First of all, I would like to wish all of you a very happy and prosperous 2016!
French custom dictates that New Year's wishes can be expressed until the end of January, so I have managed it a few hours before the deadline.
The word "pilgrims" can be seen as an ancient way to say "refugees." Everyone seems to agree that one is very different from the other. Today's news only talks about refugees and I have not heard anyone talking about pilgrims. The difference is imprinted in our brains. When we hear "pilgrims" we have a hard time not thinking about "the Mayflower" and her sister ships reaching the coasts of what is today the USA.
"I read the dictionary and I can see the difference, yet I am still puzzled by the fact that some centuries ago people seeking refuge on the American continent were called pilgrims but from the mid-19th century on, especially in the 20th century, everybody became refugees, fleeing hunger in Ireland, poverty, religious persecution in Russia, and so on.
When I see Iraqi and Syrian Christians fleeing for their lives because they are Christians, does this make them pilgrims? I am not sure. The bottom line is that the word "pilgrim" has a lot of positive connotations and the word "refugee" a lot of bad ones. In most Western countries today, the population has an adverse reaction to an influx of refugees.
A NEW YEAR FOR EVERYBODY, INCLUDING REFUGEES
The Christmas and New Year's holidays are the moment when most people reflect on the past year and what they aspire for in the new year that is about to start. At that moment, the world can be divided between those who make New-Year's resolutions and those who do not. We know what happens to most of those resolutions, whether in the USA, in France, or elsewhere in the world, at least in countries where people have some control over their own lives. It would almost take a philosophical discussion to define the concept of "some control over one's own life." I believe we are less in control over our lives than we think. The refugees who arrive in the Western world have virtually no control over their lives, and that lasts for quite a while. The most basic necessities of life - where to sleep and what to eat - are not under their control. Some of them are lucky enough to receive a lot of help from the government of the host country, but way too many arrive and find nothing is ready for them. They must rely on help from NGOs, longer-term refugees, and the neighbors.
This is a very complex political issue and I believe that it can only be properly addressed at the international level. In the meantime, in many European countries, including France, refugees congregate under bridges or in squares, waiting, and I am not sure that they truly know what they are waiting for.
I find it ironic that France passed a law on July 29th 2015 reorganizing refugee-asylum procedures, supposedly shortening their length from an average of two years to about nine months. On November 2nd, ten days after the last provisions related to this law were issued, a new wave of refugees was settling in the Paris region, clogging the system. The nine-month goal now looks totally unrealistic, and processing is likely to take several years again, as I do not see the flow of refugees to the Western world stopping any time soon. One of a few refugees I help just received a letter stating that the French refugee office, OFPRA, is not in a position to schedule the initial meeting within six months as the new law provides. The request was submitted in late June and the letter was sent in late December. It did not say when the meeting might be scheduled. Here, too, the refugee has no control over what is going on, and sometimes has to wait years before the request is reviewed and the decision is definitive.
My experience is that most refugees rebound in one way or another after several months, maybe a year, and start to create a new life where they are. They can secure lodging and food, most of them find work, and they learn which organizations can really help and how.
One can only hope that this year of 2016, which has just started, will bring success, happiness and safety to the vast majority of people.
COMMENT FROM A READER
"Congratulations on the PayPal account. I'm reaching a point where I won't do business with someone who doesn't have one. Just using it saves me $40 each time I make a transfer."
I try to make sure that I keep all possible methods of payment available for a private practice. This comment illustrates quite well the evolution in financial arrangements and the need for the banking industry to come up with new solutions for the general public, whether in France, the USA or elsewhere.
UPDATE ON AIRLINES' DUTY TO CHECK IMMIGRATION STATUS
In the previous issue (December-January) there was a Q/A on this topic and I asked the reader to let me know the outcome. It went much better than I thought, although I was right to state that it would not be easy to persuade the airline of the validity of the claim.
I find it very interesting that it was the insurance policy attached to the use of the credit card that did the trick. I believe that if that insurance company had not addressed the claim, it would have gone nowhere. This is good to know; the threat of a liability lawsuit makes American business react quickly when the threat is credible and the opponent a major corporation. So let's continue to use our credit cards, with moderation and according to our means!
THE READER'S UPDATE
On my return to Paris, not being able to find a telephone number on their website, I sent an e-mail to the low cost airline complaining about being forced to buy a return ticket to the US. I received an automatic response saying that they would get back to me in 5 or 6 weeks.
