All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

In the black

A woman defends her castleImage via Wikipedia

In the next door department there is a Frenchman, a successful businessman, who has spent years of his life and unthinkable amounts of money restoring a seventeenth century chateau and its gardens. When he found it, rain had been pouring through the rotten roof for years, the doors were missing, the woodwork and plasterwork hacked by vandals and anything metal had long been sold for scrap. The gardens were so overgrown that he did not know that there had been an ornamental canal until two years after he bought the place, so impenetrable were the brambles.

Luckily, the chateau was not on the list of historic buildings maintained by the French heritage department, 'Batiments de France' or he would have been bankrupt in swift order trying to restore any building under their aegis. Every step of a restoration of a building so listed has to be approved by their departmental architect, who will have his own ideas on what is or is not permissable, all expensive, and it is quite possible that these ideas will change when a new departmental architect is appointed. As so often, what starts out like a good idea - the preservation of historic buildings and their surroundings - has turned into a beaurocratic nightmare. If you have a house anywhere near a listed building and want to repaint your shutters you have to get the permission of the departmental architect....if you want to render your walls, you need his fiat ....if you want to replace your rotten window frames...well, you get the picture. It is considerably worse if your building is the listed one!

Still, as he had escaped this peril, he set out on his task with an enthusiasm which remained undimmed over the years, pouring his own money into what must at times have seemed like a bottomless grants being available as it was not a listed building....and the chateau gradually came back to life, a sleeping beauty rising from its forest of thorns.

Now, clearly, he did not do all this with his own two hands. He had firms of roofers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, name it, he employed it, supervised it closely and paid it. However, when it came to the gardens, he took on employees, as even when the major works were done, he knew he would need a permanent workforce to keep things in order. He became an employer, with all the normal responsibilities which that entails....paying wages and social security contributions and keeping records. So far, not a cloud on the horizon.

Initially, there was a vast amount of work to be done on the grounds, so he needed more workmen than he would need later as permanent employees, and as French social security payments are a very heavy obligation for an employer, not to speak of the problems of laying off workmen when there is no longer work for them to do, he thought he had come up with a solution. As it was short term, non specialist work, he took a risk and paid a group of guys cash in hand, not declaring them as employees, nor checking whether they had declared themselves to the relevant authorities. Of course, they hadn't, and of course, the local landscape gardener who hadn't got the contract for the job denounced him for using black labour. The solids had hit the fan. An inspector descended, found no paperwork showing that the guys were legally employed, and the chateau owner ended up in court with a hefty fine to pay.

Well, you might ask, what is so remarkable about all this? He broke labour laws and he was caught and punished. Same in any country.

In a way, yes, in a way, no. In France, thanks to the crushing weight of social security charges, it has to be a remarkable small firm which can keep its head above water if it doesn't do some work on the black, cash in hand. Some firms do just that..a little work on the side...others do it on the grand scale, but as long as they can show that all the materials declared as bought are accounted for in work done for clients, no one is going to disturb them. Thus the delight at the advent of the Do It Yourself warehouse, where the builder can buy his goods anonymously if he so wishes. How it works is that the firm will give you a quote for part of the job and do the rest on the black...that way, their presence on your premises is covered if anyone should have an accident. Whether the work done on the black will be covered if or when it goes wrong is another matter. My guess is not, given the nature of French insurers and builders, but that's just my opinion..... based on nearly twenty years' experience.

So, working on the black is institutionalised for registered firms.

Not for you.

You want a man to come in to clean your gutters because you are too old and tottery to climb ladders. The builder has quoted you a price that makes your eyes water, and someone suggests you get someone who will be cheaper, because he is covered by a different system, one designed for domestic servants and odd job men. The odd job man arrives, shakes his head and sucks his teeth at your proposition. He cannot do it, as he cannot, in the rules of his insurance system, climb ladders to the height of your gutters. He cannot actually do anything more complicated than cutting your grass either.....if he cuts your hedge he needs a more expensive form of insurance. In the end, you get the ladder out and prepare to meet your Maker as you climb heavenwards, hoping your own insurance will cover you if you meet with mere injury rather than sudden death.

