I sent in my dossier to the Bureau de Naturalisations on a Tuesday, having no idea how long I might have to wait until I received any sort of acknowledgment or response. I sent it via La Poste using what they call a Chronopost envelope, and I paid for next-day delivery before 10am; this gave me a tracking number so I was able to see that the Bureau had, in fact, received it, so no excuses about "Oh, Madame, we did not receive your file! Tant pis!"
A little more than a week later, I got my first response, in the form of a letter telling me I had allegedly forgotten to include proof of my French skill level! (You can read all about that here.) Fortunately, a phone call from Georges straightened that right out, and later that evening I received an email from my case worker (hey, I have a case worker!), Mlle. H, with the date and time of my first rendez-vous. The letter didn't give us the option of picking another date and time, and both me and Georges had to be there, which meant he had to do some quick rescheduling -- because the appointment was in only 11 DAYS!
So much for all my bitching and moaning about how slowly things move in France. Sometimes, they can really surprise you, les Français!
The letter only said that we needed to bring a few more documents with us: the most recent copies of pay stubs, electric and phone bill, and receipts for last month's rent. And that we should be there at precisely 10:30. The address was on Rue des Ursins on the Ile de la Cité, which is on the far side of Notre Dame in a very ancient section of Paris, instead of in the main Préfecture building we have been used to going to for all my carte de séjour appointments.
Other than this information, we had no other clues as to what the interview would involve. I assumed I might have to be prepared to take this history test that the government had just implemented starting in July, and I found some sample tests online at the LeFigaro.fr web site to use as practice. Really, the majority of the questions were very simple, but there were a few odd ones that felt about as appropriate to me as the muette comme une carpe quesstion on the language test. Is it REALLY an accurate indication of my ability to assimilate into French society if I know, or do not know, that Michel Platini was a major French football star? Or if I knew that Charles Trenet was a singer, or Brigitte Bardot was an actress? And oh by the way if you DID know those things, it probably meant you were over a certain age since all of those people are either old or dead.
A few days later, we heard it in the news: Hollande's new government decided to quit giving this history/culture test! They felt the test, in multiple-choice format, was not a good indication of a person's knowledge. We heard mixed reports about the possiblity they might replace that test with some other oral questions, but since we really had no way to know what to expect, I did a quick history and culture review anyway. We thought this would be the first in a series of interviews and possibly even a (surprise?) home visit, since we never had a home visit during all the past years when I was applying for my cartes de séjour.
Georges also said I should be prepared to answer one very important question: Why do you want to become French? This is not as easy to answer as one might think. You don't want to say too much, or too little, or the wrong thing. To say "to make my life easier"? The wrong thing. "To go through the shorter line at passport control?" Also the wrong thing. "Because I've been in love with France since I was a little girl and I've always wanted to be French, and now thanks to my French husband I CAN be!" ... also probably NOT a good answer to give when they are trying to assess whether you're in a valid marriage or not. We eventually came up with something we thought would strike a sound balance (and I had to say it in French): "Since I have married my husband and I now plan to spend my life here in France, and will pay taxes here as well, I would like very much to have the full experience of being French, including the right to vote." Or words to that effect. If they asked me to elaborate, fine, but best not to volunteer too much information unless asked.
In addition to bringing the few documents requested, I brought a huge box with all manner of other documents, things that would help prove, if asked, our common life, my ability to assimilate well, our joint financial commitments, and even copies of the caterer's bill and the B&B from our wedding/mini-honeymoon in New Jersey (to prove it was a real marriage because we'd paid for a real wedding party with all my family AND we booked a romantic wedding-night beach-front hotel!) We wanted to be prepared for anything and everything.
The day arrived for the interview. About two hours before, I went into full melt-down mode, although up until that moment I had felt pretty calm about it. I don't know why I melted down, because the worst that would happen is that for whatever reason, I might be turned down for citizenship. If I was, it wouldn't affect my daily life; I would still have my 10-year residency card, I would still have my husband and my step-kids and my French life, and I would even have the option to apply again at some future date (depending upon the reason for being rejected). I tried to put everything in that perspective, that of "This is just the icing on the cake of my French life, but it's not the cake itself. The cake is what counts. Ask Marie Antoinette."
We left for our appointment, planning to arrive well in advance, find the building, and then go for a coffee. We found a quiet little café and had about 30-40 minutes to wait before finally heading over to the oddly modern, boxy-looking building squeezed in between the leaning medieval facades of Rue des Ursins. Through the metal detectors and up to the 3rd floor... and there was a long, long line. I stood in line while Georges nosed around to see if there was a faster way in for those with an actual appointment, and sure enough, we were able to skip the line and move through to the waiting area. Apparently this same office is the place where one can go and get all the information on how to apply for nationality if you didn't already find that same information on the Internet, as we did.
The waiting area even had a toy corner for little children, which made sense as some people are applying for nationality either with, or for, their children, so it's not the sort of situation where you're required to leave the kids at home. The staff seemed unusually tolerant of the toddlers who kept trying to sneak behind the welcome desk, curious about the colorful file cabinet drawers.
We kept an eye and an ear tuned to the door where different people were called in for their interviews. Some were singles, some couples. We waited over an hour (so much for "arrive PRECISELY at 10:30!") and finally, we were called in to meet Mlle. H. She escorted us to her desk area. The office itself was a pleasant surprise, unlike so many French civil servant workspaces, this one was modern and colorful with new furniture and good lighting.