I then telephoned the Bank of America MasterCard dispute department. The person I spoke with told me that they would investigate the charge and not to pay the airline's charge on my bill until further notice. While I was still on the line, the agent called the airline on another line. She expressed surprise that the telephone number that she had for the airline was for a top-level executive. This person was unavailable to take the call but the agent promised to keep trying. She said that MasterCard would get back to me with their decision by letter, which I eventually received.
In the meantime, after I found out from you that my identity card was indeed still valid, I called back the MasterCard dispute office and added that information to my file. I also sent another e-mail to the airline stating the same information.
After that e-mail or perhaps after hearing from the MasterCard folks, the airline wrote back to me much earlier than the 5 or 6 weeks announced in their original response. They offered me a refund if I would send them my bank information.
I called MasterCard back to tell them that the airline had offered me a refund. They said that the file had already been closed and that the charge had been removed from my account.
WELL-INSULATED HOMES SELL FOR MORE
For a long time, people buying real estate did not pay much attention to how well insulated the house or apartment was. In recent years, however, there has been a rather dramatic change. People buying real estate in France are interested in how much it costs to heat the place; poor insulation makes this a lot more expensive at a time when electricity, heating oil and gas have undergone significant price increases. Another factor is increased awareness that saving energy is good for environmental reasons and should be promoted in all possible ways.
It took some time to register the change; the association DINAMIC, managed by the Conseil supérieur du notariat and the Chambre des notaires de Paris, carefully studied real estate transactions in France during 2014, comparing properties of similar types and checking their ratings regarding insulation.
Since 1996, France has passed laws requiring that buyers have reliable information and do not rely solely on real estate agents, who in those days had a reputation for lying about pretty much every possible topic related to properties. The Carrez law of December 18th 1996 was the first: it was passed to stop real estate agents from systematically lying about the size of houses and apartments. Laws on other topics soon followed. Today, the number of certified, independent testing firms and the scope of the laws put buyers in France on the same footing as those in the USA, where evaluations are done by surveyors, though there are some differences in what is tested.
- Presence of lead in the apartment and building (diagnostic plomb)
The test concerns water and paint. Even though many existing pipes are made of lead, this kind of pollution is exceedingly rare. Lead paint has been banned for about 40 years, yet it is very common to find one or more layers of such paint on the walls and ceilings of Parisian apartments. The risk of exposure to this pollution is slight unless the paint is so chipped that the old layers are accessible, in which case there is a serious danger of small children eating the paint.
- Presence of asbestos in the apartment and building (diagnostic amiante)
Asbestos, formerly used as insulation and a fire retardant, is highly toxic when inhaled.
- Presence of termites in the apartment and building (diagnostic termites)
The presence of termites in French cities is relatively recent and can be explained that until recently the construction of French houses used very little wood.
- Condition of the electrical system in the apartment (installation électrique)
The electrical system is evaluated to see whether it meets the current safety standards, and its description helps in understanding its flaws, if any.
- Condition of the gas system in the apartment (installation gaz)
Not all apartments use gas for cooking, heating or hot water. If there is a need, the system is evaluated.
- Potential risks from nature or human activity (risques naturels et technologiques)
This is mainly about the risk of floods and earthquakes, and dangers related to nearby factories.
- Energy performance of the apartment (performance énergétique)
This concerns the cost and energy efficiency of heating and (if any) cooling. The test mainly involves checking window and door insulation and the type of heating system installed, mainly gas or electricity in Paris.
With all these tests made mandatory within a short period, it is understandable that the impact of insulation quality on selling price was not easily identified. It was only made mandatory in 2011. Notaires say it has become a strong selling point when the property gets a good rating.
Their research is pegged to the D rating, which is average (the range goes from A, excellent, to G, terrible). The amount of variation in price depends on location, but an F or G rating can reduce the price by between 5% and 18%. For example, in Brittany, a poor rating means an average decrease of 13%.
Apartments are less affected because as part of a building they benefit from the protection of the building itself. The average decrease for poor ratings is between 2% and 14%, depending on where the apartment is. On the other hand, houses with an A or B rating sell for between 5% and 12% more.
The French are rarely thought of as being environmentally aware, but this study shows that when it comes to real estate, energy conservation has become a key selling point in a relatively short time, showing that French people can indeed alter their behavior in response to environmental concerns.
