Just after 2.35pm last Wednesday, at the préfecture in Montpellier, I took possession of my new carte de séjour, the five-year residency permit that replaces my right under Freedom of Movement (FoM) to live here indefinitely, which was blown out of the water along with so much else by Brexit.
Nine hours and 24 minutes later, the deadline for applying for the new card expired... or perhaps it didn't, and has been extended by three months, as some reports (and préfectures) suggest. No-one seems to know for sure, least of all the Ministry of the Interior, which is in charge of the process.
In case this sounds like reckless Aitken brinkmanship, I must stress that I have behaved throughout like the very model of a Brexit-bruised expatriate. We prepared the elaborate dossiers of documents required to prove our prior rights way back in the early part of last year, when the new scheme was meant to open. After at least two postponements, it finally got going last autumn, and we had our dossiers lodged in the first day or two. Against all precedent, they were accepted first time. An interview date was allocated, then postponed, then re-allocated, and again we passed in a oner. We were told our new cards would be posted to us within a month. That was on 1 March.
A more cynical expat might suspect that the French had set out deliberately to make the transition as chaotic and discouraging as the parallel Settled Status process for EU residents in the UK, which seems to have been designed to give the fullest possible expression to Priti Patel's personality. After all, Germany, Italy, Spain and others made continuation of FoM residency rights automatic. But I actually doubt that there is any particular Gallic malice at work. It is just one more example of France's unrivalled capacity for turning any routine transaction into a bureaucratic quagmire.
The man who promised, nearly five years ago, to shake up France's congealed, personnel-clogged bureaucracy is this week sitting in the Élysée Palace wondering whether he will get a further opportunity. Like every other European leader, Emmanuel Macron is apprehensively weighing up the potential consequences in popular retribution should the sudden surge in Delta-variant Covid force him to deny his electorate the summer freedoms on which they have been counting. It is not a happy calculation, and in Macron's case it has been made still less attractive by last week's regional elections, the last formal test of political opinion ahead of next April's presidential vote.
It needs to be said immediately that local elections in France, regional elections in particular, are a lousy guide to presidential outcomes. They are contested by pick and mix lists of candidates, often drawn from a range of parties, spatchcocked together behind an agreed hotch-potch of local and national policies. The powers wielded by the 13 regional authorities are poorly understood and little monitored. Apathy is high and turnout low: this time around, it was a pitiful 34%, falling to 13% of 18-24 year-olds. Relevance to next spring's anticipated presidential face-off between Macron and Marine Le Pen is further lessened in that Le Pen's party didn't exist in its present form when these councils were last contested, and Macron's didn't exist at all. Helpful.
Still, even within these caveats, they both had a pretty rotten time of it. Le Pen's Rassemblement National (RN, formerly the National Front), rashly talked up its chances of a decisive breakthrough, aspiring to seize up to five councils. In the event, it ended the first ballot ahead in just one – Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur – whereupon what always happens happened: namely, everyone fell in behind the candidate best placed to stuff RN (this time, the centre-right) and they were duly stuffed at the second ballot. It is what has happened to successive Le Pens in successive elections.
Macron, meanwhile, must have hoped that, after five years in France's supreme office, his La République en Marche (LREM) would score a whole lot better than seven, even from a standing start in regional politics. Following on a similarly dreich showing at last year's municipal elections, it scarcely offers much of a launchpad for next April. Instead, it serves to drive home the truth that a much-hyped new force in politics has signally failed to establish any real presence on the ground.
Worse still, the biggest beneficiaries were the centre-right, notably Nicolas Sarkozy's old outfit, Les Républicains. This can only remind people that Macron's ascent to the presidency, for all his refreshing rhetoric and bold promises of visionary reform, was really something of an accident. With the Socialists in the doldrums after François Hollande's lacklustre presidency, the Républicains looked a shoo-in for the Élysée… had not their candidate, François Fillon, fallen prey to the fraud squad shortly before the election. Macron, brilliantly, leapt into the vacuum.
The talk back then was of a whole new politics, almost a new republic. The familiar party structure of the post-De Gaulle era – centre-left and centre-right alternating in power, with the communists off to one side and the Le Pen's crowd off to the other – looked to be in terminal retreat. It does not look so from these regional elections, where both mainstream blocks made significant recoveries. Le Monde
wrote somewhat romantically of the return of the Old World.
Well, perhaps. Or it may just be that traditional parties have traditional voters, who turn out to vote when no-one else can be bothered. But it discourages the assumption that a Macron-Le Pen run-off in the second ballot next April is inevitable. Macron can point to a generally creditable, and credible, performance in respect of Covid, and he can try to lay off the faltering start to France's vaccinations programme on EU ineptitude. Competence in adversity can lend some advantage to incumbency, particularly with the economic hit from Covid mostly still to come.
But it does make the first ballot more of a gamble, especially if the centre-right can muster momentum behind a single plausible candidate, probably Xavier Bertrand. Siimilarly, while the mainstream left does not yet look a serious prospect, a dynamic figure like Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo could stir voter enthusiasm. Macron, meanwhile, is unrepentantly promising to step up his economic and social reforms, having reined them back to deal with the pandemic (and also with a lot of angry protests from France's devoted admirers of the status quo). The reform mission, he believes, is as necessary as ever. The bureaucrats are not yet off the hook.
No-one had a beadier eye for the foibles of French bureaucracy than Fidelma Cook, fellow chronicler of these parts, who died the other day. I didn't really know her, beyond a few enjoyable exchanges from different radio studios down the years, but the candour with which she streamed consciousness into her prose could feel like auld acquaintance. Her France wasn't mine: it was rural not urban, and she'd had longer to weary of its ways. But it was true to her. You never knew what she would say next, the stamp of an interesting columnist. It was always a pleasure to find out.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster