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Survival Home in Paris

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September 2014

« I’m a Long Way from Home » was composed by Hank Cochran and sung by Waylon Jennings on his third album, Nashville Rebel, released in 1966.It was also sung by Shooter Jennings, his son, in Walk the Line, James Mangold’s 2005 film about Johnny Cash’s early career, with Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. Everyone living in a foreign country, whether for a short or a very long time, deals with longing for home. First comes a craving for something very specific that is missed, often food. Over the years, such cravings often diminish but are replaced by memories and longing for the days when life felt simpler. The very notion of what is « home » can become very blurry, depending on the situation. Going back to work after a vacation means going back « home » to the « foreign » place, such as Paris, where one now lives. And the vacation itself may have meant going « back home » to where one grew up, which does not feel much like home anymore. The longing cannot be dismissed, since everyone needs to go back to their memories; immigrants just deal with an extra thick layer of it. Yet the successful immigrant must let go of all those sorts of cravings and get more involved in today’s life in the new country. This month’s column deals with what it is to be a successful immigrant: a poignant testimony, a statement of failure, a misconception of where home is, and the anguish of losing one’s new home and new life in France.

Walk the line while a long way from home – that could be every foreigner’s motto in life, especially in France while waiting in line!

Over the years I have helped many undocumented aliens get legal status in France. There is always an element of shame because of the illegal status and the constant fear that goes with it. There is also a feeling of being degraded because of the gap between what they were in their home country and what they become here, doing menial or less well-paid work, as well as the outcast status of being illegal. There is also a desire to get out of this situation: for some it is a realistic goal and they work at it day and night, making it their top priority in life; for others it is an unreachable dream that can only be obtained after so many years that it does not feel reasonable to seriously hope that it will ever come true.

French immigration law currently offers the possibility of having one’s status regularized after being in France for three, five or seven years for work, or after five or ten years on grounds of private and family life.

The legal requirements explain the vast diversity of cases, ranging from those who arrive in France, soon meet the conditions to be regularized; they build their file accordingly, and those who take years to even learn about regularization and its requirements, then take many more years to get settled and comply with the requirements for a given status. There are people who after fifteen years in France still cannot qualify, usually because they lack sufficient proof of living or working in France – the préfecture currently demands at least one document per quarter for every quarter of every year, plus proof of employment for all those years in sufficient hours to constitute the equivalent of full-time work.

So, yes, it takes either a very long time or a considerable amount of energy and an iron will to secure the appropriate living conditions, both personal (proof of French residence in the form of utility bills, bank statements, tax documents, health coverage and so on) and professional (pay slips, for starters).

I would like to share with you a statement from someone who managed to get legal status in a relatively short time, about five years. Between the lines one can read the pain and anger this person felt, once it was all done, thinking of those years. It is extremely rare to get such an account expressing such personal feelings, and I feel very honored to have received it:

I read your July issue and it seems that the foreigners [you write about] are mainly nannies, cleaning ladies, cashiers, etc. Are they the only ones you have helped? I find it disturbing that you categorize people who do not have legal status in France. Not everyone who is caught in this situation (no legal status) planned or expected it for themselves, but yes, you are right, most of us tried very hard to obtain legal status. It could take either a few years or ages to get it, depending on the person, whether it is their priority to be legalized. The waiting (fight) is very tormenting but having legal status is worth the wait (fighting for).

Do not forget that not all who are working with your category are non-professionals. They are professionals back in their own country but because of the opportunity of higher income abroad, they choose to work as such. Why is it mostly women working abroad rather than men? Because it is easier for women to find any kind of job.

These few paragraphs touch on so many issues:

1 – Nurses, engineers, accountants and the like from Asia and Africa, for example, (a majority of the people I help come from there) prefer working as undocumented aliens in a foreign country to trying to have a career in their country. This says a lot about the huge economic gap between the developing regions and the industrialized world. Extreme poverty in developing countries fuels illegal immigration, with the second cause being various forms of persecution.

2 – Then there is the impossibility of getting equivalent qualifications in France, which would help them get a better job once their expertise is recognized. When regularization does come, after so many years, most of those involved have given up on their careers or on using their diploma even now that they have immigration status to do it. The alternative – going back to school in France to obtain a French diploma so as to avoid the sort of low-paying jobs that they have done before getting their papers – is rarely chosen. Who has the courage, past the age of 40, to stop working and go back to school?

