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Survival Home in Paris

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November 2015

As I sit in my office on a Saturday evening, sending out this issue on the very day of Halloween and deciding on its title, I can only think of all the people celebrating tonight in disguise or costumes. “Master of Disguise” is a tune on Just Testing, the tenth studio album by the British rock band Wishbone Ash, released in 1980. I have been a fan of this lesser known British band since I was 19; it has often been seen as a precursor of metal rock  opening the way to Black Sabbath, for example.

Here are the lyrics:

I’m a master of disguise,
Mystery in your eyes,
Travelling the backroads of your country.
Well, you think you’ve got my number
And then again, you wonder
Will you ever get to find the real me.

Things are not always
As they first may seem
It’s like living in a dream.

So you’d like me to reveal
All that I know and feel
At the risk of causing panic and destruction.
Well, there’s a method to this madness.
I don’t mean to cause you sadness
My course is strictly governed by instruction.

Things are not always
As they first may seem
It’s like living in a dream.

I’m a master of disguise
Not about to compromise
My position in this scheme of worldly values.
Ah, they’re calling out my name.
I’ve promised to remain
Ever faithful to the memory of what is true.

Things are not always
As they first may seem
It’s like living in a dream.

Oh, I’m living in a dream,
I’m high, I’m high.
In the cold, cold night, I’m high.

Living as an expatriate, one can develop a cautious attitude, a fear that yet another bad thing will happen soon. It can reach the point on occasion where it feels like there is some kind of demonic figure plotting a series of adverse experiences, ruining one’s life.

One reason I chose this song is the poetic way the lyrics describe the rather unreal figure of the master of disguise. The unpleasant events that many expats experience can be explained one by one in a reasonable and rational way. When someone lives in his or her own country, such events are often explained with Murphy’s Law, the idea that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. For an expat, however, it often feels very personal, causing anger that he/she wants to direct towards someone  if only a shadowy”master of disguise” or chief conspirator, among many other possible epithets. Most of the topics addressed in this issue deal with this fear or impression of duplicity.

I have been hearing a lot of criticism of the latest legislation establishing rent control in some major French cities. But I would remind my readers that several American cities have strict rent control, which has existed for decades in some cases.

As Wikipedia explains (as of October 20, 2015): -Between 1919 and 1924, a number of cities and states adopted rent and eviction control laws. Modern rent controls were first adopted in response to WWII-era shortages, or following Richard Nixon’s 1971 wage and price controls. They remain in effect or have been reintroduced in some cities with large tenant populations, such as New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Oakland, California. Many smaller communities also have rent control, notably the California cities of Santa Monica, Berkeley and West Hollywood, along with many small towns in New Jersey. In recent years, rent control in some cities, such as Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been ended.-

I feel that I needed to start with this because I have often heard French people complaining that rent control is a liberal measure, a stupid regulation, out of touch with the reality of the real estate market and something that would never exist in the USA.

I would also remind my readers that the only time previously that France had a similar regulation was in 1948, when the country was just coming out of the war and there was not much lodging available. So whether this kind of policy is a good thing or not, let’s be clear about the record: parts of the USA have had rent control legislation longer than France has and that affect a much larger portion of the population.

As is often the case, the attempt to make sure that legislation is fair results in French law being difficult to understand and even harder to implement. But, to keep it short and simple, here is what the law amounts to: a landlord cannot charge more than 20% above what the government considers to be the normal market price, although I will not attempt to explain how this amount is calculated nor who is supposed to do the calculation.

That being said, one rule of thumb is especially true regarding Paris: the smaller the apartment, the higher the rent in terms of euros per square meter. One reason for this is supply and demand: The trend is for families to move to the suburbs when they have children  sometimes even with the birth of the first one. Thus, in the market for family-size apartments with four or five bedrooms  which are large apartments by Paris standards  there is less imbalance between supply and demand. In contrast, maid’s rooms, studios and one-bedroom apartments are in high demand because there are always a lot more candidates wanting to rent than there are apartments of that size available.

  • There were a couple of other changes in favor of tenants in the law:
  • The notice period to leave the rental place is now one month for all leases, even those signed before the law began to be enforced.

The security deposit must now be reimbursed within one month. This is to help the mobility of the tenant when it is time to move.

