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.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Of mattresses and men

Coins before Euro - European Coins In CirculationImage via Wikipedia
When it comes to eggs and baskets, the French state likes you to leave all the former in an easily accessible model of the latter, so that it can dip in its' hand whenever it is a bit short of ingredients for the omelette.
It knows what you have in your bank account, it knows what property you own and it knows which shares a bank is charging you an arm and a leg to hold on your behalf as you are not permitted to hold such dangerous things as share certificates yourself.

Unless, that is, you happen to be extremely rich and fond of subsidising major political parties by way of the folding stuff handed over in brown manilla envelopes, which, given the amounts concerned, need to be the size of indian restaurant takeaway bags for a party of ten.
If you are in this category, you can own an island in the Seychelles 'unknown' to the authorities, can receive a thirty million euro rebate on your tax and have the wife of the finance minister to manage your money.

Among other advantages.
I am willing to bet that you never thought that investing in race horses could be classed as support to small and medium business enterprises - with the appropriate tax refund.

Now, for all the gory details of the Woerth-Bettancourt affair and what the butler heard you can go to any newspaper for better and more up to date information than you will find here....just remember, Sarkozy's days are numbered and you saw that predicted here first.

Not that the demise of the Sarkozy regime will bring any relief for the two or three taxpayers left in France once you discount those sectors of the population excused boots for being either too rich or too busy producing children.

His party, the UMP, which realised with a shock that he was intent on replacing their traditionally privileged group with his own group - the blingocracy - have abandoned him already.
If they had not, you can be sure that the lapdog French press would not be circulating stories about Sarkozy attending Madame Bettencourt in person to collect his doggy bag.
Once in command again, the UMP will carry on in the best French tradition of obliging the population to carry out the requirements of Major Dennis Bloodnok's government loyalty oath...

'Open your wallet and repeat after yourself.'

Which explains why, traditionally, the French keep their money in mattresses.

The mattress does not impose charges for holding your money.
The mattress does not dish out your money to someone without your permission and shrug its' shoulders when you discover the anomaly.
The mattress is never too busy discussing its' aunt's digestive problems with another mattress to respond to your demand for access to your money.
The mattress does not close down for the week end and the holidays.
The mattress can keep its' mouth shut.

The only way of attacking the mattress is to set fire to the house - in the case of mattresses stuffed with paper money - or change the currency.
I wasn't around when de Gaulle devalued the franc, though the older people even now speak in terms of millions of centimes when discussing property values, but I was around when the euro was introduced.
The world of the mattress was shaken to its' foundations.
What to do with the money?
How to change it for euros without going near a bank?

Well, for the savvy British with francs they did not want to acknowledge, there was an easy answer. Nip over to the U.K. and change it for pounds sterling, wait for E day, nip over again and change it for euros. No passports, no formalities, and back to the warm embrace of the mattress with minimal loss.

This was not an option for the heartland of the mattress, rural France.
It did not know many savvy British and if it had it would have been convinced that putting your francs into the hands of Perfidious Albion was tantamount to lighting the fire with your banknotes, but without the accompanying warmth.

A lot of money went into the purchase of nearly new cars, where the cash transaction reflected the differing positions of buyer and seller as to ownership of mattress money.

Money was distributed around the family to be fed into the banking system, with the consequent feuds when it was returned discounted for any tax liability incurred by the family member, plus a little more for his or her 'trouble'.

Property purchase at the time was remarkable for sums of 'under the table' money changing hands while the notaire retired to wash his hands.
This again, needed detailed calculation of the relative mattress positions of buyer and seller and took a great deal of hammering out before the actual date of transfer.

Despite their best efforts, though, a lot of mattress money leaked back into the banking basket at the changeover to the euro, and was thus available to the government by way of tax.

A situation that mattressland has been trying to remedy ever since and with increased vigour now that 'austerity'  is upon us thanks to the sublime folly of banks and the governments they control. Mattressland knows that governments, when desperate, take desperate measures, and the less money you have exposed to their thieving claws the better.

I can remember an earlier government initiative to extract money from mattresses which took place when I had not long begun to live in France.
My French was not all that good at that stage, so I might well be mistaken about some of the details, but I do know that a lot of elderly people had been seduced by high interest rates on savings accounts into disembowelling their mattresses and taking the contents thereof to Credit Lyonnais, Credit Agricole and the Post Office.

All went swimmingly for a while until, locally at least, disaster struck.
As I remember it, there was a problem with payments to the MSA - the farmers' insurance firm into which you were obliged to pay if you held any land classed as agricultural in nature. Payments had been withheld and the MSA was showing its' teeth. I could be wrong about this, but that is how I remember it.

Jules, normally a quiet, slow countryman, turned up on my doorstep one morning panting in agitation.
'You've got money in the Credit Lyonnais, haven't you?'
The ability of the French to know all about your private business has never ceased to astonish me, but I answered in the affirmative.
'Then there's no time to lose! The bastards are freezing the accounts! Get your coat and come on!'

I took my coat and cheque book and joined the group packed into Jules' car which groaned and rumbled its' way into town, parking in the main square. Luckily it was not market day,when the square was taken up by stalls, as the place was packed with cars.
'Word's got out! Quick!'
We all spread to our various banks, where the queues were outside and lining the pavements. At intervals, customers emerged with handbags clutched under their armpits or small satchels hugged to the abdomen depending on sex and hurried away with their booty.
I had no idea what was going on, apart from not wanting to risk losing access to my money, so in my turn I went to the desk and drew out all except a few francs to keep the account open.

When I emerged with my handbag clutched under the armpit, I was a bit less flustered and as I looked around for Jules and party, I was able to take in the atmosphere.
For a small, quiet town, it was humming. There were the queues outside the banks and Post Office, but the streets and squares were full of people too, chatting and laughing now the worry was over...they had managed to withdraw their money and the relief was palpable.

There were, of course, those to whom the possession of actual money in the hand and the absence of their wife to control use of same went to the head.
Jean's wife telephoned him from her place of work in the town, from which vantage point she could see Papy making the tour of every bar on the square, to get him to come and collect his revered parent before he could spend the lot.
Alain was discovered by the council street cleaners draped over a bin outside the market building.
Michel came home the day afterwards. No one, including himself, had any clue as to his whereabouts in the missing hours.

It dawned on me that evening that what I had been participating in was a run on the banks....that horror of the nineteenth century when savings would be lost and families ruined as banks went down....but in this case, everyone had got their money back. What had been going on?

The postman had the answer when he called the next afternoon.
The Post Office had got wind of whatever measure was to be taken and had ordered up massive reserves of cash, then, being the fine local organisation that it was, had warned the other banks as well, so that all had managed to fill their strongrooms before the mad rush of the mattressmen began.

I compare that to my last visit to the Post Office when I wanted to withdraw two thousand euros without giving any warning of my intentions. The clerk did not turn a hair, but the new 'financial counsellor' was walking through behind the desk and asked me what I was planning to do with it.
That's something else about the French...very uninhibited in asking about your private affairs in a public place....but I digress.
I replied that I was planning to hire mercenaries to overthrow the French government - well, stupid question, stupid answer - and a voice from the queue said
'I'll do it for nothing.'
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