April - 2014
The album A Space in Time was released in August 1971 by the British blues-rock band Ten Years After. I am a fan of the music of this period, as you can tell from the number of issues that take their titles from it.
This month I continue to address the statement I made last month that France, as a nation, « runs on grey » by sharing a couple of interesting comments I received. The « grey » French way of life can also be defined as getting some space or tolerance to make things happen. Foreigners have a hard time understanding when this grey area is available. It is clearly possible to negotiate before any definitive decision is made; after that, the official process starts which seals a given situation. Several foreigners have experienced this while submitting their requests submitted to the préfecture or the consulate.
One of the illustrations there is of what I mean by France, as a nation, « runs on grey » is, in effect, the use of this "wiggle space" at the right time, not too early and not too late. That is how I came up with this month’s title.
TWO READER’S COMMENTS : ON FRANCE, AS A NATION, « RUNS ON GREY »
1. As one who has lived between France and SE Asia (Malaysia and Indonesia) I am quite comfortable with grey, but I find so many others, particularly Americans, very uncomfortable with not doing something that they believe the law says. Of course, most Americans are naive about their own country and its history, yet they have trouble releasing these feelings and hence get frustrated with life abroad. Well done, Sir.
2. Fascinating. Do the bureaucrats have a school to go to, to learn how to be « grey »?
My answer to the latter question could be, French people learn « grey » from the cradle onwards! Every aspect of French life has a « grey » aspect. French children generally learn "grey" first at home, then in kindergarten.
In French, it’s called le système D, where D stands for « débrouille. » A reasonable translation of this would be artfulness, since it has a somewhat devious connotation.
Interestingly, the specific training French civil servants get, focuses exclusively on the technical aspects of a job and explains little if anything about management, team cohesion, or problem-solving techniques, since individuals do not count only the system matters.
READER’S COMMENT ON FRENCH BANKS
This is an interesting comment since it comes from a senior lawyer. Even this legally-trained reader acknowledges signing documents without reading everything, and discovers that unpleasant consequences can follow. It might not make people feel any better to learn that this reader got treated in a « slimy » way and could even be challenged. Indeed, should an employee’s loyalty be with the employer or the client? Until recently this question was not conceivable in the USA. More and more often, clients are confronted with situations that give the impression that customer satisfaction is nothing more than a slogan in commercials aired on TV. This is true in France, and increasingly in the USA as well.
Just as your column came out, I was writing a short note to my charge de clientèle, who phoned me for an appointment to get to know me usually a banking euphemism for trying to sell you another product.
After nice beginnings, things turned sour for me when I made payments to the US FICA/SSA as a freelancer in the 1980s. My instructions clearly indicated that the bank, which issued the check and sent it directly to the IRS from NY, should put my SS number on the check. At the time of signing the request for the third transfer, I thought to ask the clerk (the same one as for the others) to make sure that the SS number would be on the check. « Ah, no, » she replied, « that's not possible on a French check; there's no space. » Well, having used French checks for more than a decade, I knew that that wasn't true. I reassured myself by asking whether my order was in fact transferred to their agent bank in NY, in which case they « as Americans or at least US-based » would certainly know the importance of putting the SS number on the check. Yes, she said.
Well, a few months later when I was back in the bank, the same clerk said, « Oh, Mr. xx, this message in English came in a while ago; it might have to do with your transfers. » Indeed, the IRS was asking my bank from whom these payments were coming, and they requested a reply by a certain date, which had already gone by. And of course the clerk hadn’t thought to use a telephone to call a client whom she knew well. (She wasn't my chargée de clientèle.) I managed to clear up the matter, and soon moved my major account to another bank, Citi, later to be disappointed by them. As banks do.