The upshot is that the market is such that it is now even more difficult to rent in the affected cities, especially Paris, where landlords and agencies are demanding guarantees that most people cannot meet. A tenant’s take-home pay is expected to be, ideally, four times the amount of rent plus charges. But it is very difficult to find a decent 30-square-meter apartment for less than 1,000 euros a month, which means a net salary of 4,000 euros a month. But the average French monthly salary is 2,128 euros.

For further details (in French), see

There are still several issues with this fiscal status. Most people perceive it as a legal status for people working as independent contractors, but in fact the legal statuses for such contractors are:
Merchant = commerçant
Craftsperson = artisan
Professional = profession libérale

I would like to focus on just one issue, which results from a very typical French approach. It starts with the state checking for compliance with the law and assumes that the authorities need to check on people, that they cannot be assumed to take care of themselves. One needs to follow this logic to understand what is at stake here.

Everybody now agrees that the auto-entrepreneur status does not at all do what it was intended to do; for years, various governments have wanted to change it so it better reflects reality.

The initial auto-entrepreneur concept stemmed from Nicolas Sarkozy’s promise during the 2007 presidential campaign that people would be able to “work more to make more money”. The idea was that employees should have the right to work legally on the side on their own behalf as self-employed people.

But people registering for auto-entrepreneur status have never been asked whether they are employed, so from the beginning a lot of unemployed people signed on to the program, hoping to get some small jobs this way. Unfortunately, even today French society is somewhat negative about independent workers, so few people are ever taught business skills, unlike in the USA and some other countries.

URSSAF is now convinced, and rightfully so, that a large number of people registered as auto-entrepreneur should in reality be employees of their clients, even though there may be more than one employer. What defines employee status under French law is the subordination of the employee to the employer (le lien de subordination du salarié envers l’employeur).

In a first case of its type (but I doubt it will be the last one), the Brittany branch of URSSAF is openly stating that it is auditing all auto-entrepreneur to determine whether in fact they should be employees. What the office is discovering is that city halls are among those abusing the system  even the local French administration is cheating on this issue.

If you run a legitimate business and you choose this fiscal status, rather than a more traditional one, for all the benefits it offers, then you should know it is quite probable that you will be audited. Therefore, you must keep your records totally clean. Even though there is no obligation to keep detailed accounting, there is a legal obligation to document your sales with a receipt or an invoice, as well as your professional spending, in case you go above the limit. You should also keep any contracts (which is obvious) or exchange of emails showing the terms of the business agreement. This is the most important, since it is what the inspectors are after.

Now, interestingly enough, this audit campaign has created such an uproar and has so disorganized activities held in schools (which is what most towns were hiring auto-entrepreneur for) that the government may decide to stop the auditing and let the corrupted system continue, as it helps local governments function despite insufficient funding of extra-curricular activities. I will keep you posted.

For more on this issue (in French), see

Since my work includes helping foreigners who lack immigration status in France to obtain the right to be here legally, I meet people who have been refused asylum but have stayed in France, and some who are still undergoing refugee proceedings. Consequently many people have asked me recently about my position on the current crisis and its consequences for France.

My first comment is that, just in the last century or so, France has had many waves of immigration and absorbed them all, sooner rather than later; with each new wave previous immigrants were seen as integrated in French society:

  • 1. The first wave in modern times came from Poland and started in the late 19th century. By the time it ended in 1931, some 500,000 people had immigrated to France.
  • 2. The second one came during the winter of 1938-39, when in just a few weeks about 500,000 Spanish people came to France at the end of the Spanish Civil War.
  • 3. The third wave occurred right after WWII; between 1945 and 1970, 1.8 million Italians came to France. It was the third wave of Italian immigration and the biggest by far.
  • 4. The fourth one lasted about fifteen years, from 1958 to 1975, when 730,000 Portuguese came to France.

5. The fifth wave was from Algeria. Since 1830, when France colonized much of North Africa, the Algerian population had been French and there had always been some emigration to metropolitan France; in fact, the Great Mosque in Paris was built in 1926 for the Algerian community. But a massive wave started when Algerian independence was declared in 1962. By the time it ended in 1982, the Algerian population of France had grown from 350,000 to 800,000.

I could continue with more recent ones, but today’s world is such that immigration to France now has several origins and tends to be more ongoing.

