First Visit to Paris: Arc de Triomphe

I sometimes share with people that I moved to Paris on eight total days of evidence: three days in 2009, two days in 2010, and three days in 2012.  It wasn’t until the third trip that I had any truly developed idea of possibly ever living in this city, and was thus, on the previous trips, engaged in the typical “see all the things” behavior of the tourist afraid he/she is never coming back.  But since living here I’ve been asked countless times for my recommendations, not just for monuments and museums, but for restaurants, secret places, coffee shops, etc.  I’ve written down all these places on a list that I would have handed to Stephen back in 2009 with a note at the top which would have read: “I can’t promise you two more visits, but I can promise you that you’ll remember this one a lot more if you slow down.”  In this occasional series I’ll share the places on that list with you.

The Arc de Triomphe

Yes, I know it’s touristy.  But it’s important for so many reasons.  It lies along something called the Axis of History, which runs from the Grande Arche de la Defense, built in 1989 for the bicentennial of the wretched Revolution, all the way to the Arch de la Carrousel, which was also built by Napoleon, but is topped by statuary commemorating the Bourbon Restoration.  This axis, which also runs through the formerly blood-ridden square at Place de la Concorde and ends at the Pyramid in front of the Louvre, encapsulates centuries of French history.  On a clear day, as long as that terrible ferris wheel is not at the entrance of the Tuileries, you can easily see all the way to the Arc de Triomphe from the Louvre-side entrance to the gardens.

The Arc(h), built to handle the monumental hubris and ego of Napoleon, himself being crowned in one of the reliefs on its front side, was not completed in his lifetime.  Indeed, it was only completed under the reign of Louis Philippe.  Anyone familiar with Napoleon can’t help but smile at the idea of a giant monument to what is arguably the greatest military victory of all time (Austerlitz, in 1805) being completed decades after the “empire” declared by Napoleon was gone and defeated.  Indeed, for a while at least, thanks to the Congress of Vienna and Count Metternich, Europe was as it was, with no marauding French armies bringing “democracy” at the point of a bayonet to all of Europe.

The Arc became a military monument and it now has the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath it.  It is Ground Zero for Armistice Day celebrations, held on November 11th with great pomp and solemnity (arrive early in the morning if you want a seat on the bleachers).  Americans who never experienced Nazi invasion of our land will find it hard to imagine those same Nazis marching around this monument, celebrating the surrender of the city, to the despair of the residents, who did not know when they would have a free city once again.

It’s also a great vantage point to observe Hausmannian architecture and the extent of the bulldozing that had to take place in order to bring about Napoleon III’s vision of Paris.  The twelve roads that terminate in this roundabout of Chevy Chase’s nightmares create a graceful chaos, and will provide you with an opportunity to see one of the rare times that incoming traffic to a roundabout has the right of way.

It’s definitely worth it to pay to go to the top of the Arc, not because it has the best view of Paris (that’s at the top of the Montparnasse Tower) but because there’s a small but helpful museum before you walk up the last few stairs to the terrace that documents the building and history of the Arc.

Practical Information

It’s best seen early in the morning when you can have it to yourself, before all the selfie sticks show up.  You access it by subterranean tunnel which you’ll find just a few steps forward from the Qatari embassy on the Champs.  If you see a line in that tunnel, it’s to buy tickets to go to the top, so if you don’t intend to do that, just follow alongside the line until it goes towards a ticket booth on the left and you continue on, on their right, and ascend the steps to street level.

It’s just as lovely, graceful, and imposing at night as in the evening, and at 18h30 every evening the flame is rekindled by one of the many Veterans Associations in France, and it’s worth seeing if you’ve never done so.

If you’re staying on the other side of the city, but near an RER A stop, you can turbo boost your way to the Etoile stop in roughly 5-10 minutes using it instead of Line 1.  Same cost, different method.

What are your favorite things about this monument?  Share in the comments.

Image by Anton Lovász from Pixabay

Notre Dame

I was in a train back into Paris from Frankfurt when the news started to trickle in about our disaster here in Paris.  We’ve had various shocks during the time I’ve lived here, whether it was terrorist attacks in years past or yellow-vested “protestors” in more recent months, but this was of another kind entirely.

Friends who were there as it burned told me they stood in a sea of dismayed silence.  What could lay bare the thoughts of so many hearts at that moment?  The President referred to the idea that part of “us” had burned that night.

