Saturday, July 17, 2010

Working in France… Chapter 5: Is this the end?

You know, I hate being made to feel like a criminal.  Whenever I am at the Prefecture, I feel, quite literally, sick with fear.  My stomach rolls and my head spins.  These people hold your life between their ink-stained fingers, and they couldn’t care less who you are.  You are a number, you are a form, you are nothing.

So, it is with trepidation,  that I ask for help.

In this scene, we have HBB3 (for the new face behind the desk), R (that’s Rebecca) and CDB (chef de bureau – the person who decides my fate).

HBB3 (angrily): Where did you get this number? 

R: Someone here gave it to me.

HBB3:  Who?  You shouldn’t have this!  Who gave this to you?

(If you’ve forgotten, you are not even allowed to know the names of these people)

R: I don’t know, the person who was here the last time I was here.  She said I should make an appointment with this person to review the status of my carte de sejour.  I have been calling for a week and a half and I can’t even leave a message.  Is it possible for me to get another number, or maybe make an appointment here?

HBB3:  You wait here!  (storms off angrily to the ‘back’)

After a few minutes of waiting, the door re-opens and HBB3 is joined by another member of the staff.

R: Hello, I was here to try to meet with the…..

CDB (interrupting):  Yes, that’s me.

R: Oh!  Well I have been trying to phone you but I’ve been unable to get through.

CDB: Well, that’s because I’m never at my office.

R: Is it possible for me to set up an appointment with you?

CDB: Well, I have already talked to someone about your situation and I would like to talk to you, if you have time.

R (practically squeaking in terror):  You mean, like, right now???

CDB:  Yes (ominously), now…

As you can imagine, I was not prepared for this.  I was supposed to have back up this time, I was supposed to have greased wheels, I was supposed to have rehearsed!  She led me into a very fancy conference room and sat down with me, giving me her undivided attention.

I launched into my spiel and managed to tell the whole thing calmly, without crying and, naturally, all in French.  You know, writing this story has made me realize something.  I really am learning to speak French.  I can actually communicate in a foreign tongue.  I don’t get hardly as many mystified looks as I used to and people tell me they can understand what I say.  You’d think this moment of truth would be somewhat triumphant for me.  Unfortunately, I have simultaneously realized something else.  I don’t like speaking in French!  I think, at this point, I feel the same about speaking French that I do about riding a bicycle.  Yes, I can do it, but not very well. I’m always afraid of falling and would prefer just about any other activity.  But, I am learning to be more comfortable on the bike, and perhaps, someday, I will even enjoy it.  So, may it be with French as well.

But, back to my own private hell.  During the story, she listened quite respectfully and attentively, without interrupting.  Besides the story you all know from earlier chapters I also explained I wasn’t taking a job from a French person.  In fact, only English speaking people are even allowed to teach at schools that teach English.  I also promised not to apply for CAF or unemployment.  I tried to stress that I just was asking for the opportunity to work.  She then asked me several questions which I answered.  After I answered all the questions and she learned more about me she gave me the bad news.

She explained that, to change my status, I would need at least a six month contract and to work full time.  She told me to come back in September, with a 6 month contract of that nature, and try again.  I explained that I needed to work now and also that I couldn’t possibly work full time with 3 small children for several years!    She said, again, that this was the rule of the land and maybe, if I stayed 7 years to become a French citizen, then I would be allowed to work part time.

I had been very proud of myself and how calm and reasonable I was remaining during this impromptu interview.  This point is where I lost it a bit. 

R: So, I’m supposed to just hang out for 7 years?  I can’t work at all until I can work full time?   I think this law is not fair!

CDB:  Why?

R:  It is discriminatory and, in fact, I think, misogynistic!

CDB:   No, this is not because you are a woman. 

R (a bit teary): Obviously it is.  If I was not a woman with 3 small children this would be a full time contract, for a longer amount of time.  The only reason I am not receiving a change in status is because I am a woman with children.  It is obvious. It is unfair.

I recovered quickly but started internally kicking myself for losing my cool.  But, for whatever reason, this argument struck a chord with her. She kind of changed her ‘pity’ look into a look of thoughtful consideration and told me she was going to go and talk to a colleague and get back to me in a few minutes.  She led me out of the room and asked me to wait.

Naturally, I immediately called André to tell him what was going on and that I was totally freaking out.  He reassured me and told me that if I thought she was on my side but couldn’t change my carte legally to salarie, that I could request a change to the private family life.  Such a change is always within the discretion of the prefecture.

She returned within a few more minutes.  She told me she had looked up André’s carte to see why we didn’t get CAF money.  In France, for an individual, you make about 1000 Euros per month if you work for minimum wage. It turns out that since non-citizen André makes more than 3 times that, he has an ‘elevated’ salary and does not qualify for any benefits.  The fact he doesn’t qualify for any normal French societal benefits,  supports four other people,  taxes take over 1000 a month and our rent alone is 750 Euros monthly has absolutely no impact on this status.

I think, looking at this status of elevated made her angry – like the other woman who said: “All Americans are rich”  She thinks I don’t need to work and why should I get the chance?  It’s frustrating since I told her, right off the bat that I didn’t need this job to survive.  I had told her it was not for money to live, but for the little extras that we thought CAF would cover.  It was for me to be challenged, for me to have a chance to help people, to socialize with other adults, and, of course, to earn some money for camp and activities over the summer.

She briskly walked over to me, and before I could get a word out, brusquely informed me my request was denied.

CDB:  I looked up your husband’s status and I see that he is elevated.  That’s why he doesn’t qualify for benefits.  I cannot renew you for this right now.

R:  But I can still return in September with a 6 month contract?

CDB:  When I went back there, I looked up the law again and, unless you are working full time, and making over 1000 Euros a month, I can’t help you at all.  That’s the law

(Number one regret here- I should have asked her for a copy of this so-called law.  Other note here, from my friend Adeline.  This whole policy makes no sense – on the one hand they don’t want me to work so I don’t take jobs from French people but, on the other hand, they won’t change my status unless I really am taking a full time real job anyway!)

R:  Can you change my status to vie de famille?

CDB: No….

She explained that I could try to apply for this but I would get rejected.  That is because they only take people who want to remain in France permanently and have already lived here for several years. 

CDB:  Do you plan on living here forever?

R: Well, I love France but we can’t live here if I’m not allowed to work for the next 7 years!

CDB: Yeah, you should just go home.

R:  Thank you for giving up so much of your time.

She told me to renew my carte as a visitor and walked away. 

So, that’s it.  No working for me…. I may be qualified, I may need the money…  I’m not taking any jobs from any French people…  All that is irrelevant, because France just doesn’t want me.

And now I am due at work!  Luckily (?) for me this is the day of the week that my manager is in the office.  Time to ‘fess up.

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