The arrival of 24,000 Syrians in France may be a wave, but only a small one compared to what I have just described. Those who say the French economy is bad and cannot handle that many should recall the half-million Spanish people arriving during the French Great Depression.

I do not underestimate the difficulties generated by this latest wave, nor its immediate consequences for both the people who already live in France and the newcomers themselves. For one thing, some offices at the Paris Prefecture already have a backlog, and the part of the prefecture dealing with foreigners could be quite clogged in two years or even sooner. The current ratio of success for those seeking refugee status is about 20% initially and 38% after appeal to the Cour nationale du droit d’asile. While the French government has stated that people will be much better treated in the current crisis, I strongly doubt they will all obtain legal status in France. I am pretty sure that less than half will be successful  but this would nevertheless be a significant improvement. That is why I expect a serious surge in the prefecture’s workload once these people complete the refugee procedure and start to comply with the regularization guidelines.

In short, I do not see major problems caused by integrating the latest groups over a reasonable period, about five years, though there will be complications for a lot of people along the way.

I have finally gotten into the swing of things, and I now have a functioning paypal account. As it is becoming increasingly difficult to wire money both from American and French banks through their websites when you are out of the country, PayPal will be a reasonable alternative.

My ID with them is my email address:

Best regards,


As is often the case, there is the law and there is what you can get away with. The law itself is contradictory, which is quite common in France. While it is legal not to carry an ID document, a police officer has the right to ask the individual to prove his or her identity with an ID document. So in effect the legal answer is that you must be able to prove your identity and therefore have the original with you at all times, despite the risk of being robbed again.

However, I would like to look more deeply at this situation, for two reasons:

1 – The police have complete access to the prefecture database and therefore can quite easily check the accuracy of information on a photocopy. If it is, then they have done the check they would have had to do anyway, even with the original. There is here no negative consequence for not having your original on you.

2 – In any case, where you absolutely must provide the original, by law you are given four hours to bring the document, by any means – which includes someone else taking it to the police. I have never heard of such a situation, however, so I doubt this would ever happen as I have described it. Considering the potential risk linked to some bad-faith attitudes on the part of some French police officers, I would question if it would be worth it to go through the full verification procedure, having to stay at the police station for up to four hours or running the risk of the police saying they cannot find a record of your file at the prefecture.

Still, given the special attitude of the French police towards American citizens, I would say you should not have a problem with the police if you show a copy of your French ID.



I am American and I have been living in France for six years. Last week I submitted my request for a wedding ceremony at our local city hall. The first time I came to France I was 20. Hoping that I would be moving here, I thought about changing my first name to one that sounded good pronounced in French because I didn’t like how my birth name was pronounced with a French accent and changing it would make it easier living in France. When back in California, while renewing my CA driver’s license, I decided to change my first name to the name I had in mind. After that, all my legal documents were made using my new French first name, including my US passport, my Social Security card, my university diplomas, etc.

Needless to say the French local city hall was not happy with the discrepancy between the first name on my birth certificate and the one on my passport. They told me that the file was incomplete. They wanted me to bring them a document from the American Embassy in Paris. So I had a sworn statement notarized declaring that these two names represent the same person.

That document was enough for the local city hall to accept that the two names refer to the same person, but little did I know that they would say they would only marry me under the name on my birth certificate and not my legal name that I have been using in the USA and in France for over 25 years.

To avoid having to go to the US for a formal court-ordered name change only to rectify my birth certificate, we were hoping there was some law that would give priority to the name that is on all my legal documents (including US passport) and that the local city hall would have to let me get married in what has been considered my legal name for years.

It seemed like they were just being stubborn without a real LAW behind their conviction that I would have to use the birth name. I will be going to ask the prefecture in person this week to ask about what to do regarding the renewal of my immigration ID card if my livret de famille does not bear the same name as my carte de séjour.

Have you ever heard of a situation like this one? I am a Paris resident so even getting my name changed in CA might not be possible since CA law requires you to be a CA resident to do a name change there but I do not think I can get a name change in Paris.


In France, giving a name, whether the first or last name, has been extremely regulated. Despite recent changes that have loosened up the rules, individuals living in France have very limited rights to change their name. Therefore problems arising from a change or the usage of the last or first name are very common and I often deal with them for exactly the reason you have explained: the French administration eventually finds out that your birth name is different from the one you are using now.