There’s been plenty of ink spilled on what should be done with the now more than €1B pledged for Notre Dame, the symbolism of such an overtly Catholic building being destroyed in what is purportedly a secular country, and the growing suspicions regarding the origins of the fire.  But I’ll leave those matters to those with more breath than I have at the moment.

For me, more than anything, this was a lesson in losing the things you take for granted.  Just two weeks earlier, I took a friend inside to explain the genius of gothic engineering and architecture and to bask in the stunning beauty of those (still intact) rose windows.  I felt what I’d always felt since I first stepped foot inside the church in 2009: I’ll always have you.  But that’s not true.  We are not promised tomorrow.  Even centuries-old buildings made of stone are not promised tomorrow.

When you have an opportunity, take it.  If there’s a place in your locality that you’ve been meaning to see, go.  You have no guarantee that it will be there for you, or that you will have the health to see it in the future.  If you do take these opportunities, you’ll create lasting memories which thieves cannot steal, moths cannot eat, and fire cannot burn.

I took the photo in November 2015, on one of those nights that the light, the sky, and the night were perfect.

Pinch Me

There are hundreds of postcards I’ve made of Paris in my mind.  I’ll stop, clear my head of whatever I was thinking of, and be truly and appreciatively, in the moment.

A soft sunset on Ile de la Cite seen from the Pont des Arts.

Sunshine down a narrow medieval street in the Marais.

Birdsong in the trees of Buttes-Chaumont.

This is my sixth year in Paris and I’ll still be caught randomly in moments of disbelief: “Do I really live here, here in Paris?”  As humans we have a remarkable ability to adjust to circumstances and take what was once all-consuming and relegate it to background noise.  Part of this is helpful – it can help you change the Metro three times without really looking where you’re going, because you’re avidly listening to an audiobook or occasionally walk-reading with a dead-tree book.  Part of this is harmful – we can fail to look up and see those beautiful moments that are just waiting for us if we aren’t living by our smartphones.

I was waiting for some friends last weekend outside a Senegalese restaurant in the 11th.  A couple friends had arrived early and we chatted and people watched.  I noticed a girl taking a photo of…my eyes followed the trajectory of her phone to a second floor window where a cat, paws imperiously perched on the window sill, calmly surveyed the street below.  The girl snapped the picture, laughingly looking around her to see if anyone else had seen the moment of feline curiosity.  Our eyes met and my smile acknowledged the joint secret.  We then turned back to the window where the cat had briefly retired only to once again emerge, missing only a cigarette dangling from its mouth to mark him (or her?) out as the casual Saturday evening street-watcher in the neighborhood.

Something else which slowly, then suddenly happens is the march of French into your ear.  As my French skills have progressed, what used to be background noise – the French slowly and quickly spoken around me – is now contending with my own thoughts.  The casual confessions in the metro, the heated disagreements in the street, the chatter in cafes.  I never feel like an eavesdropper in my native language, but when I’m in an English-speaking country, I feel like everyone is talking all the time because I don’t have to pay attention in order to understand English.  But as my French gets better, the volume around me is turning up.  Often times I’ll surreptitiously write down a word or expression I haven’t heard in order to look it up later.

For non-EU citizens, immigration occupies such an unreasonable portion of our mental real estate in the early years of living here that we sometimes miss the special elements of the city we are fighting to stay in.  One of the biggest benefits of a four-year card is the disappearance of the immigration question from your mind entirely.  That frees up room for all those moments that you’ll still need to fight to appreciate, not allowing yourself to take this dream city for granted.

Photo taken by me on a not-crowded day at Buttes Chaumont, which will be less and less attainable as the weather warms up. 🙂

Auto-Entrepreneur: A tax classification, not a visa status

On more than one occasion I’ve gotten emails from people who use “auto entrepreneur” and “profession liberale” interchangeably.  They aren’t interchangeable, and more importantly for readers of this blog, auto entrepreneur is not a visa status.  It’s a tax classification, and not necessarily a desirable one at that.

How did it start?