For more on this issue (in French), see: http://www.lemonde.fr/immobilier/article/2015/10/15/immobilier-les-passoires-energetiques-se-vendent-jusqu-a-18-moins-cher_4790482_1306281.html#rv00EcW63k1gwK6z.99
PARISIAN REAL ESTATE PRICES ARE GOING BACK UP
I never read French weekly magazines' supplements on the real estate market. These publications must be very useful to a lot of people, since they are often the year's best-seller. I do not consider myself a professional in this field, especially when it comes to prices for a given type of apartments or in a given district. On occasion, however, my clients ask me for an evaluation of the market, and I always make sure to carefully review the Parisian notaire database. Ads only indicate what sellers hope to get, which can be quite unrealistic. When French real estate agents do an evaluation, they ask what it is being used for and if it needs to be low or high, so their estimates are also seriously suspect.
The notaire, among many other responsibilities, is the professional representing the interests of the French state in real estate transactions, and it is he or she who drafts the title for the new buyer. The notaires'database, therefore, is made up of actual transactions. Usually about three to four months elapse between the seller accepting the offer and the closing of the sale, so the information available in the database may not quite reflect the current status of the market. I marginally adjust my findings depending on if it is a bull or a bear market. But the fact that the data comes from actual transactions makes me confident that I am dealing with reliable information.
In the third quarter of 2015 there were 25% more apartment sales than in the same quarter of 2014, or 9,500 more transactions. The annual increase over the last twelve months is 4.2%. The volume of sales is now at the level it was before the 2008 crisis. The average price of a square meter of real estate in Paris is now 8,000 euros, up 0.7 % from the previous quarter. The average rate for a twenty-year loan is 2.6%.
For more on this issue (in French), see: http://abonnes.lemonde.fr/immobilier/article/2015/11/26/immobilier-le-prix-des-logements-anciens-en-hausse-de-0-5-au-3e-trimestre_4817742_1306281.html
Here is the link to the real estate page of the Parisian notaires' website, for those interested in reading more about it. www.notaires.paris-idf.fr/immobilier
FRENCH INCOME TAX REMINDER
French income tax is generally paid in three installments: on February 15th, May 15th and September 15th. Everyone should have received the applicable tax statement by now. If you have not received it, but you know that you owe French income tax for 2016, you must pay the required amount, which is one-third of the total tax you paid in 2015. Errors made by the French administration never exempt the individual from complying with the law.
My column is now in Expatriates Magazine : http://paris.expatriatesmagazine.com
It has been a very long time since my column has been printed in an actual paper magazine (it got its start in the Paris Voice in 1994). I am very happy to announce that sections of the column can now be found in Expatriates Magazine, and I would like to thank the editor in chief, Kevin Knight, for accepting my offer. After only a couple of issues, I am getting a bigger readership.
The Q/A below on whether it is now easier to become French was first published in the magazine. I may not mention it every time this happens, but considering the time I spend answering questions on the magazine's Facebook page, it is likely that I will continue to use questions from there.
ANOTHER READER ON AIRLINES' DUTY TO CHECK IMMIGRATION STATUS
This is a curious problem that the holder of an expired CNI had. My understanding of the basic law is that if you are a citizen of country X you must enter and leave X with a valid travel document for X, usually the passport of X. So if your itinerary were Paris-NY-Paris you would have to leave Paris on a French passport, enter the US on a US passport, leave the US on a US passport and enter France on a French passport.
The Americans sound like they would make you buy a round-trip ticket leaving NY for Paris if you followed this rule! Unless you present both passports, but even so, for the purposes of not having to buy another ticket they will select the French one, but for the purposes of complying with the law they should select the US one. I have not been to the US for 10 years and then they did not have an exit procedure other than the airline counter — but suppose they introduce an exit police booth (or have already); then your passport won't match your ticket information unless you have a round-trip ticket!
Maybe the US is a special case, but my wife is French-Egyptian and she passes police booths both entering and leaving both countries. But the Egyptians don't ask for a return ticket when she returns to France. Either I've got the basic law wrong or the Americans are crazy. Or both.
You have well described the normal procedure as being "My understanding of the basic law is that if you are a citizen of country X you must enter and leave X with a valid travel document for X, usually the passport of X." This should be checked by the police of the respective countries. For example, in the case mentioned earlier, the French police while leaving France, the American police when entering the USA and again when leaving the USA, and at the end of the trip the French police when entering France. For a long time, this is what was done, although it was the airlines that made sure passengers had the right ID and status to enter the destination country. It is a recent development that the airline industry is being given more and more responsibility to check travelers' immigration or residency status in both countries.