But I maintained accounts there because a checking account is supposedly free if you keep a positive balance (not true nowadays), and the chargée de clientèle had had me buy into a couple of privatizations of 1986-88 (public corporations going privately owned), which were being held at their bank. So I continued to use this bank to participate, very marginally, in privatizations as they came up. Even when my bank wrote to me about various things related to my stockholdings at their bank, the letters always said to contact my branch for further information. On the few occasions when I did this, the agency said they didn’t know what I was talking about, and would I please fax them the letter from their own bank.
After a while, they started charging droits de garde for the stock that they « helped » me buy. In fact, their advice was wrong on one particular privatization, when I told them I wanted 100 shares, got eight, and was told that if I wanted 100 I should have asked for 1000 or more. That's the kind of advice one would like from a bank that’s charging you for holding your shares.
After several complaints about paying a quarterly fee for a checking account and droits de garde (except on the shares of the bank), they finally came up with a « solution » for me which was to change the other shares into SICAVs issued by the bank, for which there would be no droits de garde. But they « forgot » to say that the droits d'entrée for purchasing the SICAVs was equal to about 1.5% of the value, or about two years of droits de garde for a 1275 purchase. The same week, my US bank, which holds shares and makes purchases and sales following advice from my local financial adviser, bought a bunch of mutual fund shares and the charge was $9 for about a $22,000 purchase.
In any case, my new chargée de clientèle had been quick to point out my savings on droits de garde, without informing me of the droits d'entrée, whoops! And, as to the charges for keeping a checking account (where I almost never draw checks), she'd cut that in half for one year, she said, but couldn't promise more.
As you point out, there were forms of long texts to sign for this, and somewhere in there was certainly this thing about droits d'entrée. I nearly joked with her as I was signing the various pages, along the lines of Of course, I've read all this before signing. But I refrained from making that « joke. » I have just sent her a note, though thanking her for her welcome and advice (on avoiding droits de garde), but pointing out the difference in acquiring shares between the cost in the US and in France, adding that this might perhaps explain French aversion to being share owners, whereas Americans (50%) are quite happy to own stock. Oh, well.
THE FRENCH LOCAL TAX - TAXE D’HABITATION
There is a lot to say about the local tax since it is tied to so many things. This tax is levied on the primary or secondary residence of the inhabitant on January first and must be paid for the entire year. It is not paid on resorts, vacation places, or hotels. The primary residence is supposed to be the one mentioned on the previous year's French income tax declaration. On the first page, there is a box to declare if the taxpayer moved before January 1st and a different one if a move occurred after that date. This is the most common way the tax authorities determine whom to tax for which lodging.
As often, everyday life rarely fits those forms. My daughter finished her bachelor’s degree last September with an exchange program between her French school and a university in the USA. She had rented a studio for the previous years and we paid her taxe d’habitation for the years she was there on January 1st. It happens that the second semester started on January 3rd so she left Rennes, where she went to school, on December 23rd to celebrate Christmas with us, and left France on Dec 27th and did not go back to Rennes for school for the rest of the year except for two days in June for administrative issues. As a young adult who was very rushed to get everything done, she did not terminate her lease and give the keys back to the landlord. On January 14th my wife did the inspection of the place and turned turned in the keys.
When the 2013 taxe d’habitation bill came, I contested it, providing the plane ticket, the registration with the American university and her transcripts. Clearly she did not have her primary or even secondary residence in Rennes. The tax office asked me for the état des lieux de sortie, which is the final walk-through document, and the last electricity or phone bill. Since this happened in January 2013, my request was denied because my daughter had kept the usage of this place and she could have come back to it regardless of the distance.
As often happens with French administrative decisions, at the end of the letter there was an explanation of the various ways of appealing the decision. I chose the most amicable one, writing to the conciliateur fiscal, a mediator, who is part of the French tax administration. My strongest argument was that my daughter had taken everything that belonged to her out of the studio so how could it be her residence? After a while, I got a positive answer. Nevertheless, the opposite argument was just about as valid: as long as the landlord does not have the keys back, the tenant keeps the ultimate right to use the place.