3 – The realization «  and of course the disappointment that goes along with it «  of finding out that having legal immigration status does not change their daily life much (including work), so that all their dreams of being happy once they are regularized turn to a sour taste and a deep source of frustration.

4 – Concerning the trend in which most immigrants from poor countries are women, I disagree with the idea that it is easier for women to find jobs as undocumented aliens. Clearly the nanny and cleaning lady positions are mainly held by women, but restaurant and construction jobs are held mainly by men, while the sweatshops are about 50-50. But I would identify two factors that make women immigrants different. First, they are often mothers, ready to make more extreme sacrifices than men for the sake of their children. Second, they believe they will have a better life because Western societies are generally much less conservative and patriarchal than those they are leaving behind.

I believe the combination of these two factors explains why so many women choose what I have termed the « Amazon » lifestyle. Sadly, once they reach the goal of becoming legal immigrants and can settle with their children, often brought to France through family reunification procedures, they are drained and exhausted, sometimes lacking the courage and energy to take care of themselves. The downside of self-sacrifice is that there is always something that has higher priority than themselves.

At the end of the day, where does one find the energy, money and desire to go to nursing school, after a couple of years of being legal, when working two jobs (within the limits of French labor law) and with a child starting college in France? The prospect must be especially demoralizing when one already has a nursing degree obtained in the home country 20 years ago.

Hi, Jean. A comment on the new law requiring the notaire to examine the accounts of the condominium as supplied by the syndic .

-We are in the process of selling our apartment and unbeknown to us the condominium decided to change syndic . The old syndic refuses to supply the paperwork to the new syndic and therefore our notaire can’t get the paperwork required. Our purchaser has been very patient but it is now month three with no result. The old syndic is talking about taking the condominium to court. As I have witnessed over many years of property ownership in France, the foreigner suffers while two or more parties fight it out in court. No common sense, no damages and no feeling for assisting any party with completing the transaction. This is another reason why we’ve decided to sell all our properties in France. It just becomes too hard and there is never any compensation for all the inconvenience, pain and suffering.

-There comes a point where all the history, glamour, intrigue, beauty, etc., doesn’t [offset problems with] quality of life. Whether it’s Australia, the UK or America, it makes a huge difference when you can send a meal back, without fear, when it’s not up to standard or in the case of, say, purchasing clothing you can return it because you just changed your mind. No questions asked. Real life example: bought a zip-up fleece from Au Vieux Campeur. Got home to find the zip broken. Returned, with receipt, to have it replaced. Instead of here’s a new one or money returned it was « we’ll send it back to the manufacturer. » We’re talking 35 euro. How does an attitude like this make living in France a pleasant experience? I’ve loved the place for years but everyday happiness has a value and sadly most French people don’t even realize that there are many other places in the world where these simple but everyday battles simply don’t exist.

-By way of background, I’ve bought and restored a farmhouse in the Sarthe, a Paris apartment and a village house in Provence. For many, many years we’ve enjoyed the country culture, people and countless other aspects of France. I’m a long-distance trekker and still do at least one 100-km trek every year, in France along with Italy, Germany, England and many of the other beautiful countries that make up Europe. Perhaps, now that I am in my 60s, I’m looking for a simpler and less complicated life. It just appears to me (research sample one!) that a lot of the charm, especially in Paris, has departed over the last 10-12 years. For the last 3 years I’ve been spending more time in a village in SE England where I detect that community spirit is still very strong. After 3 visits to the local pub you become Tony the Aussie and you are literally welcomed into their community. I never achieved this in rural France. People were friendly enough but under the surface we heard stories of petty jealousies, criticisms because we didn’t conform to ancient rituals, etc. If you can detect a sense of disappointment you would be correct. I love France very much but I find that staring from my terrace at the Luberon Mountains, although they are amazingly beautiful, doesn’t make for a complete life.

In response, I must point out that France is made of French people as much as it is made of landscapes and cities that have been shaped by French people. There is a point where one cannot state, « I love France but I do not like the French, » because it is an irreconcilable contradiction. I will not dispute your description, because you point out something that is true. The question is, what do you do about it?

