Francophone Belgian couple caught in bureaucratic struggle to prove they speak French

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A couple from the French-speaking part of Belgium wanted to become naturalized French citizens but found themselves with the most French of problems – a bureaucratic struggle to prove they speak their mother tongue.

The documents they provided to their local prefecture were deemed insufficient to demonstrate that they speak French.

He has been living in the southern French department of Drôme for 24 years and his wife Martine for nine. After having lived in the country for so long, they felt like the time had come for them to become French.

But their path of becoming naturalized ran into a most unlikely obstacle – they can’t prove that they speak French.

They submitted their degrees from French-speaking universities and were told these could not prove that they speak B1-level French, intermediate level under the current European Union system.

“You can see that I’m talking to you [in French] in a correct way, but unfortunately a priori that’s not enough for our administration,” Lenoir said.

Yet the local prefecture also has a strong case – they were simply following the law.

“It is totally inaccurate to state that the Lenoirs’ application for naturalization was rejected for ‘lack of knowledge of the French language,’” the Drôme government office said in a statement published Thursday.

Instead, the reason why Lenoir and his wife failed to obtain French citizenship was because they provided documents “that do not comply” with what was required by French law.

Unlike the United States or Canada, who recognize university degrees earned in other Anglo-Saxon countries, France doesn’t recognize university degrees earned in other francophone countries as a way of proving language proficiency.

There are basically two ways of proving one’s proficiency in French according to the current French nationality law – earn a middle school degree or above in France or pass a language exam, either conducted by other European countries or a take an official TCF/ TEF exam.

For the latter, the exam result must be no older than two years.

“It is therefore necessary for applicants to provide valid documents for their applications to be in proper shape,” the local government statement said.

But for Vincent Lenoir, the reality is more complicated than simply taking another exam.

“You can only take this exam in January and get the result in March, while our appeal to the government’s appeal is only valid for two months. So by the time we get the result it will be useless,” he told BFMTV, meaning they will have restart the whole process all over again.

Ironically, if a French person wants to become Belgian, his or her university degree earned in France will be sufficient to prove language proficiency in French, one of the three national languages of Belgium.

But anyone who has lived in France will agree that for one person to go to the local government for an administrative task only to be told that one didn’t bring the right type of document is probably the most French interaction one can ever have.

Additional reporting from Maya Szaniecki.

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