Bureaucracy in Paris: A Space Odyssey


This panel from Astérix sums up Parisian bureaucracy so well, I’m not sure it can be topped. However, as brevity has no place in this topic, I invite you to join me on a comedic odyssey through bureaucracy in the City of Light. My own struggles with the system occurred in 2012, when, as a student with a work permit, I set out—bold and stupid —to obtain work status as a freelancer, or auto-entrepreneur. (This particular work status was new to France then, so this story could play out differently today, although I’m reliably informed it wouldn’t.)

So here, in a mere 1,098 steps, is How to Navigate Bureaucracy in Paris—not that I ever figured out the answer.

STEP 1. Go to France.

STEP 2. Decide to work. Whoops! Rookie mistake!

STEP 3. Look up how to get a work status appropriate to what you do. You fool! (Cue ominous music)

4. Contact the appropriate office. Haha! This is of course intended as a funny joke, because there is no appropriate office. There are 8,510,486 offices in Paris and NONE of them is the right one. Also, new offices are constantly being bred because the offices are having wild office sex and making new little baby offices. The joke is on you, mes amis.

5. Days go by without any response.

6-78. Days go by without any response.

79. Call office without answer.

80-262. Call office without answer.

263. Finally go in person to office. There you will be greeted by a reptile woman named Marie-Claude, who has actually been deceased since 1957 but is still gainfully employed in the public sector. Her express job is to give you the hairy eyeball until you get the bends.

René Le Honzec understands bureaucracy well.
René Le Honzec understands bureaucracy well.

264. You are sent to another office.

265-298. You are sent to another office.

299-469. You are sent to another office.

470. Yes, this one is the “right” office, but everyone here is on lunch for the next 10 hours, so you had better return tomorrow.

471. You return tomorrow. Everyone is on lunch.

472-601. Everyone is on lunch.

602. Lunch.

603. At the office, receive stern reprimand accompanied by wagging finger for having never brought random document you were never told to bring in the first place.

You: I didn’t know to bring it.
Them: Of course not; we never told you.
You: Oh.
Them (wagging finger): You are Very Bad.

604. You are told to come back with the necessary items to complete your application for whatever it was (work status). These are: your passport, copies of your passport, certified translation of your birth certificate, your original placenta, notarized copies of your original placenta, detailed guarantee of funds until the next Ice Age, notarized snow samples from next Ice Age, a list of all sexual thoughts you have ever had ranked by strangeness, your school records, your medical records, Columbia Records, the Hope Diamond, and the heart of Doctor Who.

Photo from Curious Provence
Photo from Curious Provence

605. Return with these items. They are not even close to enough.

606. You are told to return with plasma sample from rare Ivory-billed woodpecker in exactly 15 minutes or else.

607. Return with plasma. Now your application can be formally rejected, because all your documentation expired 20 seconds ago and are only valid on Saturn anyway and also you are Very Bad. Wagging finger.

608. At home that night, grouse to French host family about French bureaucracy.

609. Appalled silence fills the room. At first you think this is in solidarity with you, but in fact they are deeply offended. It is explained to you that you must never say “bureaucracy” in reference to France, because bureaucracy means the Soviet Union and NEVER FRANCE, and you must apologize to France.

610. Right now.

611. You apologize to France.

612. The following day, you return to the last office to try your luck one more time. You beg, plead, and perform special dance while singing French version of “Downtown” in tongues.

613. And it works! Finally, your request for whatever it was in the first place (work status) is GRANTED! Yay! Little do you know, this is where the trouble begins.

614. You begin receiving alarming mob-style letters from unknown offices, demanding that you pay 226% taxes on your new windfall of income at once. Only thing is, you have actually booked no work whatsoever—since you’ve been at offices—and your bank balance is €127.

junk mail615-884. You receive more sinister letters.

885-951. You receive threatening phone calls from a minimum of thirty-eight new offices, saying pay up.

952. You have booked no work and your bank balance is €37.

953. Your host family receives threatening phone calls, saying pay up.

954-1,089. Everyone you have ever met receives threatening phone calls, saying pay up.

1,090. Your bank balance is €12.

1,091. Finally, after one too many sleepless nights and threats to break your legs, you decide now would be an excellent time to cancel whatever it was (work status) and go back to the U.S. You are helped to this decision by the official hired guns (all named Pierre-Yves) who have their teeth embedded in your forearms as you try to sleep.

1,092. Go to an office pretty much at random. For wishing to cancel your status, you are looked upon with grave suspicion.

Pôle Emploi in Vincennes. Photo by Le Figaro
Back in line! Photo by Le Figaro

1,093. Repeat all previous steps.

1,094. All of them.

1,095. After having your body drained of all its fluids as a Standard Precaution, you are granted your request to cancel! But not without your being let know that France is Keeping an Eye on You and You are Very Bad. Wagging finger.

1,096. Head to airport. Board flight to U.S., beating off the various Pierre-Yves, whose teeth are still pretty deep in your flesh.

1,097. Return to U.S.

1,098. Almost immediately, you miss France.

A close up of a sign


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