May - 2014
I have already used the title BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER from the title song of Simon & Garfunkel's final studio album, and I did not want to use it again.
A bridge is a good symbol for the need to reach out, sometimes pretty far, when one lives in a foreign country. It can be seen as a link from the unfairness wherein the foreigner needs to do more, and therefore feels discriminated against, to the help that can come from someone who unexpectedly reaches out from nowhere and keeps the foreigner out of trouble.
The month of May in France is often called « le mois des ponts ».
LES PONTS DU MOIS DE MAI - THE « BRIDGES » OF MAY
Americans who come to France to work are warned about the special phenomenon that happens in May. It is referred as les ponts du mois de mai, which can be translated as « the bridges of May, » although that means nothing in English because the concept is peculiar to France.
May 1st (Labor Day) and May 8th (VE Day, the end of World War II) are national holidays. So is the Feast of the Ascension, which is celebrated 40 days after Easter and therefore is almost always a Thursday in May. Many French employees take advantage of these paid holidays and ask to have one or two days of paid vacation in conjunction with them to take a long weekend. For example, if the holiday is a Thursday, you take Friday as a vacation day and end up with a four-day break while using just one day of your paid vacation. Some years it is possible to have a total of twelve days off work but only use up three days of vacation. Of course, the immediate impact of this is that French business at the national level crawls for about a month because not enough people are working.
The pont (bridge) is the vacation day you use to link the bank holiday and the weekend. Faire le pont (doing or making the bridge) is an expression commonly used at this time of year.
APPLYING FOR FRENCH CITIZENSHIP VIA MARRIAGE: THE INTERVIEW
On the 3rd of April, my wife, Paula, had her interview with the préfecture as part of the procedure to obtain French nationality by virtue of her marriage to me. The very first part of the procedure took place nearly 20 years ago, in 1995, when I was initially told that I was not French enough for her to have this done because my mother was Danish and my father’s mother was Spanish. I had thought that being born in France of at least one French-born parent would create enough of a French nationality paper trail to allow me to pass on my French nationality to my spouse. In those days, according to the civil servant, it was not. The man told me I needed to produce my grandfather’s birth certificate and marriage license, as well as one of these documents for his parents, my great-grandparents. Rather than try to find these old documents, I petitioned the Tribunal d’Instance, or Small Claims Court, to rule on my French nationality. Some time later, I received the court’s decision: I was French from birth and being married to an American did not make me lose my nationality. But we had both lost interest in pursuing the project by the time this ruling was issued. About a year ago, however, my wife asked me to start the process again, and this time the regulation was more lenient (and, of course my French nationality was a matter of record). The file was composed of American documents certified in accordance with the Hague Apostille Convention and officially translated, plus other documents proving the fact that we have always lived together, our respective work history, and so on.
She received a letter setting up a meeting for a Thursday morning, and it said my presence was mandatory. We arrived a little early and the civil servant met us almost on time, less than five minutes late, which by préfecture standards is incredible. The first part of the meeting was devoted to making sure we had brought the originals of the copies we sent. The second part was what felt like a chat about our life, our centers of interests, hobbies, the children’s education - the kind of things one would talk about at a party. The reality, from the civil servant’s side, was a series of questions to verify how much each spouse knows about the other, and how integrated they are in each other’s family. Paula enjoyed this discussion, adding details and anecdotes, while I was more interested in making sure that her French credentials had been recorded and the documentation secured in the file. As can sometime happen at the prefecture, what is supposed to be an interview, which the foreigner often expects to be questioned or a French quiz, feels more like an informal chat.
In some situations, the foreigner thinks the file is complete because it has all the documents on the official list, and then finds the civil servant short and rude, in a one-way conversation that does not take the applicant’s excellent level of French into consideration. The situation depends on many variables, but here are some guidelines.
* A French list almost always indicates the information needed and needs to be tailored to a specific situation. This can considerably increase the number of documents to bring.
* In France, the file always talks louder than you can. So make sure you see it as a two-step process. The interview is not the time to fix what you did wrong with the file.
* The civil servants at the préfecture are more like members of the police than paper pushers. They rule, you comply. There is next to no chance of having an equal relationship with equal time for each party to speak. In short, you can ask for information and maybe some advice, but you cannot demand things, and you certainly won’t get anywhere waving an American passport and saying, I am an American citizen, I have rights!