Even so, what was described in the case dealt with here last month is without a doubt an American issue. Except for the United Kingdom, I do not know of any other country that gives airlines so much responsibility for what should be a police mission to check that people comply with the immigration or residency regulations of the countries involved. Indeed, it does not seem natural to turn airline employees into police agents!
Here the issue is that the US government is imposing on US airlines the duty to enforce the tourist status of travelers who cannot prove they have residency rights in France. So in cases where travelers are going from the USA to France, airline employees check their passport, which is proof of citizenship, and then their residency status in France, which will be as follows:
- 1- a French national showing a French passport
- 2- a French resident showing French ID
- 3- a tourist, who must show a return ticket back to the USA.
Remember that the problem detailed last month existed because a dual national (American and French) purchased a round-trip ticket starting and ending in Paris. The issue arose on the flight back to Paris.
I would prefer that the airlines stay at the level where they are efficient. In this case, a valid American passport enables legal entry into France, and furthermore the traveler could prove French nationality. I assume that the police would be more professional and therefore more knowledgeable, and such stupid incidents would not exist if they, rather than airline employees, were running the checks.
The main consequence of obtaining the primary residence protection is the strict limitation of the landlord's rights. For example, in order to give you notice to vacate on the anniversary date (which requires a six-month notice), the landlord has only three possibilities to make it possible:
- He wants to live there or wants his children to live there
- He wants to sell the apartment untenanted, in which case you have the right of first refusal
- The apartment needs so much renovation that you are better off moving to a different place.
Another consequence is that any rent increase is defined by a government ratio, the indice de référence des loyers. So, as you can see, the law will supersede some of the most critical provisions found in the secondary-residence lease once you establish that this is in fact your primary residence.
Another welcome consequence is the way you will need to prove your address at the prefecture. At first the lease might be enough, as it was signed less than three months before. After that, the homeowner's insurance policy will be the only document you have if the monthly payment of rent and charges includes everything, especially the basic utilities (gas and electricity). But once you have your avis d'imposition in your hands, you can challenge the landlord and put the utilities in your own name. Yes, it will mean that you are de facto increasing the rent more than what the law authorizes, but considering how important utility bills are as proof of residence, many people consider this to be worth it.
This evolution can easily be accomplished with a one-year rental contract that is renewed automatically. It is a tad more difficult with a non-renewable lease, since every year you are signing a lease that this is a secondary residence. That said, the abovementioned French tax documents prove that your apartment is your primary residence. It is just that the chances of the landlord having a massive fit regarding the change from secondary to primary residence are quite high. The only leases that will prevent this from happening are very short-term rental contracts, which are final because such contracts are never meant to allow the tenants to stay in the place past the end date of the contract.
This illustrates very well the power the tenant has in the relationship and therefore validates the landlords' fear that they will lose control over their apartments.
As for the substantial wait for an appointment, it depends on a lot of factors; my experience is that lately carte de résident holders get their renewal appointment several months after the date of request and the process of issuing the card also takes a long time. So be ready to hold a récépissé (periodically renewed) for up to a year. It might feel unsettling, and you might be anxious to get it over with, but there is no way I know of to speed up the process and the prefecture is good about keeping you documented. You have to trust the system, which means trusting the prefecture, if you want to go through this with some peace of mind.
IS IT EASIER TO BECOME FRENCH THAN BEFORE?
My response to your statement about it now being easier to become French: NOT TRUE! Having been married to a Frenchman for over a quarter century, lived here for 12 years, and had three cartes de séjour, a CDI with a French company and a carte de presse, not to mention having given birth to two kids for la patrimoine, I decided to apply for citizenship in June. I sent my ENORMOUS dossier by lettre recommandée, so I know it arrived at the prefecture, but I have never received one single word from the Immigration Service. Not one word.They do not answer the phone nor do they answer email. The wait can be two hours WHEN they are open, and as I work, it is very difficult to go to rue des Ursins for that exercise in futility. So, no, I do not think it is easier. What is easy is to become an American citizen, which my French husband did in a matter of minutes. All online and then a short interview with 6 questions which he answered correctly (at what age can you vote?, who is your Senator?, etc.) and bingo, he is in! No written English test, no obligatory civics classes. And he gets to choose any name he would like to be called as a brand new citizen.The French bureaucracy is WORSE than when I moved here in 1990 and I have seen absolutely no change in making ANYTHING easier.
Maybe you know something I don't. If so, please, oh please, tell me.
