This Is a True Story About French Taxes

by Ric Erickson / filling in this week for Tony Brock
Paris:- Friday, 1. March 1996:- Before I came to France I knew what everybody knows about French taxes. For example: the French dress in shabby clothes and drive 2CVs, or even Velosolexs; smoke cheap, stinky cigarettes, and drink 'vin ordinaire,' and live in falling-down brick-block 1930's houses in Nanterre; all of it part of a charade to make the tax collector think they are of modest means.

Meanwhile, in reality, all of the French secretly have villas on the Riviera, really smooth and glittery speed boats in discrete boat houses, and a red Mercedes 300 SLR in the garage, under which is buried 382 solid gold bars.

More of the myth goes as follows: the tax inspector looks at this outward sign of near poverty, and imposes a tax of 350 francs a year, which is too little to be imposed, and is therefore annulled.

Because of this illusion, this clever deception, the Frenchman lives in eternal fear that one day his tax inspector may pass his real house in a discount package-tour bus, and see him leave his splendid driveway in the red Merc, accompanied by the beautiful blond with the sparking diamonds.

For me this illusion, this myth, lasted about 10 months. I could not figure out what my tax status was, I didn't know how to fill out the declaration, nothing, so I went to see my tax inspector.

I had very little income for the year of arrival in France, and a great many expenses. The tax inspector - a lady - added up my receipts, subtracted the amount from my revenue, and asked me if I agreed with the result. I did, and that was that. Just arithmetic; no fuss, no bother.

(About six months later, long after I had paid the agreed-upon amount, the tax office sent a letter asking me if I wouldn't want to pay more taxes. Seriously; that's how it was put. Of course I declined - those had been real expenses subtracted from real income - no flim-flam. Why should I 'offer' to pay more? Guilty conscience? No sir.)

Things are more complicated these days. Times are tough and the government needs money. The unemployed pay no taxes, so the screws tighten on anybody with any revenues at all. The rules get more complex; permissible deductions wither, savings are beginning to be penalized - the quaint little postal savings accounts are becoming the object of desire of the finance ministry. If you keep money is a piggy-bank, the 'simple' tax declaration form is no longer adequate: you must fill in two other four-page forms.

In short, declaring and paying taxes in France is about the same as in any modern near-the- end-of-the-millennium country - a headache.

The half of the taxpayers who can still use the simple forms, mainly the retired, I suppose - do their declarations at the end of January. The rest of us, dreading the ordeal, wait until after the due date; to the limit of the invariable final week-end extension, and then we get out our shoe boxes full of deductibles and about a kilo of one-franc pieces and head for the photocopy machines.

The rest of the weekend passes in the kind of household searches usually performed by secret agents looking for hidden bugs - trying to find the pieces filed - for the usual unknown reasons - somewhere other than in the shoebox. My most valued possession is a solar-powered calculator that requires no batteries, but otherwise pencils snap, paper gets grease or sweat stains and needs re-doing, the kids get sent to camp, aspirin consumption climbs - and finally, with great misgivings, a bulky package is assembled, sealed and addressed - ready for personal hand-delivery to the tax inspectors office - in front of which you have a minor collision with another sweaty and harassed-looking, but nevertheless, fellow taxpayer.

By 22:00 on Sunday night I am home again, looking forward to 364 days of peace, and at 22:13 the missing paper is found - being used as a bookmark in the TV guide, the one that would permit another 53 franc deduction.

Even though the tax calculation itself is done by computers these days - they can count to 49 digits after the decimal - they are programmed to round figures off - downward - so I can take that filthy paper that I earlier had spent half a hour looking for - and throw the rotten thing down the garbage chute.

If I have the faintest spark left, I have to now realise that I have 51 free weekends in front of me, and I can pass every one of them of the terrace of my favorite bistro, or out at the clubhouse of my golf club. It depends on who's watching.

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