Friday, 14 October 2016

How to become French - Part 3

Last night I was travelling home on the train after a very long day. The lights of Paris slid past me into the shadows as I reflected on why this country still mattered to me, despite my almost complete lack of hope in a positive future here.
" But look, you're here, still here. You can visit Paris whenever you want, it's part of you." Yes, but I was not part of it.

Earlier that day I had been driving through the glorious countryside, fields ploughed with up-turned dirt waiting for fresh seeds to germinate in late Winter. The sun was shining on a calm, fresh  autumn morning. Yes, this was the pleasure for me of being here. Simple, uncluttered by worries. Still here after six years of struggle, knowing that to be torn away from it by someone's else's decision would leave a permanent scar on my psyche. I gave a deep sigh of appreciation of how lucky I was and also how precarious things were. The rest of the day passed uneventfully.

After I arrived home and grabbed a bite to eat JC handed me my mail which I took upstairs to open. I opened the first letter. It was from the French Republic, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (Ministère de l’intérieur). My eyes were immediately stuck like magnets on two key points. ".... you have acquired French nationality since the 21st of September.......... published in the official journal."

What? Thats unbelievable! How could this be. It had been only 11 months since my dossier had been accepted. Normally one has to wait at least 18-24 months. The lady who interviewed me at Tours had said there probably wouldn't be a decision before 2017, that I'd have to wait between 9 and 18 months more and maybe have to have an interview with the gendarmes. Instead, here I was, already French  for the past three weeks. I hadn't felt different.

This was so unexpected. Clearly they had made the decision before my current pitiful job contract became visible. What timing! How could this decision have been made so quickly? JC had his theory. "The preparation and presention of your dossier was superb," he said. " I'm sure the light of your love of France would have lit up the woman's office in Tours during your interview, sweeping away any concerns there may have been about your already limited income. You absolutely deserve this, it's totally warranted. I've been here almost from the start of your journey towards this in France and I've seen what it has cost you and the effort you've put in. I knew you'd hang in there until the end but I was worried France might not grant you what you so deserve."

Later I heard rhythmic clapping downstairs - " Bravo!...Bravo!...Bravo!..."
What's happening? The political debate on TV?"
"No, it's for you. You did it! And that's a finger up the arse for all those people who mistreated you and wanted you to fail, especially The Professeur, and the ones who saw it all and didn't care," he said.
"Yes," I said, and in my mind, privately, I added Jerome to the list, but already I was closing that door, though never to be forgotten, What I was seeing were other doors that might open to me if I chose them. Most would remain closed through choice now.

This is a very big deal for me. I'd rate it right up there with the birth of my daughter Laura, for importance and influence on my life. The oppressive weight I'd been under since my arrival lifted. Today I experienced France in a new way, free of the fear of eviction. I belong to France and France belongs to me; all its wonders and eccentricities. It will be me who determines our relationship from now on.

There remain important hurdles such as my employment situation. Without a decent fulltime job where I can have an independent life I won't be able to stay. There will be no liveable old age pension for me here. If anything brings me back to NZ it will be for family and/or financial reasons. I'm still a kiwi and I've never stopped taking an active interest in my native country even though it has robbed me of the right to vote long ago but I have dual nationality now and I can balance that easily.

" So, you'll be able to vote in the elections next year, piped up JC. OMG what has France done - let loose a kiwi in the middle of French democracy?" he joked. I will be taking advantage of my lifetime right to vote in French politics no matter where I live in the world.

Now I must wait six months for all the official documentation to be completed and for the naturalisation ceremony. I look forward to receiving my letter from the President of France, my National ID card, applying for a French (and thus EU) passport. It gives me the freedom to live and work anywhere in Europe if I can find something. Shame about the Brexit. Not great timing!

I still have no idea of my future in the medium or long term but an obstacle has been removed, the weight pressing on my heart is gone. My soul is free to feel its natural comfort in the country of my ancesters. A very bad year just got a lot better and I feel more positive. My value has been recognised. Where there's one miracle there are perhaps more.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Barriers to hard work and initiative for some expats in France

Unless you've been in my situation it's a bit hard to believe some of the bizarre, counter-productive systems raging in France. I just want to work as much as possible so I can stay here. Recently I asked a French businesswoman why systems are designed to make it incredibly hard to work a normal job. She told me it was the powerful French Unions blocking those of us who want to work as hard as we want, whenever we want. That may or may not be true; it's certainly more complex than that, I think, but when the Code du Travail is significantly heavier than any other European Labour Law tome, throw in the tendancy of the French to support communism and socialism (what the?) and the seeming need to protect some privileged folks against all the other folks (except if you're a public servant in which case you are bullet-proof against anything), well, you have a mix that's resulting in rampant unemployment, disincentives for small to medium businesses, unproductive attitudes and work habits, a wide-spread sense of entitlement even when certain people don't actually need it, well, it's  a toxic mix.

