Through the Maze of French Bureaucracy: A Success Story


Illustration par Alice Tourret

With friends from all over Europe,  

basic French skills and just a four-hour train  

ride from the parental home, moving to Paris  

did not seem like embarking to a foreign place.

I have tasted all types of French pastries — often  

enough to temporarily run an Instagram account  

about all things croissant. After many awkward  

and very literal tête-à-têtes, I know which cheek  

to present first when doing the salutatory bise  

(nevertheless hoping that this custom will die  

out sooner than later). I own bérets in three  

colors. One of them is pink and reads bonjour.  

Wearing it, I felt prepared for everything. 

As a German, the need to feel in control is inex 

tricably tied to my personality. And for the first  

weeks, all went well. I arrived with a backpack  

twice my size, which allowed me to navigate the  

dangerous metro turnstiles confidently. I found  

all classrooms on the first try and even put in  

a request for student housing assistance on a  

website that looks like a relic from the 20th cen 

tury (still waiting to hear back!).  

Exuberant thanks to these successes, I ventured  

to the doctor. Mentally reciting my year of bir 

th (mille neuf cent quatre-vingt-dix-sept), the  

bill presented to me by the receptionist caught  

me off-guard. At the end of the month, a stu 

dent’s bank account is empty. I had not expected  

the doctor’s office to be overwhelmed with my  

health insurance card, which I assumed could be  

used anywhere within Europe. In Germany, my  

adventure would have ended on the spot. If you  

cannot pay, you have reached the terminus. With  

luck, you’ll earn a regretful smile and shoulder  

shrug: „Nothing we can do about that, sorry.“  

Not so in France. With an “after all, you’re a stu 

dent,” the receptionist unceremoniously crum 

pled up the bill and tossed it nonchalantly into  

the trash. The new, significantly lower one, I  

readily paid. All a matter of negotiation.  

That is the beauty of the French system. Things  

may seem incredibly complicated. You may be  

asked to send the same document ten times or  

spend an hour and a half on a hotline. Some 

times, like the other day, when wanting to get  

a booster shot, you may feel like K. in Franz  

Kafka’s The Castle: Moving in a seemingly never  

ending cycle from one room to another, repea 

ting your quest and being referred to yet ano 

ther person. But, unlike K., at the end you make  

it to the castle—if you just hang in there and do  

not let bureaucracy weigh you down.