I've been wanting to write about this one for awhile, but I haven't felt like I have had the time to sit down and do the visit justice, so I haven't written about the first visit yet. But I'm going to now, because it was truly my best ever experience with French bureaucracy, followed closely by yesterday's visit. Warning: This is going to be a long post!
On May 28 I had my rendez-vous to renew my carte de sejour. But I had a second goal on that day - to do battle with the French administration regarding the exchange of my American drivers license which had been refused back in December. I went in prepared to do battle with both the Bureau des Etrangers and the permis de conduire people, and I actually came out victorious. Twice.
Naturally, Lionel was with me for this first visit as it is obligatoire that my husband be present when I try to renew my carte de sejour. We were expecting to spend at least 4 hours at the sous-préfecture, but probably more than that since we not only had to face the Bureau des Etrangers, but we also had to do the line for the Permis de Conduire. However, we were done in only 2 hours! For 2 lines! Our appointment was at 9am and we unfortunately arrived late due to a bus problem (the bus we needed decided not to do its entire trajet so we had to wait 20 minutes for the next one, making us late), and after a brief heart attack of them debating whether or not to accept us since we were late for our meeting, we were in and out of the Bureau des Etrangers in a little over an hour (certainly a record time) with my shiny new récépissé in my hands.
Then we were on to the line for the permis de conduire, and I was prepared for war. Two weeks before my May 28 rendez-vous I had a stumbled upon a post in one of the Assistants in France forums that made me start to wonder if maybe I had originally been right and the refusal of my drivers license exchange had in fact been illegal. After reading this particular post, I decided to go to the French government's website to read the law myself. And I'm glad I did! I read through the entire law and successfully understood all the legal French (I must admit I am very proud of this because Lionel didn't think I was right, but I knew that I understood correctly and it turned out I did!). It turns out that they had illegally refused my request for an exchange! According to article 6 of the law:
"Tout titulaire d'un permis de conduire national doit obligatoirement demander l'échange de ce titre contre le permis français pendant le délai d'un an qui suit l'acquisition de sa résidence normale en France, la date d'acquisition de cette résidence étant celle d'établissement effectif du premier titre de séjour ou de résident.
Ce délai pourra, le cas échéant, être prolongé de la durée des séjours impliquant changement de résidence que le titulaire du permis aura pu effectuer postérieurement à l'étranger.
En outre, si, à l'occasion du retour en France, un nouveau titre de séjour ou de résident lui est délivré, le délai d'un an courra à compter de la date d'établissement de ce titre correspondant à la nouvelle acquisition de la résidence normale en France.
Enfin, l'échange demeure possible ultérieurement si, pour des raisons d'âge ou pour des motifs légitimes d'empêchement, il n'a pu être effectué dans le délai prescrit."
All of this effectively means that you have one year from when you receive your first carte de sejour to exchange your drivers license. However, if you leave France to reside in another country and then come back and ask for a new carte de sejour (not renewing the one you have but asking for another one) then you have a year from the date that you receive this NEW carte de sejour to exchange your license. Which meant that since I had left France after my year as an assistant (at the end of my assistant's carte de sejour) and lived in the US for the summer before coming back with a new visa to get married and then asking for a new carte de sejour, I therefore had another year to do the exchange and was well within my rights to ask for it and to not be refused. I like to think of this as a fabulous little loophole in the French law that most people probably don't even realize exists, but I'm glad I found it, and just in time since I argued my case 5 days before the expiration date on my carte de sejour!
Anyway, as I said, I went up to the permis de conduire window prepared for war. I had the law printed out and the relevant section highlighted. I had copies of all my old carte de sejours. I had my passport with all my old visas. And I had a preplanned speech in my head. I went up to that window, explained what I wanted, explained why they were in the wrong, showed the woman the law, explained her own law to her, and after 25 minutes of battle (in which I had to repeatedly explain to her and show her using my old carte de sejours and old visas and old French entry stamps as proof that I did in fact still have the right to exchange my license) she finally realized and understood that I was right and she relented. She relented and let me fill out the exchange form again, turn in all my papers (which I was smart enough to bring with me just in case it worked) and she gave me a récépissé d'échange de permis de conduire which gave me the right to drive in France for the next 6 months while waiting to receive my real license. During the entire thing I was shaking but determined and I basically did the entire thing myself, even though Lionel was there. I think he only spoke twice during the 25 minute battle, to emphasize something I had already said.
And two hours after arriving, I walked out of the sous-préfecture feeling like a champ: successful, victorious, proud, powerful, shocked and thrilled because I won a battle with the French administration. And I'm not French, I'm a foreigner!
About 2 weeks later I received a letter in the mail asking me to come back in to turn in some documents in order to procede with the exchange of my drivers license. I was angry because I gave them everything they had asked for but I just told myself to be happy about having won and I resolved to go in once my brother left and my work schedule was more calm in July. I planned to go in yesterday, and then I got really lucky and over the past weekend I received a letter notifying me that my carte de sejour was ready to be picked up (only 1 month later!!!). I was surprised they were able to do it so quickly but relieved that I would have it before leaving for the US and that I would be able to do both my carte de sejour and my license in the same day.
So I went back in yesterday and though the trip wasn't as amazing as the first, it was still quite a success. I finished in only 2 hours and 15 minutes and in that time I managed to do both lines again. The Bureau des Etrangers was much busier than the last time, but the permis de conduire line was shorter.
After spending an hour and 45 minutes in the Bureau des Etrangers I happily walked out with my shiny new carte de sejour in my hands, good for another year in France. I headed over to deal with the papers for the permis de conduire and when my number was called I headed up to the window with the letter I had received in my hands and my documents ready. I explained to the woman that I had received this letters asking me to bring in the following documents and I got ready to pull them out of my folder when she asked to see my ID. I pulled out the new carte de sejour and handed it to her and she went off to find my file. When she came back she pulled out some papers, asked for my récépissé thingy, and thats when I noticed it.
me and my new carte de sejour
I saw a permis de conduire sitting on her counter. I looked at it, brand new and still without photo and thought in my head, while my heart was racing, "there is no way that is mine, that's too fast, it must be for someone else and have just been in the papers scattered on her desk." But sure enough it was mine!!! Turns out that, even though it was stated in the letter I received, I was coming in to pick up my drivers license, not to give them more papers! She stamped it, attached my photo and then handed it over to me along with my ID. Still not believing my luck, I examined it closely to make sure it really had my name on it, and it did! I am now the proud owner of a French drivers license!!!!!!!!!! And I got it for free, not 1,000 euros!!!!!!!!!!!! I no longer have my American one (they take that since it's an exchange) but I can drive in the US with the French one, so all is well. And I can drive in France too! Now we just have to add me to the insurance and I can take the car out and cruise the streets of Paris (though this isn't likely to happen because I'm terrified of driving in Paris)!
me and my new permis de conduire
And so, I won the battle and I won the war, and I only lost 4 hours total of my life! Take that French administration!