Many Unhappy Returns

Posted on: 31 March 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Mark Sampson finds the French tax office even more formidable than the Inland Revenue.


The Ides of March have been and gone. Spring is officially here. Filled as I am, however, with foreboding, I appreciated the absence of soothsayers predicting imminent assassination.

The only noticeable wild-eyed crones were bent double in the meadows, picking fresh young dandelion leaves for salads. Now the leaves are already mature and unpalatable. (I must have a subconscious aversion to this free source of roughage, born of vain weeks as a young man, forcing myself to drink infusions of dandelion root for irritable bowels.)

Anyway… Spring is a miraculous time of year. Take your eye off the ball for a moment and it has insinuated itself everywhere. Suddenly the vegetation is sporting shiny new shoots, winter's monochrome is splashed with colour, and the air is loud with bird song and the sound of concerted human activity.

Living in the country underlines how long winters can be. Spring is the cue to emerge from dark, shuttered houses, roll up your sleeves and get busy out of doors. Our British neighbours, like many ex-pats who winter back home, will be back soon to battle rampant nature with strimmer and tractor-mower.

Blessed be the springtime that offers tender leafy greens to supplement the last root vegetables of winter. Yet why does this dark cloud follow me about when I should be jigging gleefully around some pagan symbol of fertility?

Because now is the time that the French government chooses to send out tax returns to all its adult citizens. Imagine, if you will, the sinking feeling prompted by a missive from Her Majesty's Revenue. Now intensify that feeling to the power of, say, a hundred.

This is a weighty document phrased in the type of French that even a native would struggle with. You have a limited time in which to complete it, you haven't a clue which information belongs where and you're pretty damn sure that if you get it wrong there will be hell to pay.

Whatever the figure some functionary calculates, you can be sure that you won't have the faintest idea whether it's right or wrong, legitimate or unjust. As an outsider, you depend on the "kindness of strangers".

French civil servants, however, are not synonymous with "kindness". On a "HELP! line", they're commonly curt and supercilious. In person, they can be appalling.

Almost 12 months later, I still shudder to recall my trip to the tax office at our sub-prefecture. I only went for a form and some information, but strayed into the wrong room where a bespectacled harridan sat me down for interrogation. Ah, Monsieur Sampson. Here's a spade; now dig yourself into a hole please. I felt like some Tudor pamphleteer in the Lord Chancellor's presence: whatever I said would be twisted into a charge of heresy.

Every subsequent letter from the "Hôtel des Impôts" causes consternation. Dear Monsieur Sampson, further to your previous visit, you are now requested to attend an inquisition in our re-furbished dungeons…

My wife and I fell in love in the spring. There's something perverse about sending everyone a tax return at a time traditionally of hope and joy and passion. It's surely symptomatic of a national inability to let one's hair down. As if the government is reining back its citizens (lest, I suppose, they get any ideas of dusting off the barricades and partying like it's 1968). Yes, it's springtime and we may enjoy it, but let's remember there's still serious work to be done.

It's only a form; I shouldn't let it get to me. Being positive, it's an opportunity to take financial stock, assess the gravity of the situation and pinpoint where to make yet more economies in order, effectively, to lease that seductive quality of life for another year.

Being practical, I can pass my figures to Deborah's expert comptable, who justifies her implausible accountancy fees by claiming to save in tax what she charges. She knows the ropes. Typically French, you can, for example offset a certain amount of champagne as a legitimate expense.

Ah well, in another couple of weeks the tax return will have been submitted. Spring, though, glorious spring will keep going - through April into May, that magnificent month when the days are still stretching towards summer. There'll be another damn bill to pay, but the privilege of watching blooming nature is priceless.

Mark Sampson, March 2008

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