Bureaucracy in France: Our Frustrating Experience At The Prefecture of Montpellier

french-prefecture

If you are going to live in France for any length of time, you will undoubtedly become extremely familiar with the world-famous French bureaucracy and red tape that everyone including the French have to endure. If you are an expat living in France like us or an immigrant, than you have the added pleasure of dealing with EXTRA RED TAPE for all your immigration needs. Most of which are handled at one of the many préfectures across France.  Here is our latest annoyance.

We moved from La Garde France to Montpellier this week and like all NON-French people who move from one city to another, we had to register our change of address with our new prefecture in Montpellier which in essence sets in motion the transfer of our dossier / file from our old préfecture in Toulon.

A préfecture is the dreaded bureaucratic office where non-French people like us with visa and immigration issues must go. The préfecture also handles some non immigration issues such as renewing drivers permits or handling a change of address for the title of ones car. There are roughly 100 préfectures in France

This process or changing your address at the préfecture is something you do not want to skip, especially if you plan on renewing your visa after your first year in France because the préfecture uses your physical address to send you correspondence and if you are not there to receive it because you failed to notify them of a change of address … well you won’t be able to renew your visa.

We mistakenly thought this change of address would be an easy affair because we had already been through this 4 years earlier when we moved from Marseille to La Garde but like so many things in France that involve paperwork and immigration matters, we were sorely wrong. As the old saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know.

Here is an account of our frustrating experience at the prefecture of Montpellier.

Tuesday Ideal FAIL: The plan to reduce our wait time

Today we stood in line at the prefecture of Montpellier for 2 hours. Not terribly long considering we have waited for longer periods. Annoying nevertheless because Blake and I actually thought we were so so smart to arrive at 7:40 a.m., 35 minutes before the prefecture actually opened it’s doors.

A little back story. This was to be our third visit to the préfecture since arriving in Montpellier 13 days prior. Each time we arrived to the préfecture we were faced with long lines that snaked from wall to wall so each time we left instantly because we knew instictually from experience that the line would be at least 3 to 4 hour wait.

In addition to physical visits, Blake and I also tried and failed to make an appointment online using the préfecture’s website. Overall, we had already spent several hours trying to get our address sorted out. By the way, you can check out the booking system at the Montpellier prefectures website here. As of July 2016 it is always full up. I hope they change this system because to put it simply, SUCKS!. http://www.herault.gouv.fr/booking/create/15253.

Rather than wait in the existing long line, we decided to try to outsmart everyone and come back early on Thursday (the prefecture is closed on Wednesday) before the prefecture opened. To us, it was better to wait out front in the cool morning breeze for 30 minutes so we could be first in line than to arrive later and be the 100th person waiting in a hot building with irritated people and tired kids. It proved to be a good idea however not good enough.

 Thursday 7:54 a.m.:

Our hearts sank when we arrived at the préfecture on Thursday morning and saw the already long line of people standing around waiting for the préfecture to open at 8:15 am. There had to be about 50 or 60 people already waiting in line ahead of us.

As we stood there queued up waiting for the doors to open, I couldn’t help but feel a little defeated wishing we had come 1 hour earlier instead of just 30 minutes. I looked behind me every so often and saw more people queue up behind us until finally it seemed there were at least another 100 people waiting behind us.

I felt mildly better but not by much.waiting in line at the preficture in Montpellier

 

8:15 the doors open : Security check and mad dash for the building

At 8:15 the doors to the prefecture officially opened and we slowly inched our way to the front gate where a security officer passed a wand over our bodies and briefly looked in every bag before letting us pass through to the building.

8:25 a.m. : Stand in line again inside the préfecture

I passed through security before Blake and walked briskly to the building trying not to let people pass me up. I didn’t want to lose my place in line because there were people who seemed to be sprinting to get inside. I was determined to not let that happen. I picked up the pace.

Once inside, we had no other choice but to stand in line. There was no option to take a ticket or a number and sit down until your number was called like we had experienced in Toulon or Marseille. So there we stood inching our way forward as the 2 people behind the counter handled each persons questions and requests. Some people moved on quickly while others seemed to take longer.

A man behind me pushing a baby in a stroller got in a heated argument with another man who apparently was trying to cut in the line for some strange reason.

9:45 a.m. It’s our turn

Almost an hour and a half later, it was our turn. As I walked towards the counter where the stressed out French woman sat, I politely smiled and said “bonjour” before asking my question (which is common practice and considered rude if you don’t say it) .

Me: Bonjour!  “how can I set up an appointment to make a change of address for our carte de séjour (this is what our resident card is called). ?

French woman behind counter: You must make an appointment using the website she replied.

Me: I have tried for 13 days to make an appointment using the site but each time I try, I get a message that says there are no more available times for appointments and to try my request again later.

(Below is a screenshot of the prefecture website showing this message)

 

preficture-appointment-full

French woman behind counter: Yes, this is normal. Times slots fill up very fast.  Try checking the site at the beginning of the week when new slots open up.

Me: Instead of making an appointment through the website, since we are here, can we make an appointment through you now?

French woman behind counter: NO!

Me: Can we come early, on any day to change our address?

