By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Of all the countries on Earth, France is the most visited year in and year out. And for good reason. The 83 million tourists who trek to France learn firsthand that the reputation as the most beautiful country on Earth with the best food and the most irresistable and charmingly "different" culture is well-deserved. Who can blame some of them for wondering whether they can somehow manage to work out a way to stay there. Most people who immigrate to France do so the legitimate way --- they suffer through the unforgiving bureaucracy, save their money and, apply.
Then there are the others who have never been fond of long lines and bureaucracy. These scheming souls set their hopes on snagging a French citizen, marrying them, and moving to France as a spouse as easy as ou can say "voila!".
The French government is anything but stupid when it comes to sniffing out schemes. About 7 years ago, France passed one of the world's toughest anti-marriage fraud laws. What is France's greencard marriage law?
The Tough New French Law on Spousal Residency
France does not have a "green card". Instead, if you are a foreigner married to a French citizen, you are entitled to a residency card ( a titre de sejour). The type of titre de sejour you would get is a "titre de sejour temporaire vie privée et familiale".
This residency card can last for a year or, more often the case these days, two years.
One of the benefits of this type of residency card is that it gives you the right to work in France, something that other types of residency cards do not confer.
You Have to Stay Married for Three Years and Show Up With Your Spouse
The law has a big catch, designed to ferret out sham marriages. If you do not stay married for three years, you lose your right to stay in France. No ifs, ands or buts. When you renew your residency at the Prefecture in your region, you must show up with your French spouse every single time. If you do not show up with your French spouse, you will not get a renewal and you will lose your right to stay in France.
When you do show up, the bureaucrat will examine the legitimacy of your marriage. The types of proof they will look for include evidence that you live together, share expenses, know family details, go on holiday together.
The law is applied strictly. There is only one exception and that is proven physical domestic violence of the type that amounts to a criminal offense.
Betwixt and Between If You Have Been Married for Less Than 5 Years
In France, you acquire the right to apply for permanent residency after you have lived legally in France continuously for 5 years.
But what if you and your French spouse break up before you've been in France 5 years but after you've been married for 3 years?
Ahh, there's the rub, as Shakespeare might say. In the years between year 3 and 5, you really are on pins and needles. Let's say you get a titre de sejour based on your marriage to a French citizen in 2012. It lasts for two years, so you show up with your spouse in 2014 to renew. You get your next card, which lasts another two years and expires in 2016.
You're licking your lips because you can see the finish line. You're hoping to stay married until 2017, at which point you will have lived in France for 5 years. Then, you figure you can apply for permanent residency and no longer be beholden to your French spouse.
What Happens to Your Right to Work If the Marriage Falls Apart?
You have been working, you've built up a life in France but the marriage is not so great.
The problem is that old bureaucracy takes time. Yes, you can apply for a permanent residency in 2017. But granting you that residency is not a sure thing. In fact, those who have gone through the process say that it's harder to get permanent residency than it is to become a citizen. It may take a full year to get a permanent residency card.
And, here's the thing. As soon as your marriage is no longer a viable marriage, you may lose your right to stay. There is nothing keeping your spouse from alerting the Prefecture that the marriage is over, that you are no longer living together and thus that you have no right to stay in France.
What may be equally troubling is that you also immediately lose your right to work. So, if your marriage goes bust, and you plan on supporting yourself while you wait out the bureaucracy for your permanent residency, you may be in for a long, harrowing, financially unsustainable stretch of months.
Sounds unfair? Maybe.
Remember that the law was not written to protect you as a foreign spouse. It's written to protect the French citizen from you. Let that sink in.