Who's Minding the Bank? Money Matters in France
- Published on Monday, 10 December 2012 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
Death and Taxes:
Sure, everybody wants the stuff, but that doesn’t mean you have to take it seriously.
As regular readers of this column know, I grew up in the Midwestern United States and have been living in France for close enough to three decades to round up. Lest anyone wonder, here is a partial list of reasons why I prefer the latter over the former:
• The wine (value for money)
• The cheese (cholesterol and halitosis for money)
• The gun control (don’t get me started)
• The lack of natural disasters (no typhoons, tornadoes, volcanoes or earthquakes, although Paris does flood every century or so)
• The fact that you don’t have to drive 15 hours to get to the nearest destination worthy of the adjective “scenic”
• The surprisingly, and marvelously, lax attitude toward money
About that last point, consider this: no one goes to prison in France for income tax evasion — it’s not (usually) treated as a penal offense. Furthermore, until about five years ago, when the tax authorities finally started receiving salary figures directly from employers, it was up to the individual citizens to report their income on the honor system.
Guess how much honor there was in that system? I personally know about a dozen people who went for decades without paying a centime in income tax, just waiting for le fisc, the French equivalent of the IRS, to catch up with them. Which they eventually did in every case, but only after 10 or 20 or more tax-free years.
In the United States, those deadbeats would be catapulted into the nearest correctional facility so fast they’d hardly have time to remove their belt and shoelaces, but here in France the punishment was (brace yourselves): they had to pay their back taxes for three years plus a penalty of 10%. Oh yes, three whole years. By American standards that’s not even a slap — that’s a wrist massage.
At the risk of unleashing a wave of mass immigration, here’s another bit of Francophilic trivia: not only are French tax laws cheater-friendly, but the people who enforce them are nice and easygoing.
The only experience I ever had with IRS auditors in the United States was secondhand, when my girlfriend in undergraduate school was obliged to make a series of sworn statements about a former employer who was being investigated (and, as it turned out, for a pretty good reason, namely that he was guilty as hell).
This meant that she had to endure three or four high-pressure meetings with two or three dour, forbidding gentlemen in dark suits who did their best to impress upon her that she herself would be in big trouble if she tried to distort or withhold any facts and should therefore consider every word very carefully. She said it was like playing Russian roulette with Darth Vader.
So when Nancy and I were audited a few years after we started our freelance business here in France, I was expecting pretty much the same experience, but it could not have been more different. Our auditor was a very affable young woman who took pains to schedule the necessary meetings at our convenience and was nearly apologetic about having to be such a snoop.
At the end, when she announced that we owed a fair amount of money (not our fault!), in the same breath she offered to let us pay it in installments over a flexible period of time. Compared with what my ex-girlfriend went through, this was a déjeuner sur l’herbe with Princess Leia.
A few years later, I had another occasion to witness, and indeed savor, France’s pecuniary permissiveness. Nancy and I had a client who was very slow in paying a sizable sum that he owed us. I had to nag him for several months and threaten legal action before he finally deigned to cough up, shell out and fork off. I mean over.
The day his check arrived in the mail, I took it to the bank right away, eager to put the whole annoying affair behind me. But when I handed it and the deposit slip to the woman behind the counter, she took a look and said, “It’s not signed.”
She didn’t mean I hadn’t endorsed it — the signature line on the front of the check was glaringly blank, rendering it, theoretically, null and void.
Now here comes the good (i.e., French) part of the story: as I was standing there, picturing my client in a giant deep-fry basket and wondering whether this was a simple mistake or one more weaselish gambit to delay payment, the teller said, “But if you were to, ah, do something while I wasn’t looking, I would never know, would I?”
She then turned theatrically away and gazed fixedly at the ceiling while holding out a pen.
I am not what anyone would call a savvy person in situations like this, but I did figure out what she was suggesting and why she couldn’t just tell me outright to do it.
So I did it: I signed the check myself, making the “signature” as illegible as possible, and handed it back to my partner in petty crime, who filed it away in the deposits drawer.
To my pleasant surprise, it cleared. I have no idea if my client was also surprised, but if so it wasn’t pleasantly. In any case, we never worked for him again and lived pleasantly ever after.
Ahhhhh. Gastronomy, scenery, tax fraud, forgery... Is this a great country or what?
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