A Survival Guide to French Bureaucracy

The exchange experience is not only about getting to know a brand new culture, travelling, and generally having the best time of your life. It is also about dealing with the complexities of a different culture, the paperwork and the ways things are done in a different country. When I extended my health card back in Toronto for my stay in Paris, the lady at the counter remarked off-handedly that the French love their paperwork. It was almost a premonition to what was about to come.

As an exchange student, you will need to deal with the French bureaucracy in 3 major cases: student registration at Sciences Po, residence permit (for the Non-Europeans) and CAF (the French government’s housing subsidy). And that perception of a slow and cumbersome French bureaucracy? It is mostly true.

There isn’t really a way to escape the bureaucracy. But there are ways to make your life easier, and some things that I would have done differently were I to be given a second chance.

1. Be prepared and have contingency plans.

If you thought course registration at U of T was stressful, think again. All exchange students at Sciences Po register for courses at the same time. To give you the context, all third-year Sciences Po students either go on a full-year exchange or a full-year internship. That means there is a full year worth of exchange students coming to Sciences Po and choosing courses at the exact same moment. I managed to get 4 of my 5 desired courses, but there were many students who had empty schedules by the end of course registration. The key is to know that English courses fill up much more quickly than French ones, to try to enrol in the most interesting-sounding courses first, and to watch the course enrolment demo video very carefully in the days before.

2. Follow the instructions very very carefully. 

Staying on the topic of course registration, people who were not able to enrol in their preferred courses can send a request to the administration. The course request procedure is very particular, and the steps have to be followed to the letter for your request to be processed in a timely matter. When the Sciences Po admin say to only send them the form once and not to contact them otherwise, they mean it. I know students who emailed and phoned and generally tried to reach the administration every other hour. They were often the ones who had their problems resolved later than others. Of course, no one likes that feeling of panic and helplessness, but it is important to keep in mind that Sciences Po (and Paris at large) has a very particular way in which certain things are carried out, and it is highly unlikely for them to change their ways upon your request.

In many other cases, such as for your residence permit (carte de sejour) or CAF, you may not be able to go to the different offices and hand in your documents personally. Many things have to be done through mail, and it is generally the case that French government branches will not process your file if you did not send in all your documents following their exact requirements.

3. Do everything as soon as you can.

For the Canadians and other non-Europeans out there, please do not wait until a few days before your visa expires to apply for your carte de sejour. You will end up like one of my friends who is now stuck in France during reading break because her visa has expired. Getting your carte de sejour (residence permit) is quite tedious. I will not go into detail here, but should anyone have any questions, feel free to ask. If you qualify for the housing subsidy from the French government (aka CAF), keep in mind that they do not subsidize your rent retroactively. That means if you apply for CAF in November, you will not be subsidized for the months of September and October.

4. Keep copies of all your documents, no matter how insignificant and irrelevant they may seem.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but the number of documents you will encounter throughout all the administrative processes inevitably means something will be missed. I had forgotten to save a copy of my online CAF application form, which was apparently needed for the paper part of the application. To my dismay there was no way to access the form after I exited the CAF website. It took the better part of an hour and a 40 cent per minute phone call to the CAF office for a staff member to agree to mail me a paper version of the form.

5. Expect yourself to be unprepared. 

I had thought I would be prepared and made countless electronic and paper copies of all my important documents stashed in various compartments of my luggage. But during my carte de sejour application, I was told that the visa-sized photos I shelled out $19 for back in Canada did not conform to the standard glossiness for the permit (I did not even realize there were different levels of glossiness for photos). Luckily there was a photo-booth one floor up and I was able to have my photos taken for 5 euros (this says a lot for being over-prepared). But this did mean lining up again and re-submitting my documents for inspection.

6. Have patience, and a healthy dose of optimism. 

I realize that things may seem a bit grim and tedious, but the way I found most effective to combat bureaucratic stress was to believe that things will work out. Deal with these necessary bureaucratic nightmares, but don’t lose sight of all the fun and excitement of the exchange experience. I remember copious amounts of Nutella and a dinner out with friends after a cold and miserable 8 hours spent trying to submit my titre de sejour application in person. And sometimes, French bureaucracy will work just right and pleasantly surprise you with their efficiency

A little side trip to Fontainbleau


Cour d’Honneur – Château de Fontainbleau

Paris is great, but so is its surrounding area. Château de Versailles is a top destination for most people visiting Paris. Located just a 45 minute train ride away, the awe-inspiring palace and the beautiful gardens instill a sort of nostalgic satisfaction in witnessing a period of France’s glory. But about 60km south of Paris is a small town by the name of Fontainbleau that has a lot to offer away from most tourists’ radar.

Reception Hall – Château de Fontainbleau. Probably the most Versailles room in the palace.

