On Being French for 24 Hours

By Emma Pearson

June 22, 2024

16th April 2019

So yesterday was another (yes – yet another) landmark day for me in that I officially became French. A process that has taken almost three years, encompassing my most challenging times. A process that began the day we had been back in France for five years, after moving back into our village house after living in Switzerland for two years.

Years earlier, hearing the rumblings of “a referendum on EU membership”, I investigated “becoming French”, and learned that the “5 year requirement” would take no account of the 11 years we had previously spent in France.

I’ve written elsewhere about my impotent angst about a British “Leave” vote, and Mike’s relative calm. 


After the referendum in June 2016, I found out everything we needed to do to become French Citizens – for Mike and me as “foreign-borns”, and for the kids as “France-born”. (The kids’ process was so much faster and simpler and they have been French for two years already).

I printed off lists of documents, had rendez-vous with officials, had my level of French competency assessed, got proof of 5 years of tax cleanliness, proof of no crimes committed in all the countries I have lived in since the age of 18 (four) and had them translated into French by an official translator; got our birth and wedding certificates notarised and translated officially; acquired kids’ school attendance records and got their birth certificates officialised; wrote “lettres de motivation” for each and every one of us; and much more. Mike attended a 2-day Red Cross course in order to have an Education certificate gained in France.

French admin is known to be – uhm – heavy.

It was heavy. Heavy in so many ways. 

Burdensome. Laden. Weighty. Onerous. Copious. And very effort-ful.

We had our first RDV with the authorities expressing our wish to become French citizens in late July 2016, a month after the referendum. Mike and I drove to Oyonnax to attend the meeting. We were given another RDV for 3-4 months hence, at which we were to take all of our documents, copied, translated, signed…. 

At that meeting in November, we already knew Mike was ill. We didn’t know what was going on but we knew chemo would be involved. Our piles of paper were approved. Some pieces we hadn’t photocopied enough times but she knew Mike was ill and kindly went to copy them so that we could be done with that part of the process. Small kindnesses I was grateful for.

Our official looked up on the system to set our interview date in Lyon… and said – “December…” (my heart leapt – wow – just a month away!) “… 2017”.  Crap – a full 13 months into the future.  I had no idea what would happen in those 13 months. But never did I think that Mike wouldn’t be there for the interview. Never did I think that he wouldn’t also become French.

I knew so little. I had no idea.

Our documents were submitted in two envelopes for our two separate applications. Mike’s envelope had his British birth certificate, as well as our one and only, precious, British wedding certificate. My envelope contained my British birth certificate. In the UK, you get one and only one birth certificate. It’s valid your entire life. In France, a birth certificate is valid for only 3 months, and you get them with a few clicks on-line. Sometimes it’s free and sometimes it’s not depending on the website. It’s efficient, if also very annoying. But a much less emotionally-laden document than the British one.

We had said at the time that we would like the originals back.  The woman did a classic Gallic shrug complete with raised eyebrow, and muttered that it should be possible – but that we should be sure to put the request in writing. I got the appropriate addresses and contact details.

When Mike died and the authorities still had our thick wodge of documents, our – now my – date for the interview was still over half a year away. I contacted them to let them know Mike’s new “civil status” and to ask how I would get his documents back. They were not sure (I guess this doesn’t happen too often) but that I would probably get his entire file back during my interview.

Fast forward to my interview in late 2017, which went fine, despite my being precisely 24 minutes late. I got most of Mike’s file back then, but was told that they needed to take our wedding certificate from Mike’s file. I expressed how I wanted to be sure to get both back at the end of the process. I was told my request was not very normal. And I said, “Well, my situation is not very normal”. Another Gallic shrug, which I took to be acquiescence.

Fast forward some more and I received a letter in November 2018 saying, “Congratulations – your application for French citizenship has been approved”. No mention of my precious documents though. I followed up pretty sharpish and was told reassuringly that everything was there, and I would get everything back at the official ceremony in Lyon.

I couldn’t attend the official ceremony because it clashed with my Oman swim. And I couldn’t make the next meeting because of a work gig that was too important to miss. But they were patient with me and we fixed a date for yesterday, Monday 15th April, in a different city, Bourg-en-Bresse.

I was nervous about nothing other than getting our wedding certificate, and my birth certificate, back. It felt like that was my only reason to attend the meeting. I had gone there with a mindset of “let’s check this box”. Let me have my documents back, then leave. It’s all gone on for far too long.

I drove to the right place in Bourg-en-Bresse, got access via the back door of the building (the front door sign said the offices were closed on Mondays), and was ushered to a simple desk in what seemed like a corridor. The woman looking after me apologised about the simplicity of the process and the venue, stating that the official ceremony in Lyon was really quite wonderful. 

I was sitting in a corridor, receiving my documents, and suddenly felt very sobby and teary. I totally underestimated how moved I would be. Moved by the language on the documents. Moved by the quiet intentionality with which the woman gave me various documents to read and sometimes sign. Quality parchment and water-marked paper. Moved by Emmanuel Macron’s and Edouard Philippe’s signatures. Moved by seeing my new French birth and wedding certificates. Moved at receiving my “Livret de Famille”. Very moved when she gently pulled out and unfolded our wedding certificate and handed it back to me. Moved seeing the woman moved at my being moved. I was fiddling with our wedding rings necklace.

I should have taken someone with me. Duh! Mike should have been with me. I am exhausted by everything, by anything momentous like this. What a feeling of relief and sense of closure about this part of the journey; sad closure – for this period of our lives where Mike and I strove for legitimacy and flexibility for us and for the kids, both on French soil, and in the rest of the European Union. A massive piece of emotional admin in order to lessen ongoing emotional admin.

I felt proud. I was moved at my pride. My pride in becoming French. Of calling this country – where we/I have lived for over 20 years. Where the three kids were born. Where Mike transformed an abandoned old French building in a small village into a unique and liveable abode for clamouring babies and, later, clattering teenagers.

I am proud of my bloody-minded resilience. My ability to keep on keeping on. To not give up. To figure out the effing paperwork and administrative systems. Which I dislike in English. Which I loathe in French. And which I abhor beyond belief in German.

There is still much to be done. I need to get the brand new Livret de Famille updated to include the kids, which it does not. To include Mike’s death, which it does not. And to acknowledge my widowed-not-married status, which it does not. And for all of that to happen smoothly, I need to inform an appropriate body in the UK that Mike has died, because somehow that hasn’t been done. And because he died in Switzerland, neither the French nor the Brits have updated their systems.  He’s fallen into a vacuum between three countries. A Brit, living in France, working on becoming French but he didn’t make it, and who died in an end of life hospice in Switzerland. The systems don’t talk to one another. And paperwork and administration is not my strong suite. 

More paperwork. I suspect it will get done in time. Or perhaps it won’t. I won’t lose sleep over it.

Just after I got home, I learned about the fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Over 800 years of history, heritage, stories and memories burning away. I couldn’t watch the news. I protect myself that way often. I have avoided watching most televised news for years.

I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t cry for my new country’s damaged – or lost – heritage. I couldn’t cry for the non-human loss. I just can’t. I can only cry for the living, and for no longer living lives and love.

If Mike hadn’t died, I am sure I would have watched the images and cried.

And if I hadn’t become French that day, I am sure I would have watched the reports and cried.

The state of my heart and compassion is very damaged.

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