French woman behind counter: With a slightly annoyed voice says NO! you must use the website.

9:47 a.m.: Defeat

Our hopes of getting an appointment to change our address were crushed in less than 3 minutes at that counter. There seemed to be no other way to make an appointment except on the website which as far as I was concerned was always full up with no available appointment times.

Blake and I begrudgingly left the counter and walked home in a confused state of disbelief feeling like we got bitch slapped yet again by a new French bureaucratic hurdle. 

10:00 a.m.: Try again online to make an appointment

One small consolation after our temporary defeat at the préfecture was that we did not have to drive home in traffic for any length of time. We live in the centre of Montpellier off “La Place De La Comédie”, just a few minutes walk from the préfecture. Previously we would have to drive for 15 minutes and try to find parking.

When we arrived home, after stopping off to get a bricohe au chocolat (Blake’s favourite), I immediately went to the préfecture’s site only to be met with the same stupid message, “no more open spots for new appointments”. This time however, I noticed something that did not make sense before.

In very small print,  there was a message which stated appointments are scheduled only 3 weeks in advance and If the calendar was full that you needed to try again at the beginning of the week.

This must be what the woman at the prefecture was talking about. I needed to logon on Sunday night just before midnight, essentially the beginning of the week and try to nab a spot before everyone else who was desperate for a spot could nab the limited slots up. (below is the screenshot of the message).

message on prefecture website which said appointments are only scheduled only 3 weeks in advance and If the calendar was full that you needed to try again at the beginning of the week.

10:30 a.m.

Still in disbelief that there was no other way to get an appointment, I did a search on Facebook and found that the préfecture of Montpellier had a Facebook page so I decided to go check it out and see if I could discover some secret to getting an appointment.

Instead I saw more frustrated people posting comments. A FB user left a comment confirming what I now knew but shed even more depressing news. She had also had problems getting an appointment and said that users had only 5 minutes, midnight to 12:05 to try to get an appointment before the slots were all taken up. She asked “what does one do if we cannot get an appointment?

Good question.

Unfortunately, the préfecture never answers any comments on their FB page. (below is a screenshot of her message left on the prefecture FB page.)

preficture-facebook-page

At this point, I have no idea what we are going to do if we are unable to nab an appointment quick enough on Sunday night. Especially since we have to renew our visas very soon but can’t do it until we transfer our dossier to our new préfecture.

It should be noted that not all prefectures operate the same way. Some take walk ins. Some places you can call and make an appointment and others you can walk in to make an appointment. Some have machines to dispense numbers and some don’t.

So far, we have had to deal with 3 préfectures because we have lived in 3 French cities, Marseille prefecture, Toulon prefecture and now Montpellier prefecture. Montpellier is by far the worst so far mainly because of their defunct appointment system that only allows appointments 3 weeks in advance that fill up fast.

To be continued……….

UPDATE 

Well we managed to get an appointment but it was very strange. As the woman at the préfecture instructed us to do, we logged on to their website just before midnight on sunday night. There were three of us trying to make an appointment, me, Blake and one of my sons. Each of us sat in front of the computer pressing the “schedule an appointment” button. Each time we pressed the button, we were greeted with the same message “no more available times”.

Then at one minute past midnight a calendar opened up and we saw about 30 spots on the calendar open up. I quickly selected a time and waited. The little hourglass turned and turned until we got a 503 message. If you are unfamiliar with a 503 error message when viewing a site, it basically means “The server is currently unable to handle the request due to a temporary overloading or maintenance of the server”. The server was getting overloaded by probably hundreds of people trying to get those 30 spots.

“SHIT, I keep getting a 503 server message” yells my husband from his computer.

“Me too!” yells my son Kieran from his room.

I was determined to get an appointment.

I kept hitting the back button to retry my request until finally it I secured a spot for 3 weeks in future. Woo HOOOOOOOO. Now it was Blake and Kierans turn. After a dozen or so error messages in a row, we were each able to finally secure one appointment each.  It was not 12:30.

It felt as if I was playing a video game and the goal of the game was to compete against 100 people to secure 30 spots but you only have 10 minutes to do so. I had adrenaline coursing through my veins from the experience.

But it wasn’t over yet. To finally secure our appointment, we had to wait for an email and click on a link in the email to confirm the appointment.

After about 2 minutes the email arrived in my inbox and I clicked on the link but then the server timed out again. People were still hitting the system hard trying to get an appointment which was causing the website servers to crash. Eventually all 3 of us confirmed our appointment but it was now 12:45 a.m. A  little over 45 minutes of this nonsense simply to get an appointment to change our address for our visa.

I logged back onto the website at 12:45 to try to book a second appointment but all the available slots were now gone.  Guess we will have to wait till next Sunday at midnight to get a second set of appointments which we need to renew our visas.

Oh well. As the French say. It’s just the way things are done. What can I do about it?

Bonne Journée. Good day to you.

About the Author

Annie André Is a half Thai, half French Canadian/American freelance writer, digital marketer and FOUNDER OF THE LIVE IN FRANCE GUIDE which features travel tips, food, festivals, photography and more from France. Annie currently lives in France with her husband and three children.

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