The town is fairly quiet with a French locale catering to mostly French-speaking visitors. Fontainbleau is surrounded by lush forests that used to be the royal hunting ground. Needless to say, the air is a reprieve from the smoke-filled streets of Paris.

While Versailles bedazzles with fierce gold (that becomes a bit repetitious after the tenth stately magnificent room), Fontainbleau seduces with a softer myriad of colours.

Château de Fontainbleau is constructed in stages that started from Louis VII all the way to Napoleon III (and according to its official website, the Château has also been inhabited continuously for over 700 years). Depending on which building and which room you visit, the architectural and decorative style will range from Medieval to the style of the Second Empire. (Napoleon I did have a large hand in modifying the interior of the palace, especially the former royal apartments. And interestingly, you get to visit the table on which Napoleon signed his abdication in 1814).


Horse-drawn carriage through the gardens of Château de Fontainbleau

Though the interior of the Château is certainly beautiful, it’s the gardens that sets the castle apart from the countless ones doted across the French countryside. With 4 distinctly different gardens, Château de Fontainbleau feels endlessly immense, and at certain parts, remote from civilization.

These small day-trips are necessary escapes from the mid-term mania at Sciences Po, which I may blog about once things become less hectic. As an exchange student, it is extremely difficult to settle down and focus on studying when there are so many things to explore and so many distractions. I have no advice on how to stay focused, as I am seeking that myself (and I would welcome any and all suggestions). But these trips are a welcomed reprieve from the sheer madness of back-to-back exposés, and often helps me focus upon return.

Until next time,


Sciences Po – the ‘academic’ part of the exchange

While frosh week and related shenanigans took place on the other side of the Atlantic, the academic term started at Sciences Po on September 2nd.

For those unfamiliar with the school, the Institut d’etudes politiques de Paris (Sciences Po for short) is one of the leading universities in Europe in the fields of political science and international relations. It was founded in 1872 as a reaction to France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and from a desire to change the French political and ideological landscape. The university, I was told during the Welcome Day, was created to teach future politicians and diplomats how to make decisions and how to lead.

Whether or not the school succeeded in doing so is up for debate. But what it does mean for an exchange student studying here is some truly multi-disciplinary courses taught by practitioners and academics of the field. It is very difficult to find a course in Sciences Po that is strictly in its given discipline. And that perhaps explains, partially, why it is so difficult to get that 300 level economics transfer credit. Your economics course is not just economic theory; it also incorporates elements of history, politics and philosophy.

This is a field day for international relations students who, by the structure of the IR program at U of T, have to take courses (that may or may not integrate nicely) from the economics, history and political science departments. You have an advantage here over other students, who might have been confused by that throwaway reference to the Wars of Devolution in your Public International Law class.


Sciences Po map

Map of Sciences Po campus courtesy of Sciences Po’s website. The buildings in red are school buildings. (For undergrad students, your main classes will be in buildings A, B, H and J)

Sciences Po is located in the centre of Paris. It is a 15 minute walk from the Louvre and a 30 minute walk from the Eiffel Tower.

The school is very different from U of T, not just in terms of the overall size (Sciences Po is much smaller), but also in how decentralized and integrated the campus is.

(Aside: interestingly, Sciences Po gives 15 minutes in between consecutive classes, while U of T gives only 10…You will never have to sprint down the street to get to your next class on time at Sciences Po.) 

Walking to school is an exercise in colour-coordination and pulling off that seemingly-effortless elegance. This may seem incredibly clichéd, but when you have to walk past speciality Haute Couture stores and other finely-dressed Parisians (even your classmates!) on your way to class, you will be hard-pressed to continue dressing like a slob.

A comparison of the physical sizes of the two universities:


U of T St. George campus (courtesy of google maps)

Sciences Po campus

The much smaller Sciences Po campus (courtesy of google maps). You can barely see the school buildings behind the giant Sciences Po label.










Sciences Po employs an unique methodology that is difficult to explain. Perhaps you have encountered it elsewhere, but this was my first time encountering this particular format, and it caught me by surprise.

A proper ‘Sciences Po’ essay or exposé needs to have a problématique. The problématique is the central paradoxical question that your essay is trying to answer. The essay/presentation body is structured in two parts divided in a coherent manner (either thematically or chronologically). Then each of these two parts, is further divided into two sub-parts.

My TA provided a sample outline:

  • Introduction (historical context, define the terms of the assignment, problématique)
  • Part 1: Thematic argument 1
  •      1A: introduction to the specific argument, background, context
  •      1B: main argument 1
  • Part 2: Thematic argument 2
  •      2A: main argument 2
  •      2B: implications of the arguments
  • Conclusion (thesis)

Professors, especially of classes taught in French, are a stickler for this format. But don’t worry if this all seems awfully vague, everything becomes a bit clearer after you watch a few of the presentations by the local students.