Mlle. H. started out with some questions for each of us... about the other one! They asked me Georges' birthdate, if his parents were living or not, and if he had any brothers or sisters. They asked Georges my birthdate, and my mother's first name... and I nearly choked when he said "Suzanne" which is French for "Susan" -- my SISTER'S name! The thing is, my mother has always been called my her middle name, and NO ONE calls her by her legal first name, so this is something he really couldn't be expected to know! Same with my father's name... my parents have been divorced since my childhood and I have not had much of a relationship with my father, so why would Georges ever bother to know his first name? Oh la la... but it seemed the way we handled it was OK with Mlle. H; I think she was more interested in how we interact together than with whether we got every question exactly right. If we were too well rehearsed, it might have been more suspicious.
It never occurred to either of us that she might ask these types of questions; after all, in all the interviews we'd done for my carte de séjour, no one had ever asked us this stuff! But since I was applying for nationality by virtue of my marriage, I guess she was more concerned about the "realness" of our relationship than by whether or not I knew anything about history or culture.
Because there was not one single question about history or culture. Not even "who is the president of France?" I was rather disappointed that I didn't get to show off how much I really do know. I had a whole floor show fully prepared, too. (Marianne! Tri-colore! 14 Juillet, 1789! Napoleon! Two World Wars! Jean Moulin et le Résistance! The 7 Presidents of the 5th Republic are (in order) DeGaulle, Pompidou, Giscard d'Estaing, Mitterrand, Chirac, Sarkozy and now Hollande!) And no one asked me to sing La Marseillaise... or even La Vie en Rose. Bummer.
Interestingly, she wanted to know if I had children of my own, either here or back in the U.S., even "adult" children. I knew the preferred answer would always be "no" -- not that this would have necessarily been a deal-breaker for me, but what they don't want is someone coming to France, gaining citizenship, and THEN bringing a whole bunch of kids over here and claiming THEM for France as well. It did not surprise me to see a small nod of satisfaction from Mlle. H when I said I had no children of my own anywhere.
She didn't ask us anything about Georges' three children, but she did ask Georges to describe some of the things we did with our free time; he said we mostly do things as a family or as a couple that are more cultural (we're definitely not athletes in this family, none of us, although Le Garçon has recently discovered a passion for tennis). Then she asked something that made us both laugh a little: she asked if we'd had any "problems" between us in our marriage. I think she could tell by our reactions that we thought that was just the silliest idea EVER... and that we weren't even making that up.
That seemed to be about it for the questions. I wondered why... why was it going so smoothly, so quickly? Didn't they want to see more proof of something? I had this huge box of papers with me, after all! Lady, ask us anything! I figured there would have to be more because there was NO FRIGGING WAY it was going to be this cut and dried, and they would wait until the next interview to really interrogate us. (I think I was expecting a Spanish Inquisition... even in France.)
She moved on to explain that I would have the option to Frenchify my first and middle name, if I so chose, although with "Lisa Jeanne" there was really no need -- that already sounds French enough (Jeanne d'Arc, anyone?) But this is an option they offer to everyone seeking nationality, and you have to sign some documents saying that you have been offered this option and whether or not you were going to change your name. I think for some people, perhaps there is some advantage in doing so, but I really have no need. My husband's last name isn't even French, either -- HIS father was a naturalised French citizen born in Russia!
After that, it was quickly over -- she explained what would happen next. She was going to give me a receipt showing that day's date and proving that my dossier had been accepted for review by the ministry (of... ? No idea.) And that there is a mandatory 1-year waiting period for all applicants. That at the end of that year, I would receive a letter telling me "Congratulations, you're French" (I liked that she seemed to think I WOULD be "passing"), and that I should guard that letter as it would be my main proof of my naturalisation for the rest of my life. I would have to sign something and return it, and then I would get a date for the naturalisation ceremony! After that, or concurrent with that, they would automatically send me a French birth certificate (so now I'll have two!) and once I have that, I can apply for a French passport. Et voila!
I kept waiting for her to say, "Oh, and you need to come back for another appointment before all that", but no! There are NO MORE APPOINTMENTS! THAT WAS ALL THERE WAS! It took me nearly six months to prepare everything, and then in under 20 minutes we were DONE. Nothing more to do but wait for a year for that official letter, and then I'll be French! Although she provided her name and contact information in case we had questions, she pretty much told us not to bother calling to check on the status until the full year had passed. In other words, "Don't call us, we'll call you". And that was it. Woo-hoo!
She never even asked me WHY I wanted to become French!
Of course, there is always the possiblity someone up at the Mystery Ministry will find something objectionable about me, and say no. But I can't imagine what this will be. We're up to date on our taxes (which they do check, by the way) and there is nothing else about us, either as individuals or a couple, that could be considered problematic. She didn't even ask me about whether I had any of my own income... all she did was ask if I was working, and I said I was an independent writer and waited for more questions about that... which never came.
We were rather surprised it all went so quickly and that she didn't seem to want to dig any deeper. It seemed to us that the other couples who had gone in before us had all been in there a lot longer. She had made a comment at one point about how some of her job is intuition, just having a "feeling" about a person or a couple, and apparently she had a good feeling about me/us. Because the interview was plainly over, so we just collected our documents and left the building.
Of course, she was running an hour behind schedule... and it was nearly lunch time. I really think THAT had a lot to do with her unwillingness to grill us any further. So we benefited from a hungry civil servant!
So now... well, that's all there is to tell, for the moment. Around or about October 22, 2013, I will be watching the mailbox for my very important letter. And the saga will then continue! Until then... Vive la France!