In 2009 President Sarkozy created “auto entrepreneur” as a simple way for French people (and foreign nationals) to start small businesses.  With a ceiling of 32,900€/year of topline revenue, it was seen as a liberalizing measure, without committing to full Anglo-Saxon soul destruction.  You would pay your social charges “as you go” which meant if you had no sales, there were no charges, and if you went two years without earning anything, you  would simply automatically lose the classification, with no penalty. This allowed holders of the status to try starting a small business “risk free” in tax terms, and potentially add on an additional stream of revenue without onerous accounting burdens.

The regime is actually now called “micro entrepreneur” and you are said to be running a “micro enterprise” if you use this tax classification.  In American terms this is a sole proprietorship, meaning you have unlimited legal liability should problems result.

Confusion

There’s a lot of bad advice on the internet and so on more than one occasion people have registered for auto-entrepreneur while on Visitor visas, thinking that they had found a legal way to work in France, not realizing that the regime that allows you to register and get a SIRET (what Americans know as an EIN – employer identification number) isn’t connected with OFII so they aren’t equipped to validate whether you’re eligible to register.  You just have to supply some basic info and then you can get a number.  But this has led to tears on more than one occasion when someone showed up to renew their visitor visa with auto-entrepreneur earnings on their bank statements and a SIRET they shouldn’t have had.  Visa renewal denied, eligibility to live in France ended, and the process of living in France had to begin all over again, back in their home countries.

Furthermore, President Macron raised the limit that micro-enterprises could earn to 70,000€, but most people don’t know that the minute you go over 33,100€ you are subject to VAT (as I outlined here), no matter what your tax classification is.  Goodbye simple accounting, hello nightmare exchanges with URSSAF and the Department of Finance.

So…

So, if you want to have a business in France, make sure you have the correct visa for it, or that your CDI allows for it.  For some foreigners here on a salarie work visa, their contract specifically prohibits their starting a business under the micro-entrepreneur classification.  If you’re here as a Visitor, you are ineligible to apply for this classification.  I know that there’s nothing on the internet that seems to say this, but it’s just a simple fact: if you don’t have a visa allowing you to work, going to a website and clicking a few buttons isn’t a magical fix.  This relates back to something I’ve said before: no one from French immigration ever tells you that as a visitor you have to file taxes in France even though you aren’t paying taxes in France.  Remember, in immigration in general and in France in particular, if it seems too good to be true, it is.  Always double and triple check before you make a major decision regarding these issues.

If you want to start a small business in France, profession liberale remains the simplest route, with many options to change it if your business becomes really successful, and zero requirement to register as a micro entrepreneur at any stage whatsoever.

Photo by slon_dot_pics from Pexels

How to get the Profession Liberale Visa (the basics)

Very often I’ve gotten an email starting with, “…there seems to be no information at all online about the Profession Liberale visa.”  It’s true.  For whatever reason, there’s not too much information about it.  So this article will be a small corrective to that problem.  Unlike Visitor status, in which the requirements are straightforward and you have to really mess up in order not to get or renew it, Profession Liberale (hereafter PL) is a bit vaguer, and more importantly, as I’ve stated before, requires you to start a business.  Don’t take that part of it lightly.  If you’re looking for an easy way to stay in France, choose Visitor status.  There’s nothing simpler for the wide public.

Begin at the Beginning

All French immigration dossiers have an order to them.  PL starts with your cover letter.  It will be written in the language of the country you are applying from.  If you are applying from the US, it will be in English, and if you are applying from here, it will be in French.  It does not have to be long.  Mine was about 1000 words and a full 3 pages.  You’re explaining to them why you want to be in France and what your business plan is.  What are your qualifications to pull that off?  What are your financial projections?  You’re not pitching to an investor, but your narrative needs to be that this is a serious endeavor on your part, that you have the ability and skills to execute well, and that your projections are reasonable and not wildly optimistic.  Remember that you cannot apply for PL from Visitor if you have not renewed your Visitor status at least once.  

Evidence

I often tell people that “trust, but verify” is the fundamental principle of presenting your visa applications in France.  The French are happy to take you at your word…as long as you have paperwork to back up your assertion.  Your cover letter is going to be accompanied by your evidence.  Been published in print or on the web in the field you are entering into in France?  Include that.  Have a degree (the French are obsessed with certifications and degrees whereas we silly Anglo-Saxons look to your work history) in the field?  Have a certified copy of your diploma, and if it’s not in French and you are applying in France, have an official translation of it.  Have a French style resume, which is a “CV” here?  Have that also, in the proper language for your application.  There are other things you should include as well, but remember the principle: you’re simply “proving” everything you asserted in your cover letter.

