You may not think that the French Birth certificate is anything to write a blog post about, but you would be wrong. It sums up the love of paperwork that the French government seems to have, and has passed on to its citizens.
If there is a phrase that sums up the French attitude towards paperesse (red tape), this is it. It means if you have to do it at least twice, (for example going to the Police prefecture to try to renew your visa) you will actually have to try three times. French pessimism at its maximum.
And it begins at birth. The French government loves their paperwork and so their policy involves collecting even random documents that they may already have in their possession, or that may be entirely irrelevant. Inevitably you are missing a paper. Or they have added a required document that is not listed on their website. Or the fonctionnaire (government worker) who is dealing with you is having a bad day. And thus you have to go and attempt to do whatever it is you were trying to do again.
A prime example of French Bureaucracy is your birth certificate. I never needed my birth certificate before moving to France. (I now have a expensive, beautifully detailed document, stamped, apostilled, and officially certifiably translated. It is now, however, quite useless as I explain below.)
In France, you need a birth certificate for everything: to get married, to renew your passport or ID card, to sign a mortgage, for your kid to get into school, etc.
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A “new” certificate every 3 months
Providing a birth certificate as a form of ID would be fine, except it is not enough for a Frenchman to have his original birth certificate. He has to get a new one from the Mairie (City hall) of the town he was born in, issued within the last 3 months. So to be clear, even if he is 35 years old, his birth certificate should be a new one issued within the last 3 months. (Foreigners are usually allowed to use birth certificates over 3 months old, thank goodness!)
Why a new birth/marriage certificate every time? As far as most people are aware, birth certificates don’t change! Except in France, they do. For example, for a Frenchman born in France, when he gets married and has kids, each time his birth certificate will be updated with those details. It is called “Mention Marginale”. Literally, it means a note in the margins of his birth certificate.
And it is the same in his marriage certificate. Each important event, such as adoption, acquisition of nationality, divorce, new marriage, death, etc. will all be added on to that original birth certificate.
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Foreigners getting a “French” birth certificate
And when you become a French citizen as an immigrant, you can bid farewell to your original foreign birth certificate, and say hello to your brand new “French” Birth Certificate, which will now keep track of all your Mentions Marginales. You have now been reborn as “French cititzen”, I kid you not!
You even have a new commune (town), who will henceforth issue you a new French birth certificate every time you need one: Nantes. As a naturalized citizen, I am a Nantais despite never having visited the city.
And my actual expensively translated birth certificate that I mentioned above is now perfectly useless since as a citizen I should use my French one.
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The Marriage Certificate
Similarly, the French marriage certificate also is usually only acceptable for 3 months. The same department at your Mairie (Townhall) that issues birth certificates, issues these as well. This doesn’t exclude the fact that you will also receive a little book from the Townhall upon your marriage to keep track of births/marriages/children a “Livret de Famille”. (The Livret de Famille is sometimes an official document acceptable as proof of marriage, and sometimes it is not. There is no logic to it so I won’t attempt to explain.)
☞ READ MORE: Why getting married in France is difficult
The Practical side of dealing with bureaucracy
The French expression “Usine à Gaz” literally translates into a “gas factory”, but it actually means “elaborate factory producing hot air”. I don’t know that this expression was created specifically for French papers, but I like to think it was.
Can you imagine the number of government workers required to keep track of this information, adding it to every French nationals’ documents? Have I mentioned that France’s Public sector spending is 57% of GDP? That means more than ½ of the spending in France’s economy is coming from the government (per the Office of the French Prime Minister). Amazing!
Thankfully most Mairies now let you order these documents online and at no cost to the citizen. They also usually very helpfully include a note saying that “You don’t need a new Birth certificate every time”. This is true since your kid’s birth certificate Mentions Marginales should be irrelevant for getting into school, for example. They should try explaining this to themselves and their Police Prefecture counterparts!
Have I mentioned these documents are required all the time? I made sure to get married and have children in France, instead of in my home country of Canada, just so that we could order birth and marriage certificates easily. Family planning for papers!
On the plus side, it is relatively easy to track genealogy in France. All you have to do is find out one ancestor’s birth/marriage/death certificate and you have a detailed trail. So just think how much fun your future French descendants will have, tracing their way through history. Really, you are doing all this paperwork for them 😉
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