You want some help in the house...a woman to do some of the heavy cleaning that has your knees and back complaining that at their age they should not be asked to do this. Such ladies are available, but on top of their hourly wage, you have to pay their social security, which nearly doubles it. Certainly, you can claim back 50 per cent of this on your tax return if you are an old age pensioner, but if you merely feel as if you are, you pay the lot.

Used as one is to the U.K., where you pay your cleaner and your gardener cash in hand and no one gives a monkey's, the French system seems very odd. Why shouldn't people have a bit of cash for a few hours' work that the taxman knows nothing about? It's all right for the registered firms, after all.

Here you have hit the nub of what is so antipathetic about France. Not the French, but France. The state machinery is geared to extracting every last penny from the pockets of individuals by hitting every source of income it can trace. You have a house or some shares? Not only will you pay income tax you will also pay the Contribution Sociale Generale..the CSG...which is like paying your income tax all over again. Why do you pay it? Because the state knows what you own. Your house is registered with the tax authorities and your shares are kept for you by a bank which reports to the tax man. What is it for? Covering government deficits. If you are employed, the state knows how much you have.....and can gouge you accordingly, but if you work on the black, it doesn't and that worries it very much. Businesses are left alone, on the whole, as if you tax the boss too much he will just go bust, not pay his creditors and start up again, but the guy who works for the business is fair game.

The answer to the problem used to be the U.K. expat who realised too late that the sunshine and cheap wine was costing him more than he thought so looked around for a few odd jobs to in hand. It was ideal. You spoke the same language, had the same assumptions about how plumbing or gardening should be done and he came when it was convenient to both of you. He...and you...stood little risk of being denounced as the local plumber was convinced that he would get the job of repairing whatever the 'Rosbif' had mucked up, and the local landscape gardener wouldn't touch your small garden with a bargepole anyway.

These days it is different. Jobs are scarcer, and the French think jobs in France are for the French. Thus the expat risks denunciation from the French corner. Further, for fear of denunciation, the expat has become a registered small French business, but, being British, abides by the rules and doesn't work on the black. Some become so French as to denounce other expats who do! I can understand how they feel, to some extent, as, having gone through the ritual dance to achieve registration and faced with huge overheads they are less than happy to find someone undercutting them when they need the work.

I am just regretting the days when it was possible to get someone to come and mend your leaky tap without asking for a loan from the bank.

By the by, the man who restored the chateau is in hot water again. He has been trying to help towards the running costs of such a pile by opening it as for bed and breakfast and doing wedding receptions. He declared the business and its' staff correctly, but forgot one vital thing...he did not declare himself as the owner of the business to the social security authorities. He has, after all, declared properly for all his other business interests, so you wouldn't think it mattered too much...he is already paying a whack in contributions. Well, this is France. It matters. He has just been taken to court again.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]


  1. Whew!! What a mess! How did the country fall into such a state? And I thought the total fix-up of my Father's mid-century home was a long and complicated affair -- it only took 5 months -- but this whole business with the chateau is simply a nightmare!! Thank you for explaining it all so well and in such an entertaining manner. I do hope he can be successful with the bed and breakfast, but somehow, I am not hopeful. Please keep us posted.

  2. Things will turn the same in the US, just as soon as we have a "better" health care plan.

  3. Sunflower Ranch, coming from the U.K., I was not prepared for the restrictive, monopolistic nature of French commercial life. I have known any number of young, ambitious French who have found it necessary to go abroad in order to set up their businesses......what a loss for France!
    I don't hold out much hope for the B and B either, but at least he has a lot of other irons in the fire.

  4. Alison, I am ignorant of what is proposed in the U.S. - something else to start looking I can't make any sensible comparison with what goes onin France. However, in the U.K. we have had a national health service since after the Second World War, and a basic State pension, paid for from contributions, which, with ups and downs, works pretty well. It hasn't meant that we have become like the French....thank goodness.
    The pettifogging restrictions on earning a living keep the country stagnant....French economic prowess is built on major companies outsourcing abroad, while the home country drifts.

  5. I suppose it just goes to show that all that is beautiful is not wonderful. Bureaucracy is the osteo-arthritis of aging countries and just as crippling. Thanks for such a perfect example of how it works in France.

  6. Saundra M, France is paralysed by beaurocracy and protectionism which works against the individual as such and as a consumer of goods and services.
    It makes life unnecessarily tiresome.