Do you accept being left out of the life of your town and complain about people’s unwelcoming attitude? Do you ignore their attitude and go about your business? Do you make a point of getting involved in the life of your town and a militant attitude that, no matter what, you will be a cornerstone of the community’s life in due time?

Each person is different. My experience indicates that those who take the first approach do not stay very long in France, because being left outside wears one out very quickly. You have very well described what goes through the person’s mind in reaching the decision to leave.

The people taking the second or, especially, the third approach usually stay in France and love it. While it is quite true that French people are not friendly to foreigners who are newcomers in rural France, this is also true for French people moving to the country from the big cities. It is not discrimination against foreigners. The newcomer must make all the efforts, for countless years, to create the needed living space in the community and be accepted as someone who, even as an outsider, is involved in the community. While the outsider label never wears off, there comes a point where it simply does not matter.

This is how rural France and, until recently, French cities as well functions. It comes with the territory, so to speak. It is also true that France is still terrible at customer service, by the standards of English-speaking countries, but it has hugely improved over the years, and French merchants increasingly take a different approach to this issue, so that once in a while more often that most foreigners think you get much, much better quality service in France. The thing is that you cannot count on getting it. Customers in France have to adopt a more humble attitude instead of standing on their rights.

Here is a little illustration of what it can take to fit in. When we moved to the Paris apartment that we bought before our oldest child was born, my American wife wanted to host a housewarming party and asked me to invite the other people living in the building. I told her two things:

– In those days, it was unthinkable that all the residents of a building would come to such an event, as it would mean the owners of the large apartments on the lower floors who have to mingle with the people living in the maids rooms on the top floor.

– Since I am French, the other people in the building would consider it an inexcusable faux-pas for me to make this ridiculous invitation, and would not even consider coming.
My advice to her was that, because she was American and a foreigner, she and only she could approach these people one by one to invite them for an afternoon coffee or an aperitif. That is what she did, with a strong and long-lasting determination, and after several years she had managed to get nearly all of the neighbors to come to our place.

In short, if you are going to live in France, you need to do it the French way if you want to enjoy it. Yes, it feels weird and unnatural because you are not used to it, but the bottom line is that you are the only one who can change the situation.

My office will be closed from the end of Friday November 21st until 9AM on Wednesday December 3rd instead of the usual Christmas vacation. As always, I will be reachable by email for emergencies and important matters. The service I offer of receiving mail for clients will continue while the office is closed. I will let individual clients know how to receive or retrieve their mail during this period.

The income tax payment schedule in France has three notable dates each year: February 15th, May 15th and September 15th. The system is set up so that on each of these dates, people pay part of the total tax due, usually in three approximately equal installments. The first two payments are each equal to one-third of the taxes owed the previous year, since the tax collection agency, the Trésor Public, does not know the amount for the current payment year until it is notified by the Centre des Impôts, which receives the income declaration of the previous calendar year in the spring. There is a special office in the Parisian suburb of Créteil for residents of Paris. Last but not least, the income tax declaration requires information about your primary residence; you must state whether you are the owner, a tenant or a guest. Then there is a section to be filled out if you moved during the previous year or the current year. The fact that half a page is dedicated to the address shows how important this matter is to the tax office. Among other things, it enables the tax officials to levy an appropriate taxe d’habitation (local tax) in the autumn.

Best regards,


For my readers to understand your situation, I must explain what the carte vitale, is, what it contains and how the French health care system works.

Health coverage in France is offered or mandatory, depending on status, for everybody who lives in France, including illegal immigrants. The way most people get this coverage is through one or more members of the family working, with anyone else in the family covered as dependents. As in most such programs, one registers and then credits accrue in an account, and the coverage is linked to the amount of credit in the account. It is possible to use up all the rights to unemployment subsidies, after which the assurance maladie program switches the insured person to another program, called couverture médicale universelle. But once you are in the system, you stay in it unless you leave France and your file becomes dormant. So while it is possible that your carte vitale, does not have any information on it, you are still covered, that is certain.