Take my efforts to find work, for example. The crazy systems here are blocking me from becoming a productive and passionate French citizen; here's how.

My visa states I am a temporary salaried worker. That means I have to stay in that category unless something extraordinary happens; I marry a Frenchman (no one want to marry me), I become endowed with 5 million euros to invest (I'm unlikely to be in that situation), or I become naturalised (which I have applied for - it's in the pipeline but might be unlikely to succeed due to my current income). My visa category does not allow me to be self-employed.

Each year I have to renew my carte de séjour (residence card) but to do that I must have a decent job otherwise it's OUT. I have grovelled, cajolled, suffered work abuse and nudged, persuaded my employer to keep me on each year but the rules are strict and change. This year I have had my income (which was never very good) halved. I have a half contract despite the fact there are teachers at the uni doing the same teaching hours and the same work as me but earning double and considered to be working full time. Hey, I once had one of those contracts so how is it I am now half the person I was? Land of egalite? Cost-cutting I suppose.

This new contract means it's difficult for other employers to hire me for a few hours during the week because there are minimum hours I must work for my principal employer in order for me to legally search for other work and they want proof I'm doing them. There's nothing clear or transparent about the amendment to my previous contract that I now operate under. It does not say how many hours I must work, nor does it say how many additional hours I can work. The normal details in a NZ work contract are totally missing. There's just the pay per month before income tax. Through pestering various people I have discovered how many base hours I must work and how many extra hours I can work as overtime. The overtime hours are extremely limited (144 hours per year).

Other employers look at my base hours and say they can't hire me because my principal employer isn't giving me enough hours. I explain that I'm doing some extra work for the uni. The other employers ask where's the proof? I must supply a copy of my past contract and its amendment even though the two documents don't bear any similarity to each other in terms of pay or hours of work. Apparently contracts are not confidential in France. Any man and his dog can demand to see it. I even have to supply payslips from my current employer. I'm not allowed to be self-employed so most folks wanting teachers don't want to hire me because hiring someone on a contract for a wage is too costly because of the social charges. It's chicken and egg stuff. Most unis will not hire me as I don't have a required status from the French system. Too bad I'm a more competent teacher than so many French teachers of English. If I was self employed I'd have to show three years of proof of income as a self-employed person before I could be hired and I can't teach as a supply teacher if I have reached retirement age.

Teachers who do not have privileged permanent positions or who are not civil servants are not hired on merit. You are hired to fill a blank so long as you have the right documents and the right legal status. If you do a good job and the students like you this is no garantee you will ever be employed again by that employer. If your contract says it can be renewed for a second year you'd be silly to believe that. I was shocked to discover that in fact my past contract would not be renewed unless someone with the same sort of contract left the employer just at the right time. In fact you don't get your contract renewed you get someone else's? So why say it can be renewed? Who would have thought? I'm grateful to have some work but my current contract means very few other employers will take a risk and hire me in case I'm not quite legal due to my limited hours. They are also nervous because I must apply for permission to work elsewhere, even though I have only a part time contract and permission can take six weeks. Meanwhile I'm supposed to have started my other work weeks before that. What happens if the principal employer refuses? Won't I get paid for what I've worked?

All this tornado of rules and regulations does my head in every day. Nothing is transparent or honestly portrayed. There are goverment decrees for this, that and the next thing which determine your work but they are never explained on your contract. I gave up trying to understand them on the websites because they are so opaque. Must be a French thing.

If I can't find a principal employer of any kind with certain minimum hours I will not have my carte de sejour renewed next year. I'm still waiting to find out  what's happening with this year's request for renewal. Right now I can only legally stay until 22 December. It's endless stress and I have missed out on being hired elsewhere because of the wall of legal obstacles.

Don't worry about what you can't change, you say. Sure, easy to say but I don't know what I don't know and everything changes anyway. There is no way you can be 'prepared' for this kind of rootless living situation and it's only human to need some sort of clarity and certainty about one's financial status for a year or two or if I'm greedy, three?

I feel I'm in limbo, my life is on hold until I can see my way ahead, until something good or bad happens. No roots, little hope left and with constant reminders of my precarious existence here it's hard to stay positive and my gritty determination is now wearing thin. I just need a decent full-time job but it's uncertain as to whether France wants to give the same commitment to me as I have whole-heartedly given her. So far she just doesn't care.