The rest of your dossier is full of the standard things required in a residence visa – lease, health insurance, etc.  PL is a right to live and right to work visa so the cover letter and evidence only covers your right to work.  You still need to give them all the assurances that you know what you’re doing in terms of accommodations and aren’t just showing up here with hope as a strategy for finding lodgings.

Not Done Yet…

If and when you do get the PL visa, you still need to actually make money.  Again, there’s not clear evidence on what threshold you need to reach in your first year, but it seems that if you can take in at least 15,000€ of topline revenue in your first 12 months, you will get renewed, and not just for another year, but for four years.

I hope that gives a bit of information to fill in the gap left by the French government on this visa status, and good luck with your application should you decide to go down this path.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Which Long Term Visa to pursue: Visitor or Profession Liberale?

Often when people schedule a consultation with me about the profession liberale visa, they do so convinced that this is the right path for them, but on more than one occasion, after asking the right questions, I’ve helped them understand that what they should probably do is obtain (or renew) a visitor visa instead.  This original misapprehension is due in part to an unclear understanding of immigration and the visa process in general, and other times its due to a lack of clarity as to the why and how of the client’s projected time and future in France.  So this article is a hopeful corrective to the confusion about which visa to get.

In brief, I characterize “visitor” status as easy, option-oriented, but repetitive, and “profession liberale” status as all-in, with a path to citizenship, but challenging, as it involves starting an actual business.

Visitor

People consider it a “hassle” to show up once a year with a predictable and easy list of paperwork so that you can continue to legally live in a country in which you have no citizenship.  But it’s not a hassle.  It’s pretty easy once you get used to it, and it becomes something seasonal, like putting up Christmas decorations.  It’s a chore, but you’re so happy when it’s done.

Visitor status does not provide a path to citizenship.

Visitor status requires you to file taxes, even though your visa status ensures you won’t be paying taxes.

Visitor status gives you access to the EU, as you are a French resident.  Technically you should be in France the majority of the calendar year, but the French have no real way to verify this, and don’t really care, as long as you fulfill your legal requirements.  I know of someone who lives in Malta most of the year, but for some reason has chosen to have French visitor status and flies in for his prefecture appointments.

Visitor status allows you, after the first renewal, to switch to another visa, at any time.  You’re not stuck with this status forever.  If at any point you want to wind things up, simply leave France.  No additional paperwork required: you’ll just expire out of the system.

Profession Liberale

Profession Liberale status (not to be confused with “autoentrepreneur,” which is a tax classification, not an immigration status) was a dream fit for me for a number of reasons: I’m a veteran business owner, I want French citizenship, and I wanted the possibility of a multi-year card.

People get very interested in this visa status because of the citizenship path but ignore or downplay that you have to start and validate a business.  This means you will enroll in a number of French agencies that will continue to bill you forever. This includes your social charges, health care charges, and your pension, to say nothing of taxes.  Visitor status is just about obtaining the right to live in France, whereas Profession Liberale is about living AND working, and the paperwork is correspondingly more onerous, both in application, verification, and renewal.

If at any point you decide this (by “this” I mean France or running a business) isn’t for you, you’ll need to close your business, close down your bank account, and de-register at all the agencies you are registered at, which otherwise will continue to bill or charge you indefinitely.  It also means that your visa will expire at the end of your current term.  In that sense, it’s not as traumatic as a traditional work visa, in which you lose your residency rights within 60 days of losing your job, but it does mean that unlike a Visitor visa, a Profession Liberale visa is connected with something other than your simple will and desire to live in France: it relies on your ability to maintain and keep a business, which is an entirely different set of skills from obtaining a basic visa or having a “regular job.”

Now, if you already have a successful or growing business/freelance career, you would simply start billing your clients through your French entity and such pressures are obviated.  Otherwise, if you are starting a business from scratch, you add the pressure of business startup to an immigration visa.

Whatever visa you decide to pursue, remember to banish panic and fear and replace it with knowledge and calm.  This process is only as scary as you let it be.

