‘You mark my words, there’ll be blood on the streets within a year,’ a politically moderate woman of Antillean origin told me at the start of the week, just after the presidential election. She spends her days immersed in the news on her computer and I think she was suggesting that our new president won’t be sufficiently severe with France’s North African population to keep them in check and prevent wholesale blood-letting.
It was a text early on Monday morning that informed me of Monsieur Hollande’s victory. My friend must have stayed up much later than I did, awaiting the result of the second round. ‘Congratulations. You wanted a socialist…’ Well, no. I didn’t actually. I like to think of myself as a political pragmatist rather than dogmatist. It wasn’t the fact that our François is a socialist that appealed to me; rather that he appears to be a man with principles and without pretensions. I like the fact that he would bed down for overnight stays in the room above his office in Tulle; that he would sit among the regulars in his local bar, drinking his coffee and eating his croissant; that he would nip around Paris on his three-wheeled scooter. Of course, all that must change now that he is Le Président de la République.
I like the fact, too, that he values education. However, living in the neighbouring department, I also know that – as Député de la Corrèze – yer man was responsible for issuing every child over 11 with a brand new iPad. I understand the logic: that every child should start from exactly the same place on a level playing field. But the expense of such a gesture! The Corrèze is or was the most indebted department in France, so it doesn’t seem to bode well for the future of this indebted nation. It suggests a lifelong resident of Cloud Cuckoo Land, who hasn’t figured out that all men and women may be born equal, but some will always be more equal than others.
Much will be revealed during and after his first meeting with the fearsome Frau Merkel. Our new, bespectacled leader is going along – or so I believe – to renegotiate the terms of some recent financial deal. To a layman like me, it is hard to grasp what exactly they get up to during these tête-à-têtes. Surely a debt is a debt. But maybe he’s going to try out the Greek model of negotiation, which seems to be something like, ‘Unless you lend us more money, we won’t re-pay what you’ve lent us already’.
Who knows? All I’m sure of is that it’s Muggins here – and all my fellow Mugginses, who try to tread a fairly straight and narrow path through life – who will pay for it all. Earlier this week, I spent almost an entire day collecting together all the bits of paper and assorted information to pass to my wife’s overpaid expert comptable so that she can fill in the daunting document that is our annual tax return. This will be one way of paying for it. Another will be our ever-increasing burden of indirect taxation. And another will be the inflationary tinkering of bankers and politicians with the money supply.
Really, though, I ought to be able to fill in the document myself after all this time here, but somehow French paperwork still manages to make me ‘break out… in a cold sweat!’ My innate fear of authority is three or four times as intense in France as it is in the U.K. It’s something to do with the sensation of being a figure from a Kafka novel in an environment that he can’t fathom out. It’s as if the French Administration is one huge Castle full of functionaries busy scurrying about down a labyrinth of corridors like ants in a nest. I don’t know what they do in those corridors – probably not work as you or I know it. They appear to be engaged in feeding a voracious Trésor Public. But all I really know for sure as an outsider is that it’s mystifying and kind of scary.
My irrational fear of all things official here has certainly been fuelled by two visits I’ve had to make to the Hôtel des Impôts in the sub-prefecture of Gourdon. Is it just me or does anyone else find that a sinister term, the Hôtel des Impôts? It smacks of Gestapo Headquarters. Certainly during both visits – called in by official letter because of irregularities in our dossier – I’ve felt like someone called in to Gestapo HQ on suspicion of resistant leanings. No one smiles at you, as you wait there for your interrogator, clutching your envelope of assorted documents that, you hope, will prove your innocence.
During the first visit, some female bull terrier put the fear of God in me. I couldn’t quite make out what she was on about, but I remember driving back home thinking that all was completely lost. I would be extradited, our house would be seized and the family would be reduced to seeking shelter at the Marshalsea, or wherever it was that Dickens placed his penurious characters to await the intervention of some obscure kindly benefactor. I didn’t sleep well for a fortnight and I dreaded every trip up our drive to the green metal letterbox. In the end it was nothing worse than a demand for a couple of hundred more euros on the grounds that we – or the overpaid accountant – had claimed a crédit impôt for our new, efficient wood-burning stove in the wrong fiscal year. Or something like that; I still don’t understand.
The second visit was a mere two or three years later. We had been selected, totally at random (we were asked to understand) for a check on our dossier. Since something else was perplexing them, we were invited to attend another interrogation at the Hôtel des Impôts. Because the first one had been so traumatic, I went along this time with my wife for support. We saw another official, who seemed rather more reasonable than the previous harridan. My dear chatty ingenuous wife gave away a little more information than she needed to. Because we converted her ante-room at work from a kitchen into something other than a kitchen (if I understand it correctly), we received a further demand for an extra few hundred euros. I’m still not sure what it was all about, but it sure smacks of victimisation, of ‘let’s see if we can squeeze some more out of these people who don’t know how to work the system’.
Ah well. It was only money. We could ill afford it at the time, but it was better than extradition and incarceration. Nevertheless, it makes me very nervous about the information I forward to the accountant. Which is why it took all day. My nerves and our coffers won’t stand a third visit to the Hôtel des Impôts.
In another few weeks, we’ll receive our demand, the Avis d’Imposition. I never know how much it’s going to be and I certainly don’t know how they calculate the figure involved. We just pay up like the good little citizens we are. It’s the same with the national debt. We have little way of knowing whether the figure that we’re supposed to owe is really what we owe. Either we get the tent out and go and join the protesters, or we pay up. So if yer man François does manage to re-negotiate the terms in our favour, all well and good – but I can’t help but think that it’s going to take some uncommonly creative accounting.