Advice to newcomers
Welcome to France, a land of paradox and enigma that has married a thirty-five-hour working week with one of the highest productivities in the Western world; where the trains run on time - safely - despite the 123,000 man-days lost in strikes in the SNCF in 2008; where the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity are the cornerstones upon which the state is founded and where a candidate from the extreme right can obtain the second-highest score in the first round of the Presidential elections.
Welcome to the country that consistently tops Forbes' magazine’s "Misery Index" by having the highest combined level of company, personal, direct, indirect, wealth and death taxes yet, almost despite itself, manages to maintain its position as the fifth largest economy in the world.
Welcome to the country in which I chose to work and live and in which my wife and I hope to stay, to rear and educate our children and maybe some day retire - if the French pension funds haven't completely evaporated by then.
"If I may permit myself...."
Divorce, moving house and changing jobs are frequently cited as being amongst the most stressful events that can befall one. Making a home in a foreign country, learning to cope professionally and socially in another language and adjusting to another culture can combine to make the expatriate experience a challenge to anyone's mental resilience. So, if I may permit myself, as we say in French, please find below some very simple ideas and recommendations, arising from personal experience acquired over the last umpteen years, which may help smooth the way. (I know that if I had followed some of them, life would have been simpler.....)
Get your papers in order and remember to keep them up to date. Whether it concerns Social Security, Identity Cards or Driving Licences, your "dossier" as an expatriate is inevitably going to seem more complicated to the person treating it than that of a French national. Don't further complicate things by submitting papers late or by letting your documents time-expire.
The word bureaucracy (invented by the French) conjures-up images of a state-employee sitting behind glass, searching through your documents to find a reason not to give you an identity card, a social insurance number, a family benefit reference or a driver's licence. This is nowadays completely unjustified. The impending retirement of a generation of France's civil servants has obliged state and local administration to modernise and the vast majority of public services offer information over the internet, many accepting registrations and payments "on-line". Use the web to minimise the impact of bureaucracy on your time.
3. Social Security and Benefits
Someone who is used to paying social security under a UK-type system with a relatively low percentage deduction applying to a ceilinged level of income will be horrified to find 20% or more of gross earnings being deducted for French social security.
You have, therefore, every interest in ensuring that you obtain the maximum of each and every one of the various benefits that are financed by these same deductions. Register with your local CPAM (Caisse Primaire d'Assurance Maladie) and obtain your "Carte Vitale" (social security card). Consult your local CAF (Caisse d'Allocations Familiale) to determine the family benefit (like child-benefit) that may be due to you.
The French fiscal system is currently highly favourable in terms of cash-flow in that one pays one's taxes in arrears. The annual declaration is made in the month of May for the preceding calendar year and payments are effected either monthly or in three separate payments over the course of the year. Be disciplined about putting-aside cash for these future tax liabilities as you earn income. Many expatriates have found themselves with cash-flow difficulties when returning to their home countries where they pay tax as they earn (PAYE) and still have remaining tax liabilities to settle in France. Parliament is currently discussing the imùplementation of a PAYE scheme.
Take the time to understand the system and respect the dates for the declarations. Late declarations and late payments are punishable by a fine initially equal to 10% of the sum in question, rising dramatically as further delays accumulate.
5. Local Support
There is a big expatriate community in France and a host of organisations that can help you to find your ideal mix of local and Anglophone resources – from access to live Premier League football on the television to English-speaking medical professionals. Start with the link to “British Community” on this site (although that will not necessarily get you the football).
6. Learn French
The French as a nation are as proud as we are and prefer to speak in their own language. So learn to speak, read and write French as quickly as possible. The French people are however generally friendly. If you make an effort to speak their language they will often chip in with English if they believe it helps. The foreign language capabilities of the French are not as good as the Dutch or the Northern Europeans but they are very probably better than our own.
Enjoy France. You have the opportunity to live in the country that is the world's most visited. Sixty million tourists come to France every year to explore its cities, recline on its beaches, ski in its mountains, canoe in its rivers, discover its history, indulge in its cuisine, drink its wine, befriend its citizens.
Clem Garvey December 2016