The sticky issues with this tax are most often related to moving in late December or early January, especially for those who move out of France. Indeed, anyone who moves within France does not mind paying for such a short occupation of one residence, since the new one is exempted until the following year.
FRENCH INTERNET PROVIDERS
This is another of those situations where the client feels trapped, and rightfully so. Most Internet contracts are for either one or two years, and the client cannot get out of the contract without severe penalties. According to the providers logic, clients do not need to terminate the contract even when they move to a new home.
The main penalty is having to pay, in one lump sum, the monthly fees until the end of the contract. So, changing providers becomes costly unless you are patient and focused enough to do it at the right time.
There are several legitimate reasons to cancel your contract without penalty, but the client has to prove, the French way, his or her compliance with these. The most common grounds are:
- 1 – Moving to a foreign country
- 2 – Bankruptcy (surendettement).
- 3 – Unemployment
- 4 – Long-term medical care
Each provider has its own contract that offers more or fewer of such conditions. So you should read the contract very carefully before giving notice, which must be done by registered letter. When this exceptional request is approved, the notice period only lasts for ten days from the day the letter arrives. Then there is the issue of returning the equipment to the company, when often the client has left France by then. The alternative is to terminate the contract several weeks before departure to take into account the ten-day period plus the postal delay for sending a registered letter and receipt of the documentation the company sends so the equipment can be sent back.
The real problem involves what each provider expects as proof, especially for moving out of France. Some ask simply for a document that proves the use of an address in another country, such as a utility bill or a bank statement. Others, including Orange, ask for proof less than three months old, establishing not just that you have secured the address but that you actually live there such as the first page of the IRS 1040 form. Bringing this proof when you are in the process of moving back to the USA, for example, is impossible; it takes a few months to gather these types of documents and sometimes longer if you are staying with friends or family members at first, which happens quite often.
In other words, these corporations are violating their own contracts by making it almost impossible to comply with the level of requirements they have established. The client moving out of France needs to determine what is the cheapest and simplest thing to do: pay for the contract until its expiration date or have the residency in the USA fully secured at least a couple of months before moving there.
American internet providers do not have a good reputation, and the French ones are not really much better. Through my clients I have some experience with several of them when it comes to cancellation, and there is a wide range in the quality of their services.
ANY TOLERANCE WHEN SPEEDING IN FRANCE
My American Market
Anne-Claire Bocage, founder of www.MyAmericanMarket.com, an online grocery for hard-to-find American products in France, asked me about four years ago if she could publish excerpts from my column in the MyAM newsletter. I received this question through her.
I got a ticket for doing 91 km/h in a 90-km/h zone. Isn’t there any margin at all? Can this be contested? Seems pretty ridiculous as I thought I was doing exactly 90 (according to the setting on my cruise control).
Your questions look simple but in reality they open a more complex issue. Therefore I would like to answer your first question and then expand further.
Isn’t there any margin at all? According to the research I did, there are two different situations: permanent static radar units and movable equipment that the police set up.
– The static radar guns are set with a margin of up to 3 km/h when the speed measured is less than 100 km/h, and 3% when it exceeds 100 km/h.
– The movable ones are set with a margin of up to 5 km/h when the speed measured is less than 100 km/h, and 5% when it exceeds 100 km/h.
This information indicates that you were either driving 94 km/h or 96 km/h, depending on which type of machine caught you - because the tolerance is built in, you need to add the margin to the measured speed stated on the ticket you received.
Now I would like to discuss the fact that this is a criminal offense and talk about its consequences.
Obviously, radar equipment is a machine, and it stated that you were speeding. This is a very black and white situation, so there cannot be any discussion about it; either the radar unit is triggered by your speed or it is not. When it is, the criminal consequences i.e. the amount of the fine and the number of points lost on your license depend on how much you were speeding. You have the right to think that for 1 km/h the consequence for you is totally out of proportion with the scope of the violation. But keep in mind that the reality was that you were driving either 94 km/h or 96 km/h, so your frustration should be tempered by this fact.
