As of June 1st, 2009, holders of long-stay visas no longer have to obtain a carte de séjour after arrival in France or the DOM-TOMS* for students, assistants, lecteurs/lectrices, visitors, salaried workers, temporary workers, and spouses of French nationals (but not other EU nationals – then you don’t need a visa at all).
The visa will be valid for the entire duration of the stay, and visa holders simply need to register with the Office of Immigration and have the medical visit within 3 months after arrival. Then they will receive a registration stamp next to the visa in their passport that will serve as their residency permit.
This also means that traveling throughout the Schengen Space will become easier as there is no longer a restriction against those who have not yet received their first residency card. Free circulation throughout the Schengen Space is allowed during the entire duration of the visa, with a maximum duration of three months outside of France.
Obtaining the visa will become slightly more complicated though as many consulates are changing over to the new biometric visas, which require a digital photograph and all 10 fingerprints to be taken. So very few consulates continue to allow mail-in applications, and the time to receive the visa will increase to 2-3 weeks.
In order to renew the residency permit, a trip to the préfecture two months before the visa expires is still required. A change of status (such as assistant to student) may or may not be granted; it will still entirely depend on the préfecture. And if the renewal or change is not granted, you are supposed to leave France before the expiration date on the visa. I’m not sure what this means for those wanting to travel after the expiration of their visa… But I do think this means that those who successfully renew their residency permit will receive an actual carte de séjour.
For those of us already in France with a carte de séjour, I don’t think anything is changing. These new procedures seem to be only for new visa holders who are staying less than a year.
* New Caledonia in French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna Islands, and Mayotte Island are NOT included.