“Contrat d’accueil et d’integration,” the stack of papers read. It was my first foray into the world of French immigration. I had gotten the proper visas and filed the correct paperwork. Today I had arrived at the OFII (Office Francais de l’Immigration et de l’IntÃ©gration) for my medical exam and language test. Today they were going to teach me how to become the best resident I could be. Before the day was over I would have new stamps, new certifications, my very own chest X-ray, oh, and also and tears streaking down my face. Viva la France!
It started as most French government appointments do: by lining up outside the administrative building at 8am. We were let in eight at a time, shuffled into a room, and given a welcome paper. I read it and re-read it as more people slowly trickled into the room. An hour later it was time to began. We watched a twenty minute video on French culture and were told all about what was expected of us. “In France,” the voiceover said, “we treat everybody with equality.” I stifled a snort laugh as she went on, “We treat our women equally as well. This means that you cannot tell women what to do. Women work alongside men. Women also go to public school alongside men. Women are in every walk of life.” I glanced around to the faces in the room. It was a crowd of Bangladeshi, African, and Middle Eastern men and women. All wearing modern clothes and absentmindedly texting on their cellphones. “Women” the program continued, “are allowed to do anything.” Somebody yawned as a text alert beeped.
After the debriefing, we were taken off for our medical exams. I was ushered into a room with a short man in a white coat. He asked me a series of questions in French that seemed standard issue.
“Allergic to anything?”
“Social Security card?”
“I don’t have it yet.” He stared at me in disbelief. How was it possible, he demanded, that I had health insurance but no Social Security card? I told him that I had purchased the insurance through my ex-husband’s plan and he rolled his eyes in disbelief. It was simply not possible, he told me. When I insisted that, yes, I had gotten it months ago, he demanded to see the paperwork.
“I don’t have it with me, nobody asked me to bring it.” I explained.
“Well if you don’t have it on you, and you get hit by a bus walking home, and go to the hospital, you will have to pay full price. You cannot present it later. You must have it at entry.” He tapped my knees to put emphasis on his syllabic bullshit. I knew this was a lie and couldn’t figure out what would possess him to treat me like an idiot. As far as I was concerned, this man was my peer, and my acceptance today did not hinge on him enjoying my company.
My anger must have shown on my face because it sent him further into his tirade, going on about the importance of being responsible and not understanding how it was possible that I did not know my insurance number. After that he led me roughly around the room weighing me and measuring my height, all the while berating me for either not moving fast enough or not knowing what he wanted from me. Then he told me to get my things together and get out. As I did, I could hear him in the hallway, talking to his colleagues in front of the entire waiting room, “Ou lalalalalala,” he admonished, “the American girl goes so slowly.”
I was then sent to radiology. My fellow resident-card holders and I sat in front of a series of doors. One by one we were beckoned into those small white rooms with a narrow table. On the other side there was an adjoining door. Nothing was told to me so I opened it slightly and peeked out. “Close the door!” a large blonde woman screamed from behind an X-ray station. I closed it. I heard a thud and saw that the pressure change had swung the waiting room door wide open. I closed it and stared at the wall. Finally I heard my name called. I opened the door and she came barreling towards me. “Topless,” she belted. I pointed to the door to the waiting room which had opened again. She marched up, angrily, shoving her way into the tiny room. “Topless is an international word. You understand?” she screamed, spittle flying down her chin.
“I understand, but the fucking door is open!” I yelled back, full of as much righteous indignation as I could muster. “Sorry I don’t want to give a free show to these strangers.” She reached over and slid an extension from the table out. Now the door could only open a few inches. “Topless!” she yelled again.
After shoving my head into the X-ray chin rest and berating my inability to stand with my arms out properly she released me back into the waiting room where I was soon taken – along with a snapshot of my lungs – into the physical examination room. The doctor, a soft-spoken woman, seemed much kinder than the rest of them. Gently she had me strip down to my bra and lie down on the table for an examination. But soon the exam was interrupted when someone opened the door. He was a man in his thirties and started a conversation with her over some inanity in the schedule. Not even bothering to look at me, he held the door wide and I could see others in the hallway looking at my half naked body. “Excuse me,” I finally said. He closed the door and the doctor continued her examination.
“He is a medical doctor” she said, as if that was an acceptable explanation.
By this time, fully humiliated and crying in the corridor, I wanted nothing more than to just go home. Then a man in his forties came around the corner and called my name. He gave me a language assessment and quickly decided that I needed to attend both language courses and come back for a full day so I could learn all about the “libertÃ©, Ã©galitÃ© and fraternitÃ©” of the French system. I laughed out loud at the nationalistic hypocrisy they were shoving down my throat. This, naturally, was immediately taken as a sign of interest by my interviewer. He began flirting with me and asked me for my phone number. I told him my phone was new and I didn’t know it yet. Then, with my Certificate of Completion sitting in the printer tray, waiting for him to press a button, he asked me for my email. I gave it to him in hopes he’d shut up and let me leave but he logged into Facebook right then so he could search for me. I had made myself unsearchable after a number of creepy encounters earlier in the year. When he couldn’t find me he asked me to log into my Facebook account on his computer so that I could add him. I refused, and told him I’d take his email instead. He agreed reluctantly and I was soon my papers were printed and I was escorted to the final room.
In it, a man gave me the stamp that extended my residency permit. Then he let me know that if I didn’t show up for language courses and was not able to make it to all-day civics class my residency would be reviewed and possibly taken away. I nodded nicely and was finally permitted to go home. I haven’t been able to bring myself to look at my paperwork since then.
So when people talk about why integration is failing in Europe, it’s important that we understand that the failure starts right at the OFII. Residents have a hard time squaring the rhetoric of “human rights” alongside their treatment of immigrants as subhumans. I’m also certain that being an American woman with decent language comprehension and a secondary education gave me a certain amount of leverage in the whole process. I shudder to think of how these doctors and “professionals” would treat people who are more vulnerable to exploitation or maltreatment.
If France truly cares about reforming their system so that immigrants and residents take pride in the country and feel comfortable interacting with the citizenry, they need to do a better job at understanding the basics in human dignity. Immigration to Europe, and especially to Paris, is not going to stop. The best that the country can do is work within it. I’ve been through the U.S. immigration system as well, and I can say that while it is also impersonal and jarring, that level of personal disrespect and unprofessional behavior was never once been inflicted on me or my friends who have gone through it as well.
None of us are expecting hugs from the OFII, but we’re not expecting to be mocked or exposed in front of a room full of strangers either. But I know, I know, I’m just another immigrant, demanding all those “special treatments and rights.” Expecting workers to act with a level of professionalism and interpersonal decorum. For a country that is quick to condemn other societies for their harsh treatment of women or their human rights injustices, I’ve yet to see this importance on human civility translated into even minor aspects of their immigration department. Until France learns how to conduct governmental business with a modicum of etiquette these problems will persist. Meanwhile, the ghetto outside my window continues to grow.