The French Bureaucratic system
Article written for an European magazine some twenty years ago. I don’t think I’d write the same thing now but it is interesting – and perhaps important – to look back on the nightmare …
The Bureaucratic Monster
If you ask Derek and Denise how they enjoyed living in France, they will tell you it was great. Housed compliments of Derek’s firm in the centre of the lovely old port of La Rochelle, cocooned in the safety of a work contract, a steady income, removal expenses paid, company car and – most important of all – every aspect of the French Bureaucratic Monster seen to for them, they had a lovely time. Derek went out to work in the mornings and Denise kept the house clean. A pay cheque arrived at the end of every month, for which Derek undoubtedly worked very hard, and any problems were referred back to the personnel officer at the firm. An idyllic three years tripped by in the Charentais sunshine, and Derek and Denise were sad to leave.
We were sad to see them go. They were an element of sanity and British ordinariness in the French Bureaucratic Monster world where we have lived for the past nine years. We are now packing up to leave and we will not be sorry to go. We will look up Derek and Denise, of course, and over a drink in some lovely English country pub we will exchange stories about how daft the French are about their food and about how nice it used to be to picnic on the beach.
I battle against saying that I regret coming to France. Regret is a pointless thing and, it has to be said, we’ve done brilliantly – despite the French Bureaucratic Monster – and have had lots of good times. But I also have to say that the good times have not outweighed the bad, and I feel exhausted, crushed, whacked and ready to crawl back in to the arms of my mother country where I can be rocked by the comfortable familiarity of England.
We arrived in 1989, like so many British families still do, filled with some unrealistic dream of how life would just be DIFFERENT once we moved to France. Indeed, life is different – it’s in French. The British come to France, reminded of lost childhoods in France’s backwards villages, searching for a wholesome way of life that is no more in France than anywhere else. It is extraordinary how many people I have met who say “oh, WE will settle with no problem; we used to live in Africa; we’re not British at heart anyway; we have been coming to France for years …”
We set up business within a couple of days of our arrival, amid the packing cases and toys and phrase books. A few months earlier we had sold our French holiday house at a vast profit – bought in the May at 110 000ff and sold in the August at 250 000ff – and this was clearly the way forward. The property business in England was crashing fast and the recession had hit us very badly, catching us in the back of the knees – so to speak – virtually on the first day. We lost almost everything we owned.
My husband, Euan, could speak no French whatsoever, though I could speak it fairly well. Our daughter, Debbie, was nine years old. Max was seven and Bernie was just a small baby. We were brave. We moved to our new house in the centre of France just before Christmas. The glorious Virginia creeper that had covered the house earlier that year had all gone, to be replaced by a dull greyly-spreading mass of twiglets and dead leaves. The tall trees that had stood so majestically around the grounds a few months earlier now brooded gloomily against the frozen grey-white sky.
Undaunted we unpacked and I tried to teach everybody a bit of French. Christmas was a total non-event and the local version of celebrating it was to have the radio on loudspeaker in the high street, valiantly doing battle with the sound of lorries as they thundered through en route for Elsewhere. A half-hearted Christmas tree sat outside the Mairie.
We opened our little estate agency in our own house, working uniquely from home and in the car. We placed advertisements in UK newspapers and magazines and we were an instant success. Even though that year the exchange rate was poor – and remained poor for several years – the British had an insatiable appetite for a French retreat and prices were very low. Enquiries came pouring in from Britain and the French jungle drums worked with such wonder that we had no need to advertise for properties to go on our books. Within a couple of weeks our dossiers were almost full and the camera had never clicked so much in its life.
We were on very good terms with the village notaire and I made an appointment to see him, concerned that we were perhaps not abiding by the appropriate rules. All purchases and sales obligatorily go through a notaire and I could see the $ signs – well, the French franc signs – in his eyes as we discussed it. He provided me with some sales agreement papers and one or two other documents, which I in due course translated laboriously in to English for my clients. Everything seemed above-board and correct and this was a relief to us both:
“Rien ne vous empeche d’etre agent immobilier,” said the notaire – there is nothing to prevent you from being an estate agent.
No, nothing except a prison sentence.
That first year was very hard work; Euan did not have the knack of learning another language – it’s an ability like being able to sing or to calculate or draw – and so a lot fell on to my shoulders. Talking to the bank, to the accountant, to the teachers, to the doctor, filling in forms (and what a lot of forms there always were!), answering the door, answering the telephone, getting child allowance, ordering central heating oil … the lot, and always against that very French trait of being completely unable to inform you of anything unless you happen to have asked the appropriate question.