I feel this is the most important advice I can give on how to handle such situations. Yes, there are rules that the French administration complies with, and yes, foreigners residing in France obtain certain rights and protection.
FRENCH INTERNET PROVIDER SAGA
I received the following message from a reader:
Thank you so much Jean for the piece on Internet providers. As we spend 90 to 120 days (of which we try to spend 30 out of the Schengen countries) in France every summer, we have that continued issue with home Internet providers (including phone internet with rules that are guaranteed to change annually). In addition to proving we are moving back to the USA (worked once) you have to add the complication that you have to return the equipment before you leave AND acquire new equipment when you get back. The wasted time and energy of all 3 operations encouraged us to bite the bullet and just leave the Internet all year around. To your point Orange won simply by wearing us out. They made canceling so hard that it was not worth the effort and the colossal waste of time waiting in line to return the equipment. Add to that re-establishing the service when you come back which may be a Saturday so you may be without service for as long as week by the time you lease the equipment again, get it working, get help on-line if needed, etc.
DISCRIMINATION IN FRANCE: NOT ALWAYS WHAT YOU THINK
60 millions de consommateurs, the magazine of a French consumer advocate group, recently published the results of a study about people’s access to good housing. The results were appalling.
Many foreigners whom I help to find a bare-walls, three-year-lease rental feel they have been severely discriminated against because of the insane level of guarantees that landlords and management companies ask for. I strongly believe this has nothing to do with discrimination and everything to do with the level of security needed to get a lease in France, especially in Paris. These are French people who have the same profile as the foreigners mentioned earlier, and who moved back to France without an employer and with no family members left in France, to face the same demands described in my February 2014 issue.
On the other hand, what the magazine describes is real discrimination based on race, foreign origin and personal situation, even against people who are French citizens with a stable employment track record and relatives in France.
In the study, people presenting themselves as belonging to one of five different groups telephoned in response to 150 ads for rental properties in Paris and elsewhere in France. All the candidates supposedly had identical salaries and professional positions, but otherwise the profiles were quite different: average single childless French person, elderly person, single mother, person with African-sounding name and accent, etc.
The « average French person » never had any trouble getting an appointment to visit the property. The « African » caller only succeeded two-thirds of the time.
In Paris, would-be renters are usually asked to have a salary equal to three times the rent. Agents handling the properties checked this only nine times for the « French » caller but 43 times for the « African » one.
Interestingly enough, the « French single mother with one child » got as bad results as the « African » caller, and when people of these two profiles did get an appointment to visit, they were asked to submit a much thicker file, giving a lot more detailed information.
It does not make anyone feel any better to see how difficult it is to find a long-term rental in Paris. A new law called A.L.U.R. (pour l’Accès au Logement et à l’Urbanisme Rénové), sponsored by the former minister for housing, Cecile Duflot, is supposed to counter this type of discrimination, creating regional commissions called « les commission de contrôle des professions immobilières » to fight it.
The truth is that such discrimination is very difficult to document in a way that holds up in a French court. What is more, in the Parisian market landlords get so many applications that they have an ample choice of candidates and therefore can choose on subjective criteria.
My opinion is that as long as the law increases protection of the tenant, the market will react by being more and more selective because of the risk involved in choosing a tenant. A sudden huge increase in the number of apartments for rent in Paris would force landlords to change their tune, but the chance of that happening is about as great as the chance of the market being opened to all profiles overnight.
FRENCH INCOME TAX: TIME TO DECLARE AND PAY
Regarding the more mundane topic of income tax, I would remind everybody that the paper version of the 2013 income declaration must be filed in France by May 20th and the second partial income tax payment (deuxieme tiers) is to be paid by May 15th (midnight, in both cases). The forms have been available since April 9th and people could start declaring online on April 16th at the website www.impots.gouv.fr. Everything is much earlier than usual this year. You can file your declaration on the website as long as this is not your first time filing, since you need your tax ID number and some access codes.
If you do file online, you benefit from a later deadline. The schedule depends on your postal code: départements 01 to 19 must file by Tuesday May 27th, 20 to 49 by Tuesday June 3rd and 50 or higher by Tuesday June 10th.