A few things on classes at Sciences Po:

Attendance is mandatory. All courses (except lectures) take attendance. Missing more than two classes results in automatic failure. Suffice it to say, do not miss class.

Do not be late for class either! Depending on how strict your prof is, arriving 5 minutes after the start of class can be considered late. Accumulating enough “lates” will equate to an absence.

Follow the rules. In the words of my French Opera prof, the rules are not there for you to circumvent, no matter how cleverly you can do so. They are there to measure how you excel given the constraint of the rules. Your talent is demonstrated by your ability to follow the rules, like everyone else, while still presenting your own take on a given topic. It’s a different mindset than the one I am used to, but when in Rome, do as the Romans do right?

Like most buildings in France, Sciences Po is not air-conditioned. Summer can be extremely stifling, but given how quickly the weather has cooled, that should not be a problem. Whether or not the buildings have some sort of heater for the winter remains to be seen.

Until next time,

(Heading to Belgium this weekend. Anyone Europe-bound at the time?)


The beginning of the journey – …Paris?

View from Tour Montparnasse

View from Tour Montparnasse

Paris is a loaded word. Through its portrayal in countless literature and media, “Paris” often evokes an image of a romanticized, glorified and idealized city. But the word is also swiftly followed by the counter-culture that perpetuates the idea of rude Parisians, formidable pick-pocketers and outdoor chain-smokers. The real Paris, if there is such a thing, perhaps lie somewhere in between.

Studying in Paris does not necessarily lead to a radically different view of the city, but by

Captured on the Les Cars Air France bus on my way into Paris proper

Captured on the Les Cars Air France bus on my way into Paris proper

virtue of a longer stay, and more interactions with the locals, it does offer a more well-rounded view of the city. I would like to preface by stating that after three weeks in Paris, I have not become an expert of the city or of French culture. But I can share some of my experience that may add another dash of colour to your perception of this city.

Let’s start with the facts.

Château de Fontainebleau. Not exactly in Paris proper, but it is located in Île de France.

Château de Fontainebleau. Not exactly in Paris proper, but it is located within Île de France, at a 40 minute train ride from Paris. (The castle is free for students. Show your student card!)

Paris is a city. Though it may be small geographically when compared to Toronto, its population density is far superior. And its long and vibrant history contained pivotal events and characters that shaped modern Western society.

I would like to think that above all, Paris is predicated on human interactions. People who have lived here before, people who live here now, and people who will be living here, (even tourists!), have smeared their painted fingerprints on this city.

The people I have spoken to, whether they be the grocery store staff, the bank counsellor or the restaurant owner, are all incredibly aware of the international and the pluralist nature of the city. They choose to live in a largely French lifestyle, but many of them are from different corners of the globe.

It leads to interesting results, where the tradition and the foreign are very much a part of the city life.

Chocolate store at Saint-Germain-des-Prés

Chocolate store at Saint-Germain-des-Prés. While it attracts large crowds of tourists, it does have heavenly-tasting chocolates and cookies.

Le Petit Prince paraphernalia at Pantheon (which is free for those under 26. Show your passport if you are not an EU citizen!)

The conspicuous and rather out of place Le Petit Prince paraphernalia at the Pantheon (the Pantheon is free for those under 26. Show your passport!)









Briefly, Living in Paris:

View from my apartment (located in the 6eme arrondissement)

View from my apartment (located in the 6eme arrondissement)

Housing is expensive, especially when you live within walking-distance to the school. Be prepared to find a French guarantor and open a French bank account prior to signing the lease (which is inherently difficult because French banks require proof of your French residence before allowing you to open an account).

Give yourself a lot of time. It took me 90 minutes to open a French bank account, and a further two and a half weeks to receive my French bank card. I have yet to apply for my residence permit, but I have already been sent back-and-forth between a few places.

French bureaucracy is tedious. I would highly recommend making multiple copies of all your official documents before coming to Paris.

Walk. Or take the metro. When it comes down to it, Paris is a small city. I can walk to most of the places I need to go. If you do not like the 30 minute trek from Saint Sulpice Church to Rue Mouffetard, there is always the reliable and frequent metro. But I would suggest you walk, because you will be walking through the Luxembourg Gardens (which is always beautiful).

Speak French. It is a wonderful time to practice. I was pleasantly surprised by how nice most Parisians were to me when I make an effort to speak French (majority are nice even when you speak English, but you will see the relief in their eyes when you switch to French).

Your student status is wonderful. Most, if not all, national museums and castles are free when you present your student card or passport. This includes the Louvre, the Rodin Museum, Musée d’Orsay, Château de Versailles and many more. You will also receive discounts on metro tickets and metro cards. Not coming to Paris when you are young and spry seems such a waste, non?


Next entry on life in Sciences Po, and attempt at figuring out the Sciences Po methodology (la problématique, un exposé en deux parties anyone?)

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