Monday, 17 September 2012

Making a Frenchman

It isn’t generally considered a pleasure to be questioned by a security service anywhere, so when it happened to me it came as a surprise to find it a congenial experience. 

Imagine a scene straight out of a French police thriller. A nondescript and anonymous office, desks piled high with files and fitted with anglepoise lamps. Among then move, with surprising lightness of foot, burly shirt-sleeved men in their thirties or forties, who look as though they should be sweating even if they aren’t, and younger men, thin and wiry and dangerous. The younger ones are in dark teeshirts and jeans, the elder ones in white shirts and suits from which they have discarded their jackets, all of them purposeful in their actions, as though whatever your concerns, theirs are higher, more serious and far more urgent. 

The setting. Well, something like it

In my memory, there was a smell of gitanes in the air, though that can’t be right: smoking in French public offices had already been banned. Nor were there small empty coffee cups on the desks though there should have been.

The scene was in the Strasbourg offices of what in those days were called the Renseignements Généraux, the French internal intelligence service. My interrogation concerned my request to be honoured with citizenship of the Republic. Would Marianne gather me in as one of her own or not?

Marianne: would she make me hers?
Danielle had been placed on a chair a little way behind me, so I couldn’t see her without turning; that focused my attention on the shirt-sleeved burly inquisitor in front of me.

It had taken a long time to get to this stage. French administration is Olympian in its majesty but far from Olympic in its speed. Danielle and I had previously found the conventional way of producing Frenchmen a lot quicker, though it did involve her in some uncomfortable moments nine months in. The bureaucracy, on the other hand, grinds forward glacier-like and your best bet is to adapt to its pace, because nothing you can do will speed it up.

I learned that lesson early in my time in France: do things the way the Administration wants or you won’t do them at all. France introduced me to the obligation to produce utility bills – it was a shock to discover, when we moved back to Britain, that the habit had wormed its way in over here too. A phone bill? To me it had always been a grubby piece of paper with irritatingly large figures on it. Now it was an essential component of my identity.

In Britain, face to face with officials, you can occasionally persuade them that you don’t fit a particular category and get things done in a slightly different way. In France, no chance. It’s by the book or not at all. And not just in the public service. A friend had successfully negotiated all but the last step in obtaining a French mortgage. As he was about to sign the agreement, the junior employee in the bank said to him:

‘Now I only need your payslips for the last three months.’

Payslips? My friend was self-employed. He had no payslips.

‘Well, I am sorry, it is necessary to see three months of payslips. Without them we shall be unable to proceed. I regret it.’

My friend stepped out of the bank. Opposite was a stationer’s. The sight was the trigger for a Damascene moment.

‘The bank wants three bits of papers. Stationers sell paper.’

He went in and bought a pad of pre-printed payslip forms and filled three of them in for himself.

‘Ah, but Monsieur,’ said the previously regretful employee in the bank, ‘why did you not give these to me at once? These are exactly what we require. Now we shall happily complete our transaction.’

And my friend got his mortgage.

I had learned that lesson and had gone with the flow over French naturalisation. The interview with the security service was merely the next, necessary step in a long process, and though nervous I was more than willing to undergo the questioning.

It didn’t take long for the officer handling the ticklish matter of interrogating this representative of perfidious Albion to turn his attention to a matter of real concern.

‘Have you ever murdered anyone?’

Funnily enough, this rather took the sting out of proceedings. I briefly considered breaking down and confessing in sobs that I had indeed done away with the infuriating neighbour with leaky earphones and lousy taste. ‘Would you like me to show you where I buried the body?’ I would have blurted out. But fortunately cooler counsel prevailed and I toned down my reply.

‘No,’ I said after reflection, ‘though I’ve frequently been tempted.’

‘Your wife?’ he said with a broad smile that quickly turned into a gale of laughter.

I turned to look at her. She was making an admirable effort to join in the hilarity but the smile looked wan.

The final stage of the process was an appearance in front of a judge. We turned up and found the waiting room filled with perhaps fifty other couples, but we were the only one in which both partners were white. It therefore came as no surprise that we were called first: the same phenomenon occurs at border crossings where, if we have a coloured friend or relative in the car with us, we can be sure we'll be stopped and questioned, whereas if there are only whites present, we get waved through.

The judge took very little time over us.

‘I only wish to know,’ she said, ‘why it is you ask for French nationality. As  British you have the right to live and work here anyway.’

‘Oh,’ I floundered, ‘I suppose I would just like...’

‘Please don’t worry,’ she helped me out, ‘this will not prevent you obtaining the nationality. I only ask from curiosity.’

‘Well, I’d like to be able to vote.’

‘As, yes, I see,
 she said, already signing the papers, ‘you wish for complete insertion into the civil life. I understand.’

And that was it. A brand new Frenchman had been minted.

But not a new supporter of the rugby team. At least, not when it turns up to face England.


Anonymous said...

It does sound like an interesting system. Honestly were you amused? I would have found it difficult to contain my laughter and gotten into trouble. Bon travail mon ami!

David Beeson said...

It was one of those experiences that one cherishes. No threat. A lot to smile about. Du charme bien hexagonal.