An important reminder: if you are a French fiscal resident, you must declare your worldwide income to the French authorities even if you do not earn any income in France, do not have the right to work in France or truly do not work in France. Just because there is no penalty to pay does not mean it is legal to neglect to file. To put it simply, if you hold a carte de séjour or an immigration visa validated with an OFII stamp, chances are you are a French fiscal resident.
OBTAINING AN EU CARTE DE SEJOUR
I have both American and British nationalities, and I am married to an American; I have been living in France for a while. I had an expat status for three years based on my American citizenship, and I was laid off a few months ago. I chose to stay in France with my wife so I asked for a carte de séjour, this time as an EU citizen. The préfecture refuses to give it to me because I have no job, and I receive no unemployment subsidy. The préfecture says that I do not belong here. This is outrageous; I am an EU citizen and I know I have the right to live in France. Can you explain what is going on?
I believe that there is a large degree of confusion between what the préfecture said and the conclusion you reached.
There is a critical difference between having the legal right to live and work somewhere, and obtaining an ID card issued on very specific grounds. It is absolutely true that a British citizen, like any citizen of any EU member country, has the right to live in France. I am certain that the préfecture is NOT challenging the fact that you have that right. By virtue of your British passport alone, you have the right to live in France, work in France and do everything else a French person can do. There might be a few situations where French nationality is required but it is now exceedingly rare.
The people at the préfecture are dealing with a totally different issue. You asked them for a European carte de séjour, which is only issued if you are an EU citizen AND you prove that you are rock-solid anchored in France.
Your spouse is American, you do not have a job, you do not operate a business and you are not receiving unemployment benefits. From a French point of view, you currently seem to have no roots in France. I am sure that you feel very differently and this is why you are reacting as you are. The préfecture reacts to what you can prove, and you react to how you feel about the situation.
There is one specific issue which I am pretty sure is also being misunderstood. You lost your job and you are looking for another. I assume you didn’t file for unemployment, which still carries a strong stigma in the USA. Whether you are entitled to receive money from Pôle Emploi in France or not, you should at least get registered and check if your employer has paid into the French social system. It used to be that the so-called expat status automatically excluded paying any French social charges, as well as income tax. With the creation of the carte de séjour called salarié en mission, it is less clear cut and therefore it is becoming more and more common for foreigners to hold this carte de séjour and pay into the French social system. The préfecture would see you as being a well-integrated foreigner if you were receiving unemployment benefits, and this could be grounds for them to issue you the carte de séjour you are asking for. In other words, you might look down at unemployment because that is how it is perceived in your circle in the USA, but now that you live in France and wish to remain here for the foreseeable future, you need to adopt or at the very least to accept the French system and the values it is grounded in. You need to anchor in France if you want to stay here.
VARIOUS TYPES OF FISCAL STATUS OF MONEY EARNED IN FRANCE
Several years ago, I hired an undocumented alien to be my cleaning lady. She first did my home and then over the years, she did the apartments I own and rent and now other landlords use her services. She does a wonderful job, and manages the tasks in a very autonomous way. I pay her with CESU as much as I can manage it, so the majority of her income comes from the other owners who mostly do not reside in France. How can she manage her income declaration to the tax office while she is an undocumented alien and once she obtains a legal immigration status?
Answering this question is a lot more complex than just identifying whether it is salaried income or self-employment profit, since it is both. I need to explain the complex set-up of French income tax and the various types of status involved. This will show how French income can be taxed and illustrate how easy it is to make very costly mistakes on tax declarations.
For an undocumented alien, one of the best ways to get proof of residing in France is to declare one's annual income to the tax office and receive the avis d'imposition. Since many do not earn enough to pay taxes, there are no negative consequences for not declaring. But almost all grounds for giving legal immigration status to an undocumented alien rest upon proof of living in France, usually for between three and ten years. Obtaining the tax statement is the easiest way by far to get such proof, and it comes from the administration itself. Often this income has not been taxed for social charges, even though in some cases it is possible. For details, see the February 14 issue, the section titled NEW WAYS TO DECLARE PAYING AN EMPLOYEE THROUGH THE CESU PROGRAM.
