is simply a notarized form in which you fill out all the information from your driver's license. In order to get this form, we had to schedule an appointment and spent over an hour at the US Embassy, which most closely resembles your average DMV.
Then, because the French really are the kings of bureaucracy, we had to take the form in French from the embassy and get it officially translated. Into French. That's right - we had to have the French form translated into French. It's not even worth trying to understand the logic here, I promise.
The rest of dossier included our driving records from Virginia and DC, an electrical bill to prove our residence here in Paris, driver's license application, passport-style photographs, and assorted other required materials. Dossier in hand, we trekked up to the far reaches of the 18th arrondissement to the Prefecture de Police.
When we found the large and soulless room where one obtains a driver's license, there was quite a line. We asked if we had to wait in the line in order to exchange licenses, and then duly waited in the line. Actually, one of us waited in line while the other chased Baby Oil around the room. Finally we reached the front of the line, over an hour later. The man took one look at our Titre de Sejours and said, "But you have special Titre de Sejours. You should not be in this line. You must go over there and ask for a meeting."
We headed "over there" and were eventually told that because of our special Titre de Sejours (basically, because of Mr. Oil's position at the OECD, we have a pseudo-diplomatic status) we should have called to schedule a meeting. And they could not possibly conduct the meeting today. However, we already knew that the answer to all questions in any French place of business is always "no" - at first. After explaining that we could not possibly come back, and that we had our dossier all ready, they took pity on us, and led us into a separate office where a woman began to review our dossier.
Everything was fine until she looked at the electricity bill and pointed out that the bill was only in Mr. Oil's name, not mine. How are they supposed to believe that I live there too? Did not Mr. Oil know that he should have had the bill addressed to "Monsieur XXXX et famille"?
I had to bite my tongue not to point out that in fact that would still not prove that I live there. We did explain that my Titre de Sejour states officially that I am married to Mr. Oil, and that's why I am allowed to live in France (we can discuss how being legally relegated only to the status of "wife" affects the psyche at a later point).
Unmoved, she fell back on a classic French bureacratic phrase - "C'est obligatoire!" We finally convinced her that we could fax her a copy of our marriage license that day, which would prove that we are married. Exhausted, we were ushered back into the soulless waiting room as she discussed with her supervisor whether this would be acceptable.
Twenty minutes later, she beckoned Mr. Oil back to her office. Upon discussing our case with her supervisor, they determined that in fact, due to our special Titre de Sejour, it was not required for us to obtain a French driver's license at all. We can just continue driving legally with our Virginia driver's licenses.
Two hours at the embassy + two hours at the prefecture + several hours filling out forms + about $100 in forms = WE NEVER HAD TO DO ANY OF THIS TO BEGIN WITH. Which, we now believe, is what the OECD meant by no longer being "involved." On the other hand, we can put together a darn good dossier.