Yes, you should get a French bank account

A friend recently wrote an account of her experience getting a bank account in France and it reminded me to do an update of my various thoughts on this topic beyond my first time getting a personal account, a business account, and the legislation which is the reason for difficulties Americans face on this front: FATCA.  The most important reason to get a French account is that it’s the only way you may hit a snag on your renewal.  Not having a French account signals a lack of integration into society.  You may be able to squeak by with something else, which readers have received inconsistent results with, so the advice I give is to do what definitely works, not “let’s try this.”  Hope is not a strategy, and certainly a poor idea when it comes to renewing visas in France.

While major French banks are understandably reluctant to give a US citizen a bank account because of the high cost of compliance with FATCA, if you hold a residence card (whether a sticker in your passport or the hard card in your wallet), you can, respectfully and calmly, demand a bank account as a right.  Yes, there are low-cost online banks that have no branches, like Boursorama, that will eject you from the application process the minute they find out you are a US citizen (trust me, I tried).

My recommendations, based on personal experience, are BNP Paribas and Societe Generale, in that order.  They both have excellent online banking in the form of web access and brilliant native apps for your smart phones.  My counselors have always been available when I’ve needed help and my cards consistently work in countries all over the world, often offering an extra layer of security by needing me to verify purchases over a certain amount via entering my password on the app on my phone.

What I’ve been told secondhand by readers is that both LCL and HSBC are also willing to grant accounts to US citizens, and feel free to pitch your bank of choice in the comments below.

When you stop in at a bank you’ll almost always be making an appointment for a future date, as the bankers are often booked some time in advance.  If you don’t feel comfortable speaking the entire time in French, make sure to ask for someone who does speak English, and many of the staff do.  They will often provide you with a list of what to bring, which will include, but not be limited to:

  • Passport
  • Carte de Sejour (1st year visa holders – this is the sticker in your passport, everyone else – it’s the hard card)
  • EDF or ADH and/or lease
  • Proof of income
  • Most Recent Tax Filings – both US and French

and expect to pay around 15-20€ a month for even a basic checking account.  It’s part of the deal.

They also won’t let you pick your PIN, but I’ve found this to be a smart policy, because it doesn’t allow a thief who correctly guesses one pin access to all your cards, which Americas tend to use the same PIN for.

An intermediate step in the right direction, if you want to be able to easily transfer in Euros, pay your rent, etc., is a free Borderless Account from Transferwise that allows you to hold multiple currencies with no monthly rate and even includes a free contactless debit card.  But it is not clear to me that statements from a Borderless Account will pass muster with French immigration and no reader has yet let me know that such a strategy works.  The euro-denominated account in the Borderless Account is based in Germany.  I absolutely love Transferwise and use it for other transactions outside of my personal and business ones, which I use my French accounts for.

To rent or to own?

The most important fact to begin this discussion – which is directed at those who wish to live in Paris, not those who wish to buy rental properties in Paris – is that the current interest rates for fixed mortgages is between 2-3%.  When interest rates are so low, buying becomes attractive, even in Paris.  Add in the fact that tenants of properties have right of first refusal on a property to be sold and buying becomes easier.  But attractive and easy does not necessarily equal simple.  There are a few things to keep in mind.

Selection

I would not recommend buying in a neighborhood that you have never lived in.  With Airbnb and other such options, you have the ability, like never before, to stay some weeks in a neighborhood or arrondissement to get a sense of the scale and speed of it.  Meet the shopowners.  Take a coffee.  Walk around.

Primary vs Secondary

One of the ways that the French state discourages real estate speculation is by levying a significantly higher tax on the sale of a secondary residence vs your primary one.  The “buy and flip” model doesn’t really work here, as a result.

Roots

If, like me, you reject modern notions like “starter home” or the idea that your home is an “investment” that you can sell, like a piece of art or a watch, when the price is right, selection becomes even more important.  What are my neighbors like?  The noise level?  Cleanliness?  This is where you will spend most of your time so it should be better than just tolerable.

Paperwork

The dossier you prepare when you’re renting will remind you of that for the prefecture, except unlike at the prefecture, where if you follow directions you stand a good chance of gaining what you went in there for, when renting you’re competing against others in a zero sum game – if you get the apartment, they can’t, and vice versa.  You’re going to need:

  • Photocopies of your ID(s) = passport + carte de sejour
  • Photocopy of your CDI or CDD if employed, as well as your last three payslips
  • If you are self-employed, your most recent tax filings and/or bank statements from your business account can serve as substitutes for the CDI + payslips
  • Your last three rental receipts from your last landlord, whether that was in France or elsewhere
  • If you think you need a guarantor, you’ll need their EDF and the last three payslips as well

You’ll make multiple copies of this dossier, both in hard copy and digitally, so that you can send them in the format that your potential landlord prefers.

