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Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Path to French Citizenship: Small Steps

This morning my spouse and I, having gathered all the papers for his CNF (Certificat de nationalité française), went down to the Tribunal de grande instance de Versailles.  I'm not sure how to translate that but let's just call it the courthouse.  To understand more about the French legal system and where the Tribunals sit in respect to other courts, Wikipedia has this entry which I thought was very clear and understandable.

Our business was completed very quickly.  I beeped on my way through security because I had a pile of coins in my pocket (train fare) that I had forgotten and so I was taken aside for a more complete check.  Then we took the elevator to the reception desk, got a number, and within a few minutes we were installed in an office and presenting our papers to the charming and very helpful young lady charged with such matters.  As I watched the different papers being passed across the desk, I asked my spouse if he had duplicates at home.  Some of the birth certificates were quite lovely, hand-written with beautiful calligraphy.

Since she was so pleasant and helpful I decided to ask about something that has been bothering me for some time.   I'll take this as an opportunity to tell a good story that you might find entertaining.

When I was married back in 1990 at the Mayor's Office in Courbevoie, the French bureaucracy and I got off to a bad start.  For a reason I no longer remember, my spouse decided to send me (newly arrived immigrant with limited French) down to the Mayor's office to apply for a marriage license.  It was a nightmare for them and for me.  They asked all kinds of questions like my mother's profession that I just didn't have the vocabulary to answer.  The low point however came when they asked about my future spouse's father and I replied that he was a retired military officer.  They then wanted to know his rank and if he had any decorations to which I replied (truthfully)  "Général" and "Légion d'honneur."

How to describe their reaction?  Disbelief, surely, and some amusement.  I was sent on my merry way, feeling very foolish.  So when I got home I called my future spouse (in tears) and he called his father straightaway.  His father in turn called the Army and they sent someone down in person to straighten this out.  The day after we received a phone call from the Mayor's office with an apology and an assurance that if we needed anything more, we should contact them immediately.

The wedding went off without any further problems.  My father-in-law wore his uniform and I seem to recall that they read off the entire list of his decorations (and it was a really long list).  There was a lot of vigorous hand-shaking at the end of the ceremony and I learned that the formal way to address my father-in-law was "mon général." It was only some time after the wedding that we looked at the Livret de Famille that we received that day and discovered that they had misspelled the name of the city of my birth, Seattle.  It was a minor error (I'm sure that the people at the Courbevoie Mayor's office in the year 1990 probably had never heard of such a place) and we were a bit reluctant to go down there and annoy them again (in spite of the phone call I did not get the impression that we were the staff's favorite people).  So we let it go and said that we would get it fixed eventually.

So here we are 22 years later and, given that I am going to apply for citizenship, now seems like a good time to take care of it.  So I asked about it and the young lady agreed with me that it should be fixed sooner rather then later.  We need to contact the Tribunal de grande instance de Nanterre and she gave us the number.

One step forward and one step back.  I will be glad, however, to finally get it fixed.  As I grow older, it seems almost certain that my final resting place will be here - most likely in a small village in the Limousin.  I'd like to know that both the official French records and the entry on the family tomb will proudly (and correctly) show the place of my birth:  Seattle, Washington, United States of America.

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