It has been a while since I last blogged. Nearly two years to be exact. In those two years, a lot has changed. Some changes have been good, others bad. France elected its youngest ever President, Emmanuel Macron (cf. macaron.)
And David Pujadas, heart-throb of many a high school French student (or was it just me?), was unceremoniously booted from France 2’s celebrated nightly news show, 20 heures.
So it’s been a big two years, full of unexpected events. But nothing prepared me for the letter that was waiting for me in my boite à lettres upon my recent return from a month-long séjour in Australia. The first sentence of the letter simply read, “Madame, J’ai le plaisir de vous informer que vous avez acquis la nationalité française depuis le 20 décembre 2017.” (“I have the pleasure to inform you that you acquired French nationality on 20 December 2017.”)
Accordingly, I was told that I would be receiving, in around 6 months’ time, a letter from President Macaron himself enclosing some official-sounding documents, including my French birth certificate. (I already asked about this and no, I am not being “re-born” French and I will not get a second birthday. From what I understand I will get a certificate saying that I was born on my actual birthday (but in France?), which apparently will come from Nantes. And no, technically I do not think this will make me bretonne, but I will claim it nonetheless.)
This letter came as quite a surprise. Although it’s true that I applied for French citizenship nearly two years ago, all the rumblings I was getting from the Prefecture to the press indicated that, due to the overwhelming number of British people applying for citizenship, the already sluggish wheels of the bureau des naturalisations would be slowing to a snail’s pace. Plus, at the end of my interview to acquire citizenship (yes, it’s a real interview – more about that later), I was effectively told, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” So I did my very best to “bien vouloir patienter” (a nice way French people basically tell you to shut up and be patient), put the whole process out of my mind and assumed I would get some forewarning if and when my dossier had been accepted.
But no, I did not hear a peep out of the Prefecture until I got back from Australia around half a year later (in mid-January), when I found out that I’d been French for a month and didn’t even know it.
This was all the more surprising given that I didn’t exactly pass my citizenship interview with flying colours. I’d done my best to study. I read the Livret du citoyen (a handy booklet prepared by the Ministère de l’Intérieur, a kind of Dummy’s guide to how to be a good French citizen.) I highlighted the key dates. I tried to memorize the notoriously complicated carte administrative (the administrative map of France), and then quickly gave up (much like the time my parents told me I was going to a Catholic high school and I tried to read to the bible the night before.) I learnt the names of five rivers in France (someone told me this might come up.) I went into the interview feeling good about my prospects of becoming French.
The interview started well. My rapporteur (a.k.a the guy looking after my file) kicked things off by going through my dossier. Luckily, it was generally in good order; my yearly battles with the Prefecture had trained me well. We looked at my birth certificate, passport, lease, gas bill, criminal record checks, diplomas, tax forms, social security forms, my parents’ birth certificates, my parents’ marriage certificate (and the list went on…) My rapporteur laughed as he tried to pronounce the names of the towns where my parents were born (Bacchus Marsh and Yarrawonga, #theypartylongerinYarrawonga.) He had a map of the world on the side of his cubicle and I pointed out various places in Australia. We talked about how long it takes to fly there and I told him “ça vaut la peine quand même” (“but it’s worth the trip”), as I tell so many French people. It all felt very pleasant – friendly, even – so far.
We looked at my pay slips and got chatting about my recent change of jobs. I explained that I had recently moved from an American company to a French one; big change of culture, yada yada. Without looking up from the papers he asked me if I had many French friends in my entourage. I started explaining, “Obviously, having worked in an American company for so long, I have a number of expat friends…”. He looked up at me with a look that said, “WRONG ANSWER”, at which point I quickly corrected myself to add, “But I have lots of French friends, too.” Relieved, he looked back down at the paperwork and I understood that the official part of the interview had begun.
Then the questions came. “What are the values of the French Republic?” Liberté, égalité, fraternité. “What does each of them mean?” Freedom, equality, yada yada yada. “What year was the French Revolution?” 1789. So far, so good. Then came, “Which King was overthrown by the Revolution?” I panicked. Was it Louis XVI? Or Louis XIV? I should know this. I took a gamble on Louis XIV (which, I know, makes absolutely no sense.) My rapporteur gave me the same, “WRONG ANSWER” look. He dropped his gaze, took a note and said, “Ce n’est pas très grave.” (Which means, “It’s not very serious. But it kinda is.”)
We carried on. He asked me to explain what laïcité is. I rattled off something about separation of Church and State and tried to suppress flashbacks to Arrested Development.
Then came the million Euro question: “Why do you want to be French?” I faltered. I hadn’t prepared an answer for this. I blurted out, “Parce que j’adore la France.” (“Because I love France.”) He gave me a look that said, “Well, duh,” and asked, “Pourquoi adorez-vous la France ?” (“Why do you love France?”) I drew another blank and started reeling off the first random things that came into my mind, “Son histoire, sa culture, sa cuisine…” (“Its history, its culture, its cuisine…”) My rapporteur looked intrigued. This must be the moment they prepare you for in French citizenship-testing school – get ’em to make a grand statement and then drill ’em with follow-up questions until they break.
“Well then, what is your favourite French cuisine?” My mind went blank – it was like Louis XIV all over again – I know so many French dishes but in the moment I couldn’t think of any. I wanted to say “beef bourguignon“, but I was too scared I wouldn’t be able to pronounce it properly. Then I thought of “steak frites“, but that’s probably the least French dish going around. I had nothing. “Fromage ?” I said tentatively. “Ah bon”, he said, “How many French cheeses do you know?” Again, my brain checked out. Why did I say cheese? I cursed myself. I don’t even like cheese that much. I started talking to cover my panic, “Well, you see actually I don’t like blue cheeses or soft cheeses, so that limits things somewhat…”, I trailed off. My rapporteur looked unimpressed.
For some reason my mind went to the mountains (it was the middle of July and the sun was shining outside on the Île de la Cité, so there was no logic at play) and I started thinking about Alpine cheeses. “Well there are some very good Savoyard cheeses like reblochon, beaufort and raclette … we like to ski, you see, and I love having raclette after a day of skiing with cornichons and some white wine…”, I trailed off again. For someone who said they want to become French for the fromage I wasn’t doing a very convincing job of this. But for whatever reason my rapporteur decided that he had exhausted that line of questioning and, miraculously (as I now know), that I had apparently shown sufficient knowledge of French cheeses to become a French citizen.
Next my rapporteur pulled out a contract that I had to sign. He told me that it said, amongst other things, that if and when I acquired French citizenship then, if asked what nationality I am, I would always have to say French. I looked at him quizzically. I simply could not fathom telling French people with a straight face, “Je suis française.” They would hear my accent, take one look at my outfit and know that I don’t come from here. He seemed to understand. “You can say you’re Australian, too,” he assured me. “But when you’re on French soil you must say that you’re French first.”
Relieved, I signed the contract and was told that if my dossier was accepted I would receive a convocation (a scary-sounding invitation) to a ceremony where I would sing the Marseillaise and receive my passport. I asked when this would be? He said it was hard to say, maybe 6 to 8 months if everything was in order. But, he said, et ça c’est très important, there was no need to call him, write to him, or come into the office before then (“Ça ne sert à rien.“) I would just need to “patienter“, he told me, and wait for the letter to come. I nodded. I’d heard this word many times during my time in Paris; on the phone, in the metro, in shops. Being patient is not one of my fortes and in France it is a verb. But for whatever reason, I did patienter. And then, as if by magic, the letter came when I least expected it, proving that perhaps I was ready to become French after all.