The French, because the law is so dramatically in favor of tenants, really want assurance that they will have the rent reliably paid and in full, and as such will usually pick the highest-earning dossier.  As such there is a common practice of forging/using a friend’s high income pay slip to “enrich” your dossier.  Many Parisians know at least one person who has done this to get an apartment, if they have not done so themselves!

In extreme cases some landlords will require a year’s rent to be held as escrow as security against a default – but I’ve only read about this, and have never actually met anyone who had to do this.

The guarantor (or cosigner, as we would call it in America) is the most frequently-used device, however, for the risk-averse landlord, and a friend recently told me that despite the dual incomes of her and her husband which totaled far above the rule-of-thumb “three times the monthly rent” at least one potential landlord asked her if she also had a guarantor.

All leases in France are governed by the 2015 Alur Law and you cannot simply make up your own lease.  If you want to do the simplest thing, which I did while negotiating my recently-signed three year lease, just click here to use a free template which conforms to the law.

Some pricing I’ve seen

Apart from the Syndic, which I discuss below, there’s also property tax for owners, which is really pretty low – on my apartment it’s around 1000€ a year.  I often stop when passing by an immobilier (real estate agent) on a Paris street, just to get a sense of prices in whatever neighborhood I’m in, and to continue to hone my sense of the market overall.  I am sharing these three examples to give you a sample:

6 rue Guenot, in the 11th, 2 bedrooms, 27 square meters, 240,000€

161 rue des Pyrenees, in the 20th, 3 bedrooms, 52 square meters, 374,000€

5 passage du chemin vert, in the 11th, 4 bedrooms, 94 square meters, 810,000€

Yes, I know I’m exposing a Right Bank bias, but I’ve never seriously looked on the other side of the river.

Last Things

When you become an owner, not just a renter, apart from the maintenance of the apartment itself, you will be subject to charges from the Syndic – similar to an HOA in America – that can sometimes be very costly.  They recently installed some new piping in the hallways of our apartment and my landlady’s share was 15,000€!  If you don’t pay, the Syndic can start a legal action against you, though it is so ponderously slow that you’ve got enough time to put together the cash you need before it ever goes to court.  Your monthly fees can be around 50€/square meter per year, so my 53 square meter apartment costs around 2650€ in Syndic fees – which are paid by the owner, not by you.  The Syndic is usually hired by the association of co-owners of the building – i.e. all of the separate owners – and is a managing agent of sorts.  They ensure that maintenance is done, that the building is cleaned, and if necessary, hires a guardian/concierge (our building doesn’t have one, though my last two apartments did, and we seem to get along fine without one).

I’ve said before that I’d like to get a small place just outside Paris for the occasional weekend retreat, but with the recent signing of this lease, and with my landlady’s indication that she may very well wish to sell at the end of the term, I may be in the market to buy in Paris sooner than I expected.  But the dominant thought on my mind as I signed the lease last week was that it would be three years before I would need to think about either my living or immigration situation again, and that allows me time to focus on other, less paperwork-intensive, subjects.

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

Journees de Patrimoine (Skip the Elysee)

Around this time last year I made plans with two friends to visit the Elysee Palace.  Once a year, in September, the French celebrate Heritage Days (les Journees de Patrimoine) and many places are open to the public which are not normally so, including the President’s residence, the Elysee.  While we thought we would “beat the crowd” by getting in line at 7am, two hours before they started letting people in, many, many other people thought similarly and we were in a very long line even though it was still dark when we found the line of people snaking through the edges of the Champs-Elysees, near the American Embassy.

Heritage Days started as a French idea, in 1984.  The Ministry of Culture sponsored something called “La Journee Portes Ourvertes” and it was so successful that other countries started their own versions.  The Netherlands, Sweden, Ireland, Belgium, and Scotland all held their own events until in 1991 the Council of Europe created an EU-wide “European Heritage Days” which happen the second weekend of September each year.