We were very busy but we had lots of energy. Three small children, the unpacking and organizing, setting up of the business, re-decorating, viewing properties, dealing with clients, a language to learn – it was a lot by anybody’s standards. The children, far from anything that was familiar to them, needed extra love and attention, not to mention help with their homework. An unexpected set-back was how long everything takes; country folk tend to do things in slow motion, perhaps, and this was a backward part of France where the telephone exchange still closed for lunch.
Vaguely, somewhere down the line, we heard that an estate agent in France must have a Carte Professionelle literally a “professional card”. Neither the notaire nor the accountant, both of whom we saw regularly and both of whom were aware that we relied on their professional knowledge, had mentioned this to us. Clearly, if this was something of importance we would have been informed. I waded through the documents I had received in the post from the town hall and from the chamber of commerce, and there was nothing indicating that there was anything else to do or any further forms to fill in.
What is more we were already fully fledged estate agents and property dealers. We had even received a notice from the local authority to go up on our office wall to say that we were entitled to commissions and to take deposits and, of course, that we were “ immatriculated” – we were to come across this word often.
We thought no more about it and the months slipped by. Then one day we met a Frenchman who had lived in Australia for twenty years. He warned us that there were draconian laws relating to estate agents and to be very careful. He explained that he was once involved in buying and selling property and that his partner had not only been sent to prison but, poor man, had hanged himself. It’s okay, we said, we’re “immatriculated”. Nonetheless I wrote to the police headquarters (in England the police would not get involved in this sort of thing) and after a wait of eight or nine weeks I received a reply telling me that the Carte Professionelle was something given to estate agents under certain circumstances. Very helpful. I wrote back and asked under what circumstances the card was given, and why. Another long wait and I received a photocopied list of qualifications required in order to be able to apply for a card. Amid the nappies and the bottles and the children’s homework I wrote back yet again: yes, I said, but I do not necessarily WANT a card, I just need to know whether or not I am supposed to have one! A month elapsed and finally came the reassuring letter that if I worked on behalf of another estate agent I did not need a card and had no obligation in this way.
Great, that seemed simple enough. I worked on behalf of several UK estate agents as well as for myself. To be on the safe side I obtained from each one a formal letter stating that I operated in France for them.
We moved house, an exhausting event for any mother. The centre of France was so out-of-touch with the real world and the quaint old-fashioned idiosyncracies of the local people rapidly palled. We had been away a year by this time and the agency was doing very well. We didn’t want to go home to England yet, though I was in fact quite homesick and had constant dreams about driving round and round the towns at home – Tunbridge Wells, East Grinstead, Forest Row … seeing signs that pointed the right way but I was unable to find my house. Sometimes I dreamt that I was at my back door in England, with the sloe tree in blossom and the London Pride along the border … but the key wouldn’t fit and the door looked different. But we couldn’t go back. After all, I comforted myself, this is only France, not Bangladesh or something …
We moved to a village near La Rochelle. The twentieth century appeared to have arrived here. We unpacked again. Max, now aged eight, was very unhappy at school and both he and Debbie wet their beds almost every night – a sure sign of unhappy children. Both were bi-lingual and Debbie had got lots of little friends. Max, however, seemed unable to make friends. Bernie mercifully now slept through the night and we both worked six full days a week, frantically raking in the money to pay the mortgage and the car, and trying to establish for ourselves some kind of lifestyle that we could be proud of. We found the local people to be friendly on a superficial basis – pleasant enough but nobody invited us in. I was terribly lonely.
One day the Gestapo turned up. Dressed in dark trench coats and dark glasses, two men and a woman knocked on our door and said they were from the tax office. We thought they had got us confused in some badly directed film. But no, they were deadly serious. They asked to see our cahier. Exercise book ? What exercise book ? we asked. We told them to go and see our accountant. It transpired that we had a legal obligation to keep a record of all our transactions in an excercise book. A simple school excercise book would do, but the pages must be numbered and there must be no Tippex. Oh, that’s OK, I said, we’ve only done a few and I’ve got it all in my head. In those days I had a phenomenal memory.
Apart from telling us not to refer to the tax inspectorate as the Gestapo the accountant said no more about it and we soon forgot the incident. Then a month or two later a letter arrived recorded delivery from the tax office, stating that we had to pay a fine of 250 000 francs because we hadn’t been able to produce the exercise book. At that time that was about £28 000. The letter took some time for me to decipher for, despite good French, the legal jargon and the stuffy formality of the way it was written meant that a translation was an uphill grind. We had difficulty taking it seriously. We hadn’t got 250 000 francs or anything like it. Our accountant, taken on precisely to avoid any problems, was perhaps the most unhelpful person in our lives at that time and he offered neither advice nor support and would shoulder no professional responsibility. I dug a lawyer out of Yellow Pages and, some seven or eight fraught months later, after endless phone calls, faxes and letters to the European Commission in Brussels (who were also very unhelpful) and to the British Embassy ( who, while impotent in this situation, were very supportive) I appeared in court accused of tax fraud.
