Today I met a stateless... Frenchwoman in Brussels...
Today, Popeye and I, we decided it was about time to go confront bureaucracy again. Remember, we need an ID card very bad but last time we tried to get one, we did have a few problems.
The sun was shining. Birds were not singing - too cold! Off we went to the French General Consulate in Brussels hoping that this time, we’d get through very swiftly.
Checklist - everything okay.
We were issued a waiting number - 51. Unbelievable... They were still processing n° 30... But since we were there... Popeye needed to take a nap (he is this tired, yes) and I had my ‘kindle’.
All of sudden, n° 54 came into the waiting room. A fiftyish blond woman, very stylish. She took the only vacant seat not very far from where Popeye was trying to sleep it off.
She instantly hit it off with her neighbor. Lucky me who was three seats away. Poor Popeye who was sitting quite close to the two women. But actually he is such a seasoned traveller that he kept dozing.
I turned off my ‘kindle’. And I started listening. Actually, I love to listen to people.
This woman had a very interesting story she started telling to everybody who cared to listen to her. She was not loud. She obviously needed to share... And share she did!
23 years ago, she married a guy from Belgium. She then left France and moved to Belgium. They had three sons who chose to become Belgian citizens. Probably at a time when military service was still mandatory in France and unheard of in Belgium. Or maybe because they felt more Belgian than French. This is not my problem.
She decided to remain a French citizen. She felt safer that way. Wrong move.
When you leave France and start living in Belgium, you have to register to the city hall where you are planning to live. They deliver you a ID card allowing you to live in Belgium... (Me getting one was quite a story in itself.)
Once you are registered in Belgium, the second thing you have to do is to go register (once again) to the nearby French Consulate. They in turn will issue an ID card, called the ‘Consular ID card’. This card is quite useless actually. It is not a real ID card. It is just a proof that you are French and that you are living in Belgium. It may allow you to vote for the French presidential elections and referendums from Belgium if you want to.
You also can go to the Consulate to get whatever official papers or IDs you need, including passports.
How can you become stateless when you are French and you live in Belgium?
I hope you are having a good laugh, Mr. T., my real stateless friend from... especially since you have been trying so hard to become a French citizen! Don't get too scared! You probably won't have to live in Belgium after all!
Obviously it is really easy to become stateless, even in Europe as a European citizen.
I was flabbergasted. For quite a few years, she had been duly registered at the Consulate and at her city hall. Then time went by and she forgot to get her IDs renewed.
Which by the way shows she doesn’t travel a lot, at least out of Europe.
Since she had married a guy from Belgium, she did not worry about registering in Belgium either.
15 years went by. By then they had bought a house in Zaventem (in Flanders but home to the Brussels airport).
(A year ago, against all European laws, the Zaventem mayor enacted a very unlawful decree. Not one word of French was to be spoken in Zaventem (in the city hall). No one in the European community ever said one word against it either! It kind of opened the way to what’s going on in Belgium right now.)
For some reason... I think that she wanted to buy a car and needed an ID and she realized she no longer had a Belgian ID (which would be like a ‘green card’).
So she went to the Zaventem city hall to get it renewed. There she was told to come back with an interpret, which she did, of course, quite appalled though.
In Zaventem, before issuing her a Belgian ‘green card’, they asked for her French ID as a proof she was not ‘I honestly don’t know what’ since we all are European citizens (and she sounded terribly French. We have a clipped accent very different from the French-speaking Belgians). She also had proof that she was married to a Belgian guy. Belgian but not Flemish.
The poor woman had forgotten to get a new French ID when her last one expired more than 10 years ago.
And even worse, she no longer had a Consular ID card... She had no second home in France which meant no possibility to get an ID card in France.
This was her fourth time to the Consulate in order to try to register there again.
Quite hard obviously because she has to prove that during those 23 years, she has been living in Belgium. She never worked. All the bills were paid by her husband. The only proof she has: a few Belgian medical bills. Some people don’t realize how lucky they are not to be sick, though.
I was listening to her. How can you spend so many years without any ID in Europe?
Could something like this have happened to me? I remember balking at the idea of getting my new ‘green card’, a year ago because I never ever use it and I hate the city hall anyway.
Popeye who is really law abiding got really mad... So I went to the city hall and got my new card. It went well this time but this is another story.
This woman’s story was very enlightening for me. I know she will eventually end up getting all her papers back.
What if she had not been born in France from French parents. What if she had been naturalized French from Africa or North Africa? Not too hard to imagine what would have happened to her then. No papers... Impossible to get new ones. A story by Kafka.
And then while she was waiting, she kept on talking about her life in Zaventem, Flanders, Belgium. Obviously, we all were living in French-speaking Brussels. So we stood there gaping. (Popeye was still trying to sleep, knowing very well that I would tell him the whole story anyway.)
It was a little bit hard to stomach when she told us that her best friend (born and raised in Belgium but French speaking from Brussels) had to pass a Flemish test in order to be allowed to buy a house in Zaventem, two months ago.
I’m not talking about the end of the world. I used to go to Zaventem quite often to buy stuff at Ikea or to pick Popeye at the airport. Zaventem is about 10 minutes away from the heart of Brussels.
Creepy, isn’t it!
I don’t care anyway (just kidding). I made a friend. He’s Azeri and very nice. He speaks French and loves opera!
I almost forgot to tell you the great news - our French IDs are being processed at last... 8 more weeks to wait for them... But we did get safely through bureaucracy! Thank goodness we never forgot to keep our Consular IDs renewed.
*Good Luck, and Good Night*