I had just by chance been out of Paris the past couple years on those dates so last year I decided to seize my chance and asked some of my French friends if they had tried to go to the Elysee before and most had not, had never been, actually, but one who had told me to get there at least two hours early.  “It’s worth it,” she nodded.  I took her advice, and yet it was six hours before I stepped foot inside the former royal residence.

Yeah, six hours.  There were some security precautions that had been put in place since my friend had visited, including body pat-downs and as such the wait was truly mind-bending.  In fact, I would say that my main cultural experience was witnessing so many French wait for so many hours.  It was a miracle!

All joking aside, I say skip the Elysee because there are so many other places you can go where the crowd won’t be as absurd and the wait won’t be so long.  Why use the whole day for one building?  When you do finally get into the Palace you can stop and linger without too much harrying from the staff, but to be honest, it’s not a very large or impressive house, by Head of State standards, though perhaps that’s the point of the “one of us” stances of the 3rd-5th Republics.  Need ideas?  Click here to be dazzled.  When making your plans, try not to buzz all over town, but rather stay in one or two adjacent arrondissements.  You’ll enjoy yourself more and what’s the rush?  You live here now, so there’s always next year to hear that concert, take that tour, or see the Hotel de Salm (one of my targets for next year, as I’m out of town for this year’s festivities).

No, I don’t have a French Driver’s License (and probably never shall)

I hadn’t written about this before, but a number of people have emailed me about it more recently and I also just finished a book called French License by Joe Start which chronicles just how challenging it can be to get one of these.

So, why haven’t I written about it?

I’m writing this article while visiting Singapore, the city-state I was born into and where my mother’s entire side of the family lives.  It has a world-class public transportation system and I was taking the metro (known here as the MRT) by myself as early as 6 years old.

I love living in a city where not only do I not need a car, but even the costs of owning a car are a deterrent to ownership.  Apart from purchasing, there’s a flurry of licensing fees and taxes that go along with standard car costs, not to mention parking fees and gasoline that costs at least double what it does in America.  Did I mention the ticket-happy Parisian meter maids?

In the five years I’ve lived in France I’ve driven precisely 28 days, on vacations in Bordeaux, Provence, and the Basque country, as well as a work trip in Brittany.  These are all places you cannot truly get around without a personal vehicle.  Each time I drove I rented a vehicle using my American license.  In fact, the one time I got pulled over in France (I stupidly overtook a cop in a small town – it didn’t look like a cop car) I decided to pull the “dumb foreigner” act and spoke English, handing over a US license, all while looking suitably scared, penitent, and compliant.  They had no wish to do paperwork as they thought I would probably never pay the fine anyway, and there doesn’t seem to be a mechanism to chase down foreigners (as they imagined I was).  I promised to pay more attention to the signs and slowly drove off with a smile and a wave.  Driving a vehicle without a French license is letter of the law illegal, as I am a resident of France past my one year grace period, but my insouciant attitude on the matter confirms that indeed, I have adopted the French spirit entirely. 🙂

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but…

So assuming that, like me, you love that hole in your budget where auto expenditures used to go, but are constrained by your circumstances and hence need a car and requisite license of your own, what are your choices?

The easy way

Trade in your US license during your first year in France.  The following states offer a straight swap of your license for a French one: Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.  If getting a driver’s license in France had been a priority in my first year I would have swapped my Kansas license then and then did what I advise my visa consulting clients to do, report their US license as lost (and it honestly was – lost to the hands of the French government) and get a new one.  Two licenses for the price of two.

The hard way

It’s too depressing to relate, and why bother when the US government has a handy PDF that you can peruse at your leisure?  If you want to get more depressed, read the book I referenced above.  The work I’ve done at the prefecture for French residency seems to pale in comparison to the work for a license, and given that 1/3 of the French nation doesn’t have a license, the written and practical portions, as well as the cost of the schools themselves, drive most people off from the process entirely, and keep in mind that these are native speakers who play games like Mille Bornes from their youth and have insight into just how arcane and impossible the French licensing process can be.

But why be depressed at all?  France’s infrastructure is advanced enough for you not to have to have a private car, and with services like BlaBlaCar more closely connecting us all the time, you won’t need to.  In a driverless future, no one will need driver’s licenses, and that future will come to France, albeit slowly, I’m sure.