It is an odd experience being accused of tax fraud because of an exercise book. The lawyer warned me that there was no hope of being let off because of being foreigners, but that it was highly unlikely either of us would be sent to prison. What’ll happen, he said, was that the 250 000f will be deducted from our bank account, in dribs and drabs, as and when it was in credit. Another three months limped by with this worry hanging over us.
Yet we were let off.
This gave us quite a jolt and, remembering the Carte Professionelle and fearful of getting something wrong – and, more importantly, having learnt that we couldn’t rely on the advice or opinion of the professionals – I wrote to the police in Rochefort, our local town. Some weeks later I received a reply stating that they were not in a position to deliver the card. This unhelpful answer left me perplexed and inclined to let the matter drop but I nonetheless wrote to police headquarters in La Rochelle.
After a dozen or more hopeless phone calls I managed to get hold of the right person, Mademoiselle Texier, I recall. Je ne sais pas, she replied to my question – I don’t know. Well, it is worrying me, I don’t want to do anything wrong, I told her. How can I get a firm answer? I don’t know she said. Who can I contact who knows about these things ? I don’t know, she said. Could you pass me on, please, to a person in authority? I am in authority, she replied. Pass me to somebody else, I told her. Certainly, madame, who ?
I was to have many many conversations like this with police representatives of various sorts, also with employees of the Chamber of Commerce and the Tribunal of Commerce and Lord only knows how many other commerces. I again wrote to the European centre in Brussels and in Strasbourg, neither of whom replied. The only answer I got from anybody was from the National Association of Estate Agents in the UK who advised me to get a card at all costs.
It was not easy. It was almost impossible to find out who I needed to speak to and I invariably got some female voice bleating ne quittez pas (hold the line) down the phone to me and then leaving me waiting for ages while Bernie tipped the rest of the paint out onto the floor, the potatoes boiled dry, twenty faxes came and went and the contract ran out.
Eventually I got an appointment to see the appropriate person at police headquarters in La Rochelle, a man named Valtel. He admitted cheerfully that he had no idea whatsoever whether or not I needed a card for he had only ever issued them to French men before, but he did agree that he was indeed The Man who Issued the Cards.
After a degree of cajoling he agreed to phone the appropriate minister in Paris. He got through to the right person with an efficiency that one can consider proof of the fact that those who are “in on it” (whatever it may be) are able to take short cuts that us mere mortals cannot. Can this English lady, asked Mr Valtel, simply act as an estate agent on behalf of existing agents in London?
He flicked his phone on to loudspeaker.
Gracious no! exclaimed the minister, ce serait trop facile! It would be too easy, he had said. Well, what does this lady have to do ? asked Valtel, throwing his glance ceilingwards in sympathy for me. She must go through the proper authorities, replied the minister. Yes, yes, said Valtel, that is what she has been trying to do. He launched into a condensed version of the traumas I had been through just to get a meeting with him.
Humph! replied the minister, il ne faut pas trop leur dire, les anglais – qu’elle rentre chez elle si elle n’aime pas! One mustn’t tell them too much, he had said, let her return to her own country if she doesn’t like it.
I was later to repeat this in court.
Dropping the receiver back into its cradle, where it landed with a dry little click, Valtel was suitably embarrassed. He decided the best course was to simply give me the list of requirements needed of a French estate agent. He still could throw no light on whether or not I actually needed the card, but felt it best that I applied for it. Glancing down the list I could see the usual – a copy of my degree certificate, my birth certificate, marriage certificate, death certificate if I could manage it.
Although my degree was in French I was not allowed to do any of the translations myself. I had to pay a police interpreter to do these and the fact that she couldn’t speak English appeared to have no relevance. She translated “estate agent” as AGENT OF THE STATE – MI5, eat your heart out! She translated “history and philosophy” as THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY. Good, good. I filled in vast quantities of forms; it all took several weeks. At last the dossier was ready for submission to the police. At the reception a large and very well-endowed lady of uncertain years filled in one last form with me. She copied the details neatly out of my passport, her copious breasts wobbling worryingly with every movement.
name: BROUGHTON Catherine (she wrote)
date of birth: 14.3.52
place of birth: Alice, Cape Province, South Africa …. Angleterre. !!!
Fine. Fine. If she wants to put that South Africa is in Angleterre, I thought, that’s fine by me.
I decided that if she asked me what my father did for a living I’d say he was a fisherman; that’ll go down nicely round here, I thought sarcastically.
