France’s Defender of Rights is ready to help foreigners in the country who face administrative difficulties, even if they are not full-time residents.
The Défenseure des Droits’ report for 2022 flagged up foreigners’ residency as the ‘most complained-about’ public service, so we spoke to Daniel Agacinski, her deputy in charge of mediation.
Photo: Daniel Agacinski mediation chief; Credit: Défenseure des Droits
Report official bodies to Défenseure
The Défenseure is both a person, currently Claire Hédon, and a service, including central office staff in Paris and 570 departmental delegates.
People facing difficulties with official bodies can apply to the Defender by online form (click ‘file a claim’), phone, in person with a departmental delegate, or in writing, without a stamp, to: Défenseur des Droits, Libre réponse 71120, 75342 Paris CEDEX 07.
The remit is even larger for ‘discrimination’, for example, if you believe you were poorly treated based on origins or nationality, the Defender can help even if a state body was not involved.
‘Amicable’ mediation is most common
The Defender can look into issues free of charge and undertake mediation, or assist with going to court.
Mr Agacinski said: “The strategy depends on the situation and the nature of the infringement of rights that we identify, but the ‘amicable’ [mediation] process is the most common, even if it can be complicated when it comes to prefectures.”
Departmental delegates often undertake the mediation, seeking a solution or explanation from bodies in their areas, whereas national-level lawyers typically help with legal action where necessary.
If procedure is online only it can harm people’s rights
The Defender continues to receive many complaints related to foreigners’ services, particularly related to the trend for putting procedures online.
“Digitisation made procedures easier for some, but it’s made it harder for those who have difficulty using the internet or anyone who comes across bugs or difficulties because their situation doesn’t tick the usual boxes.
“If an online process is the only option and it’s not accompanied by a human presence, able to respond to questions and help with blockages, it can harm people’s rights.”
Pandemic made existing problem worse
Mr Agacinski said issues have been reported with this in many areas of public service, from social services to unemployment benefits, but it has caused the most serious consequences for users of residency services at prefectures because of the wide-ranging impact on people’s lives.
“It’s also the case where contact with the service has become the most closed-off and reduced in quality.
“That had already started before the pandemic, due to political and organisational choices, so we can’t put it all down to that, even though it rapidly made things worse,” Mr Agacinski said.
It has become “extremely difficult, if not impossible, to communicate with someone,” though it is likely to be easier away from the large cities.
As a result, people might not get the advice they need to complete formalities correctly, and end up needing help from other providers, such as social workers or charities.
Brexit consequences came at ‘unfortunate’ time
The move to putting applications online appeared to have been done too fast and without enough backup from actual people where necessary, he said.
“Even the Cour des Comptes [which checks on public spending] has recognised that we went too far, too fast in reducing personnel in prefectures.”
That was then compounded during the pandemic, as many staff were not equipped to do their jobs from home, which slowed down processing, he added.
“Britons then had the misfortune that the consequences of Brexit, and the new necessity to undertake procedures to have residency cards, came just at that point when the services had become worse for all non-EU citizens.”
No face-to-face for driving licences was ‘first shock’
However the “first shock” had come in 2017-18 with the closing down of face-to-face services for driving licences and vehicle cartes grises.
Mr Agacinski said that the situation had improved in that respect but there were now concerns over redeployment of more staff at ANTS towards French people’s passports and ID cards.
Regarding residency issues, he said that people often cannot turn to the local France Services centres that help with administrative tasks, as residency matters are not officially part of their remit.
Meanwhile, some, but not all, prefectures now have points d’accueil numériques (IT help desks), but they help with using official websites, not with residency problems per se.
Local delegates for Defender of Rights
The Defender can help, for example, when a card is refused or it is taking too long to obtain a response from officials.
“All foreigners who are [physically] in France can see a delegate to see if their rights have been infringed and we can help to restore the person’s rights, or obtain a response or get a situation looked at again.”
Find your local delegates here.
Helpline may help in English
In theory, Mr Agacinski said they are meant to focus especially on complex disputes over interpretation of rules and unusual situations that were not provided for, but they are now often being called on just because people cannot get an appointment, which he said is “extremely serious”.
Last year, top administrative body the Conseil d’Etat said there must be help on offer for those experiencing issues with online residency procedures, and that alternative ways of accomplishing them must be provided.
However, the Defender continues to receive “more and more” complaints.
Mr Agacinski said if you call their helpline (09 69 39 00 00), you can ask if there is an English-speaking delegate who can help, but this is not guaranteed.
The website is partly in English, and the online application form is being translated. In the meantime, some internet browsers can translate.
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