French law is still terribly strict about name changes. The rule is extremely simple: you are born with a name and you will die with the same name. It is just plain illegal to change something about your legal name unless you have a court order allowing it. Such orders are very rare, since French courts want very strong reasons to accept the change.

Even today France controls which first and last name can be given at birth. It used to be that if the first name was not mentioned on the Christian calendar hanging in registry office, it would be refused, and the last name had to be that of father unless the child was born out of wedlock of an unknown father. Today the law is considerably more liberal, but continues to put strict limits on this choice. The last name can be either the father’s or the mother’s name, or both together, hyphenated. The first name must be in the best interest of the child. The main obvious change is that foreign names are now widely accepted, so for example American parents can give their child a typical American first name.

For centuries the law has accepted that the wife can use her spouse’s name, either by changing her last name or by adding her husband’s with a hyphen. This is only a right to use the name, not the ownership of it. Now the husband can do the same thing with the wife’s last name.

The person who has acquired this right of usage must prove that he/she has maintained it, usually by producing a marriage license. This is a critical issue in case of divorce. The wife needs to ask the court to be allowed to keep the right to use her married name; this is not automatic. Often the court refuses, claiming the arguments submitted are not strong enough.

To get back to your situation, the legal assumption is that your birth name is the only name you have the right to use in France. If you are using a different one, and you are not married or divorced, it is considered fraud unless you can prove you obtained the right to change your name. According to French law, there must be a court order, translated into French by an official translator, allowing the change of name. You have stated that you do not have this.

You have already taken the first step you needed to take, which was to get an officialdéclaration de concordance at the American Embassy. This proves that the American authorities accept your use of the name and therefore it is legal for you to use it. This is a step in the right direction, as it proves that no fraud was committed.

There is a further issue, however, which is that two totally different levels of rights are involved here. The first is whether you have the right to use the name, which is not your birth name. You have supplied proof of that. But the second is whether you procured the right to change your legal name.

This is where the problem lies, and it will be very difficult to fix, since according to French law you cannot prove that you have this second right and I do not see any argument you can make to the French court that you need to legally change your name.

I hope it is clear by now that the words “legal name” do not mean the same thing in France and the USA, so be careful. You are right that the local city hall plans to apply the law in its strictest interpretation and therefore you will be married with your birth name unless you can get a document that grants you the right to legally change your name. You are right that you cannot do it in California since you do not reside there, and I cannot see a French court issuing a favorable ruling since your request would not involve a first name that is ridiculous or offensive in France. I am sorry to state that I cannot see any way out of this situation following this line of action.

Also you are absolutely right that there will be a serious issue coming soon with the prefecture, but probably not for the reason you have raised. For some reason, when you first arrived in France with your visa, you did not show a birth certificate or the civil servant did not pay attention. This is very rare, but it can happen, mainly with the student immigration status; therefore I will assume that this is your current immigration status.

Now, to obtain the vie privée et familiale immigration status, you will go to a different office, located in the headquarters of the prefecture. I am sure you will be asked to bring all kind of documents, both for yourself and your French husband, as he will be by then. His birth certificate must show the marriage in the margin, and the same name is supposed to appear there as on the French marriage license and on your passport and past carte de séjour.

You are in for a very unhappy time at the prefecture. Expect several appointments before they decide what to do with your request. Chances are the prefecture will change its file and put the birth name instead of your American passport one. Your only way out of this which will involve going through hell for months is to look a lot more carefully into officially changing your name, either with the help of the American Embassy or somehow in the USA, so that you can straighten out this issue to your satisfaction. After all, you have used this name for many years, and you have an obvious reason to keep it. But do not expect the French administration at any level to bend in your favor with the documents you currently have.

I would then advise you to take the following to city hall:
this “déclaration de concordance” from the embassy, which if it is not written in French will need to be officially translated

  • your current passport
  • your driver’s license
  • your old carte de séjour and visa

and ideally, let’s be hopeful that you can bring a specific document from the American embassy stating that as far as the USA is concerned this is your legal name; this is currently the missing document. I have no idea if you can get something like this from your embassy. Indeed, unless the American Embassy comes through, I cannot see how you will be able to marry under anything but your birth name.


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