As for your second question, « Can this be contested? », it depends on whether you are contesting the functioning of the radar unit. If you are, my question is, « Can you prove that the radar gun the police used, either static or movable, was defective? » If you can, then you have a case. Or maybe you are contesting the accuracy of your cruise control and you are stating that it is defective. In that case, the car manufacturer would be liable. The critical aspect of this issue is that, at this low level of criminal charges, the police do not need to prove any criminal intent or even the driver’s knowledge of the reality of the violation. All there is a need for is the existence of the violation and of course the proof of its existence.
I would like to expand on the consequences of speeding in France. The first consequence is a fine, increasing with the amount by which the speed limit was exceeded.
– < 20 km/h = 68 €.
– 21-50 km/h = 135 €.
– > 50 km/h = 1,500 €.
– second offense at > 50 km/h = 3,750 €.
The second consequence is the number of points lost on the license.
– < 20 km/h = 1 point.
– < 30 km/h = 2 points.
– < 40 km/h = 3 points.
– < 50 km/h = 4 points.
– > 50 km/h = 6 points.
More severe penalties are also possible. For example:
– For speeding more than 30 km/h above the limit, the license can be suspended for three years and the vehicle confiscated.
– For a second offense speeding more than 50 km/h above the limit, the driver faces a three-month jail sentence.
The only way you can get off the hook is to prove that the radar unit was defective, but I do not see how you can do this without a lawyer and a court case. Also, considering the sentence for such a small violation, I seriously question whether it is really worth it. Even if you won a court case, most of your lawyer’s fees would not be reimbursed. Just shaking your lawyer’s hand will cost you more than the fine of 68 €!
I am not trying to dismiss the aggravation, or the anger you feel about this. You believe that this is unfair and inappropriate, and I respect that. I am merely tried to put the situation in perspective and show that you really do not have much alternative to accepting the consequences and paying the fine.
LENGTH OF STAY ON THE VISA APPLICATION BOX #27
I am an American and I am getting ready to ask for a long-stay visa to come to France. Does it matter what we put in box 27? We intend to stay only five or six months each year. Maybe I should check the box that says six months to one year?
The form to ask for an immigration visa, which is a long-stay visa, is the same for all the long-stay visa requests, and the tiniest piece of information is loaded with consequences. Each of the 32 questions must be understood and answered according to what is needed to issue the appropriate visa. This form would be immensely easier to fill out if applicants were able to understand what each question, and therefore each answer, means to the French administration. Very early in my practice, I helped an American woman who had been turned down in her request for a long-stay visa on the grounds that she did not qualify. The reason is that she answered yes to the question « Do you intend to study? » The French administration interpreted this as meaning she was requesting a student visa, and therefore the request was denied for insufficient documentation. So answering truthfully like this changed the nature of the request. The latest form is more straightforward, as box 23 now asks for the reason for seeking a visa, which makes it easier to determine which type is being requested. Your question gives me the impression that you are confusing two completely different issues. The first concerns the amount of time you plan to spend in France per year; I gather that you wish to retain your American fiscal residence by staying less than six months a year in France, which is compatible with the immigration status you are about to ask for.
The second is how long you wish to retain your French immigration status, and based on what you wrote I am guessing that you want it to be for the foreseeable future.
Since the box 27 question deals with the second issue and not the first one, your answer must be MORE THAN ONE YEAR.
Filling out the form the way you suggested you would get you a long-term visa that would be valid for less than one year, and you would not be allowed to renew the related immigration status that normally comes with obtaining a real immigration visa.
Your question illustrates very well how tricky filling out this form is, even though the French administration has improved it a lot in the last few years.
Please forward this message to all those who would be interested in its contents. The information contained in this newsletter is intended only as general information. I strongly urge readers to seek professional guidance concerning the legal and tax matters mentioned. This newsletter is intended as a general guide and is not to be taken as professional advice.