To facilitate the way the system works, computer files and databases are gradually replacing paper documents. This is what the carte vitale, is all about. It looks like a French debit card, made of plastic with a computer chip. The chip contains information about your file and therefore your right to coverage. But way too many people do not realize that there is a need to update the information contained in this chip. Doctors, labs and other independent medical professionals have the simplest card reader, with a one-way connection from the professional to the central database. Drugstores have more sophisticated equipment and can update the carte vitale, chip with the most current information. But they cannot access the full file, especially if your professional situation has changed, when there is a need to completely reshape your account. The fact that your card did not work when your husband went to the drugstore probably meant that you had not used it for years at a drugstore, and so it had not been updated regularly that way. The information in it was so obsolete that it became the equivalent of a message saying « no coverage. » You just need to go to a center of the Caisse Primaire d’assurance Maladie (CPAM) near where you live and ask to have it fully updated.

As for why the hospital did not ask you anything and was able to handle the bill, public hospitals have always had a different connection, predating the carte vitale, so they have access to your complete file and can process the claim regardless of what the carte vitale says.

In the meantime, the pharmacist must have given your husband a feuille de soins the old-fashioned paper form to submit a claim and get reimbursed. You should fill it out, sign it and send it to your CPAM to get reimbursed. You can do this even before you update your card, since CPAM has your file and knows you are covered. It will take several weeks, or maybe even a couple of months, since it is now a very slow process.



I am an American who has been living in France for five years. I completed my master’s degree here and was granted a one-year autorisation provisoire de séjour (APS) a couple of months ago. I am starting to worry that I will not be able to find a full-time job before it expires. How long would I have to wait after the end of my APS to come back to France (as a student, for example) if I do not find a job before it runs out? I have done some research and found some stuff on the obligation de quitter le territoire français (OQTF), but nothing about when I would be eligible to come back to France. I was also wondering if leaving before the end of my APS would help my chances of being able to come back sooner (because it would mean I would not get the OQTF).


I believe you are looking at your situation in a negative way and could be wasting an excellent opportunity to stay and settle in France. It sounds like you are contemplating several decisions that would be detrimental to you. I would like to define and explain your situation so you can see the possible scenarios, even the worst ones.
An APS is a special immigration status for foreign students who hold a master’s or higher degree and wish to get a job in France. The request for this status must be submitted at least four months before the student carte de séjour expires, and after obtaining the master’s from a French-recognized school or authority. The best, most underrated feature of this status is that the Main d’Oeuvre Etrangère (MOE) office, part of the DIRECCTE authority, can no longer veto positions that pay one and a half times the SMIC (minimum wage). However, you have already chosen to obtain employee status, so it would be complicated to change your immigration option to another type of carte de séjour.

Here are the possible scenarios:

  • 1 – You find a job before the APS expires.Under new legislation, even if the file is submitted shortly before the APS expires, the préfecture can extend your legal status until the request review is completed.
    – If the answer from DIRECCTE/MOE is yes, the carte de séjour salarié is issued – If the answer is NO, you face the negative decision by the préfecture, called the OQTF. Nevertheless, it may be possible to file an appeal.
  • 2 – You do not find an employer in time.
    Once again, you have choices:
    – At least a month before the APS expires, you can submit a request to go back being a student, though this may not be accepted since it could appear to be a desperate measure to stay in France.
  • – Alternatively, you can submit a request for self-employed status, or the Compétences et Talents one, or even ask for a carte de séjour visiteur, if you qualify for any of those. In the latter case you would not have the right to work, but it would gives you time to rethink what you want to do.
  • – You can go back to the USA and ask for the immigration visa you have chosen.
  • Incidentally, you are making the OQTF sound like a much bigger deal than it is. An obligation de quitter le territoire français is nothing more than a negative answer from the préfecture. Once you leave France with the OQTF in hand and give it to the immigration police at the airport, the slate is wiped clean 100%. You can submit an immigration visa request the next day or next week. There is no negative stigma about an OQTF.

So the key issue is to decide soon what your goal is. I assume that it is to find the right job, and you want to give this job search a full chance. As a Plan B, you could get a student visa after the APS is over, making sure you are registered for the session starting in January, for example.

If you really want to go back to being a student and stop your job search, you should decide very soon what is your best chance of getting student immigration status quickly so as to submit the request in time to start classes; this kind of visa can take about a week to be issued.

One way or the other, you can be confident of maintaining legal status in France. I hope I have made it clear that at each step you have choices, which should be the most reassuring thing for you at this point.


Survival Home in Paris

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