Dozen upon dozen of faxes and phone calls went back and forth. The entire process was considerably slowed down by two main things, the first being that France closes between twelve and two, if not two thirty, and is also closed on a Monday, the second being that the French do not volunteer information: they are happy to supply the required information if asked and, in fact, have an excellent support system which covers any legal or financial aspect of anything a citizen could trip up over … but unless you know where the problem is, in other words unless you know which question to ask you simply don’t get given the appropriate information.
All I had to do now was wait for the reply from the ministry – Valtel explained that as I was not French he couldn’t deal with my dossier himself but had to send it to Paris. So I waited.
In the meantime a letter arrived Recorded Delivery. I turned it gingerly over in my hands a few times, having learnt that it was bound to be something horrid if it was recorded delivery. Eventually I opened it. It was from another tax office. The letter explained to me, in laboriously flowery French smacking of a taste of guillotine, that it was deemed we had not paid enough for our house and that we therefore had not paid enough legal fees when we bought it, which in turn meant that we hadn’t paid enough purchase tax and VAT. Would we kindly send 100 000ff (approx £12 000 then) by return or face the consequences.
It’s as though we’re jinxed Euan said. I just don’t believe it, I said. But it was true and it was serious. The letter gave us twenty days to state our case. I made an appointment and, my mouth dry with a cross between fear and fury, I marched in to the tax inspector’s office. The house, the inspector said dryly, is clearly worth a great deal more than you paid for it. But that, I wailed at him, is because we renovated it; it was all but derelict when we bought it. Nobody, he replied, could get through that quantity of renovation work in so short a time. Well, we did, I said. I had to produce before-and-after photos (which luckily we had in abundance), bills and receipts and invoices. For good measure I also produced statements from the neighbours. Months limped by and our case went to court. I stood, wearing my best shoes, in front of the judges who listened to me with mild interest as I showed them my photos. They agreed we had nothing to pay.
The following day Valtel phoned to say the ministry had refused my card. He said he was sorry, there was no more he could do. He gave me the number in Paris for the court that had heard my case, also my dossier number, and I was – after a superhuman effort – able to get through to the right person.
“I refused your dossier,” she explained in a staccato French that made me think of machine guns, “because you did not include an attestation from the relevant authority in England – the police.”
“But in my country the police have nothing to do with this,” I explained patiently, “there is no card, no authority for estate agents. But, madame, I included in my dossier a letter from the National Association of Estate Agents instead. That is as “immatriculated” as the English get. Surely that will do?”
“No, madame,” she replied, “that will not do.”
The gendarmes turned up the following day. Euan and I were instructed to report to the police station and, in two separate rooms, we were questioned about our professional activities in France. Euan’s French was poor but he was not offered an interpreter, and when I said I’d like to go and interpret for my husband I was refused in no uncertain terms. Like a pair of cheap criminals we were questioned for many hours by a couple of gendarmes who – I could see from what they were writing for me to sign – couldn’t even spell properly. The fact that we had done absolutely everything else correctly – paid VAT and tax and social contributions as well as dozens of other things – instead of being used in our favour were held up as proof against us. I was worried about picking up the children from school but the gendarme simply phoned the school and – to my amazement – explained to the Head that we were being questioned at the Gendarmerie and that we would be late! I was furious and near to tears.
Our crime carried a prison sentence. Our lawyer reassuringly told us that we would do no more than two or three days in prison. Oh, that’ll be fascinating, I said, I’ve never been in a prison! To this day I don’t know why we didn’t simply pack up and leave this ridiculous country. Well over a year went by before we appeared in court, during which time we had been in and out of every kind of mood and depression imaginable, buoyed up only by our energy and our constant – to this day – conviction that things will be “all right”. With the help of friends we managed to crawl in to one version or another of the French Bureaucratic Monster system, being “immatriculated” – as the French often are – under one heading to hide another activity.
And – bien sur! – the case was dropped.
The other day I sat in a café with a friend. I asked the waiter for tea. Ah no, he said, he had no tea, only coffee. Humph! I exclaimed, I expect you’re not “immatriculated” for tea?!
That’s when I knew it was time to move home.
Catherine Broughton is a novelist, a poet and an artist. She is widely travelled and writes regularly for magazines and blog sites. Her sketches are on her web site http://turquoisemoon.co.uk . Her books are available from Amazon and on Kindle, or can be ordered from several leading book stores.
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Catherine Broughton is a novelist, a poet and an artist. Her books are available as e-books on this site:-
https://payhip.com/b/tEva “A Call from France”
https://payhip.com/b/OTiQ “French Sand”
https://payhip.com/b/BLkF ”The Man with Green Fingers”
https://payhip.com/b/1Ghq “Saying Nothing”
They are also available on Amazon & Kindle, or can be ordered as paperbacks from most leading book stores and libraries.