Because of lack of documentation of the origin of the salary due to the lack of legal immigration status, these people put everything as salary and as net income as if the social charges had been paid. This is fine and the tax office accepts this without asking the employers' identity! It is true that the majority of the undocumented aliens hold employee positions such as nannies and cleaning ladies in homes, as well as in restaurants and in construction.
A cleaning person who comes for a couple of hours perhaps twice a week, cleaning an office, a warehouse or a shop, can be seen as not working for a private individual but for a business, and in the eyes of both parties this is a business transaction, not an employee position. So as long as the person is an undocumented alien, they can declare the cash they receive without having to do anything else. Once they get legal status in France, since none of their clients consider them an employee, they must register as self-employed, explaining that they are in effect running a cleaning business. France is extremely strict about having the special tax ID number to create a business, along with the BNC (bénéfices non commerciaux) or BIC (bénéfices industriels et commerciaux)
A more common profile might be an undocumented man who is hired as a versatile handyman. He earns money mainly from private individuals, and the CESU (chèque emploi service universel) can work as long as he stays undocumented, but once he gets legal the real nature of his activity is much more self-employed. Here there is less risk of getting in trouble with the tax office since everything appears legitimate until he starts to advertise as a handyman, which is not a registered profession. A more recent example I have encountered is someone who helps with computers, creating basic websites, working with Photoshop and so on.
In recent weeks, I have seen a lot of situations where foreigners were declaring their income completely inaccurately, mixing employee with self-employed and vice versa, or BNC with BIC, which for some of them meant they ended up being taxed astronomical amounts. Furthermore they were not earning enough to have to make a complete accounting of their business but could have benefited from the micro status. So they had no need for an accountant, who would have guided them and set them up the right way.
In the American system, the IRS and Social Security tax everything, regardless of the nature of the income, and everything is recorded on the Social Security number. France differentiates among many types of status, and while it might be useful to know all of them, what is critical is to understand the logic and therefore to know which category your income falls into, since in France the equivalent of the Social Security number is not used for taxes, and there are even different divisions of the French administration dealing with the social charges for each type of status rather than the same office inside the branch of the local tax office.
I used undocumented aliens as an example because it is easier to see the sequence of events that creates such nightmarish scenarios. The vast majority of foreigners who get in trouble because of this complex legislation have the right immigration status and some of them have even become French through one procedure or another.
CARTE DE SEJOUR COMMERCANT & K-BIS
I work for a small multinational and I have been appointed the Senior Manager of the French branch located in Paris. I asked for a long-stay visa at the French consulate in Chicago, and after several trips there, waiting a long while and giving an impressive amount of documents, I finally got it. Upon my arrival in France, I had to redo exactly the same thing, giving the same documents but this time to the préfecture. The French staff helped some. I thought the last meeting would be the final one but the préfecture stated that I needed to come once again with an updated K-Bis. I do not get it the current one has my name on it and the address of the company’s headquarters in France where my office is. What more do they want?
I need to explain what a K-Bis is before I can answer your question. This document is issued by the Greffes du Tribunal de Commerce responsible for the district where the headquarters is. It gives the essential information about the legal status of the business. Since you manage a branch of the corporation, it states the corporate name in the USA with the address of the headquarters and the name of the CEO of the corporation, along with the name of the French branch, which should be the same, and its address in France, plus the name of the manager in France with his personal address, i.e., his domicile.
From your description, I would assume what happened was that the request for the immigration visa was submitted at the French consulate with your personal address given as the office address, since you did not yet know where you would be living. Upon receiving the visa you came to France and submitted the initial paperwork, which still had you living at the office since you probably stayed in a hotel or equivalent. Up to that point, the préfecture did not mind, understanding that it takes some time, especially in Paris, to secure long-term accommodation.
Now that everything has been done on the corporate side and your immigration status has been approved, almost certainly with your personal address, the préfecture wants the K-Bis to carry the address where you now live. This means modifying the K-Bis again, and the Greffes du Tribunal de Commerce is not making it easy, and it costs something every time. So I understand your frustration. But under French law, one’s address is as critical for identification as the first and last name, as well as the date and location of birth. Foreigners are often shocked at having to show a recent utility bill for what appears to be just about everything, but this is the way France handles people’s personal address.
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.