You raise several issues in your letter and I would like to address them separately.
Stating that it has become easier to get French nationality implies that the current procedure is being measured up against something in the past. So let's review this process throughout the years.
Right after WWII and for several decades, it was exceedingly simple to become French compared to today. The file required was close to non-existent and could reasonably be compared with the American procedure at the same time. The goodwill of the applicant was the essential thing and almost the only requirement granting nationality, provided the person had lived in the country for several years. On January 9th 1973, the first law restricting the right to French nationality was passed. It dealt with the citizens of former French colonies. Without going into great detail, we can note that from 1984 to 2012, seven further laws were passed, almost all making it more and more difficult to become French, mainly by adding requirements: expecting a better level of French, increasing the level of scrutiny in reviewing official papers, and so on. For example, in 1994 a civil servant decided that I was not French enough to pass my nationality on to my wife, even though I had served in the French army as an officer. My experience with the prefecture and my reading of statistics from the ministry and of the declaration made by our current prime minister, who was the previous interior minister, is that compared to the previous conservative government of Nicolas Sarkozy, more applications are now accepted and that therefore the requirements are not as strict. In short, there has been a small improvement in a decade which mainly saw the worsening of conditions.
Now, you describe quite well the way the procedure at the Paris prefecture is handled. Unlike other offices of the prefecture in Paris, where you meet the civil servants, this particular office makes it very difficult to contact anyone before the file has been reviewed, and since you sent a complete file, you now simply have to wait until they are done reviewing. In due time, you will get a letter either inviting you to an appointment or refusing your request. At this stage it is just 100% about paperwork. The system is designed that way and you are expected to adapt to it. I have never known of any administration doing it the other way around, adapting to people's wishes and desires.
The wait is about one year. During the interview that follows, a civil servant evaluates the applicant in comparison with a "supposed average French person." The truth is that expectations are clearly above the level of average. My experience indicates that the current interview in the USA for naturalization tends to be tougher and more selective than the French one, but any comparison is by nature subjective, depending on what is compared.
Allow me to turn around one of your comments. You state: "No written English test, no obligatory civics classes." I want to be extremely precise here: there is no obligation to take a written French test and there is no need to take a civics test, especially for the procedure you are involved in as the spouse of a French citizen. Such tests are offered, but for the opposite reason that you imagine. They come at the end of courses that are designed to help applicants reach the appropriate level, whether for French or civics, and therefore are seen as a help and not a way to make the process more difficult.
Regarding your last statement, we all hear vehement complaints about the French administration all the time. Foreigners are not the ones who complain the most, even though they are at a significant disadvantage, not knowing the French logic that sustains the French administration. I like to compare the French administration to a gigantic assembly line. If the initial file you present is perfect, the process may take time, but there is a striking efficiency in the way it works. This is even more visible now with the administration's use of computer access and electronic documents. However, administration cannot handle incomplete documentation efficiently. Nearly all the nightmare stories I know start with the applicant making an error of some sort, but I have seen many divisions of the French administration improving their services, thanks to the use of computers and websites.
IRENEWING A STILL VALID FRENCH CARTE NATIONALE D'IDENTITÉ
If I may make a comment regarding the renewal of the French CNI, I recently renewed my card at the Uzès mairie. I was able to do this only because my address had changed. If I had wanted to renew it simply because the date shown had expired, I was told, I would have had to write a letter to the prefecture in Nimes with my justification for requesting the renewal. Even though I reminded the clerk in Uzès that a seemingly expired card is not necessarily welcome or accepted everywhere, she stood her ground, provoking an impolite comment from me. I'm a dual US-French national too. ANYTHING easier.
Maybe you know something I don't. If so, please, oh please, tell me.
I agree with you that the transition in the CNI validity from ten to fifteen years has been very poorly managed by the French administration. I can think of other solutions that would have kept the public safe and secure while traveling as well as able to use the card in France. For instance, as is sometimes done for the " titre de séjour ", they could have put a sticker on the card indicating the change, stating that the card was still valid for five more years. Relying on everybody knowing because it was mentioned on the TV news is a very casual way of addressing the issue.
Now, the reaction of the civil servant at the Uzès prefecture office, located inside the city hall, could also be discussed at great length!
Please forward this message to all those who would be interested in its contents. The information contained in this newsletter is intended only as general information. I strongly urge readers to seek professional guidance concerning the legal and tax matters mentioned. This newsletter is intended as a general guide and is not to be taken as professional advice.