For nine or more years, I have been deluding myself. I discovered this month that I am not a self-employed writer – as I have been telling people – but I am actually salaried. The trouble is, I don't know who pays my pitiful salary. If I did, I could go on strike and/or get myself dismissed and then sue my employer for wrongful dismissal, as per the popular ruse among the French salaried fraternity.
I discovered this startling – and somewhat unsettling – piece of information quite by chance. Having decided to take my official retirement as from 1st November later this year, I went about the daunting task of trying to find out how to do it. Needless to say, the French retirement system is incredibly complicated and confusing: it's full of all kinds of organisations with four or more capital letters that stand for confusion. A lot of them begin with the letter C for Caisse, meaning cashbox, till and savings bank.
That much I'd gleaned when I set out on my quest earlier last week, armed with a demonstration of the new online portal by my friend Nick, who plans to retire in August – two years before me, age-wise. I have dragged my heels because a) my annual French retirement will amount to just over a thousand euros, which will just about cover the annual taxe foncière on this house (a kind of tax on the land on which the house is built, kind of), and b) because I get a debilitating case of the heebie-jeebies every time I even think of the French administrative system, let alone attempt to negotiate it.
Since 2009, I have been paying my dues to an organisation called Agessa, which is based in Paris and linked to the Maison des Artistes. Agessa handles writers in various guises and photographers, I believe. For many years, I thought that they would eventually pay my retirement. But no. They divert my dues to a C-organisation that will pay my basic pension. This is then made up to a sum that depends on the number of points you've earned by a mutuel – or complementary retirement organisation. Mine goes by the acronym IRCEC (with two Cs). It is sub-divided into three sub-organisations according to what branch of the arts you come under. Mine's something like RAAP, which certainly ought to but doesn't begin with a C.
My mission, Jim, which I chose to accept only out of sheer necessity, was to find out which organisation would pay my basic pension so I could ask them if I could please retire on the 1st November. So I set off on the new portal and managed to create une espace personnelle or personal space.
'You all right, dad?' my daughter asked every time she ventured upstairs or passed by the bottom of the stairs and looked up to see me sitting in front of the screen with my head in my hands.
'No, I'm going round and round in circles here. Getting nowhere fast.'
'Oh dear. Can I help?'
'No. Thank you, love. I don't think anyone can help.'
'Oh dear. Can I help?'
'No. Thank you, love. I don't think anyone can help.'
Although, for example, I discovered that I had the right to organise a face-to-face meeting with someone before 'launching my demand', every time I tried, I received the mystifying message, Aucun lieu d'accueil trouvé pour cette recherche. Which means roughly, No place of welcome found for this search. Which means God-knows-what.
Close to self-immolation, I picked up the phone and dialled a few telephone numbers uncovered by my dispiriting research. After long waits, I spoke to two people whom you might at best describe as matter-of-fact. They helped me not one jot. Which deepened the sense of futility.
But as has been so often the case in this perplexing country, at your darkest hour – just when you are ready to burst into tears or drink hemlock – you stumble serendipitously on someone (whisper the words) nice and helpful. I dialled a number I found on a suspiciously out-of-date website for an organisation I'd never heard of. A woman picked up the phone on the first ring. Perhaps detecting the note of hopelessness in my voice, she spent 25 minutes patiently and clearly demystifying the subject. She even directed me to a pdf to download that explained it all (not very clearly) in diagrammatic form. The problem I'd experienced was because I'd tried to venture down the Indépendant route. I should have been selecting the tab for Salariés.
I went back to the portal and obtained my illustration of the riches that awaited me. So now, I imagined, I could arrange my preparatory interview on line. Only it still came up No place of welcome for this search. Which gave me the faintest whiff of what it must be like – every day – for a refugee.
Meanwhile, in her parallel world of clients and consultations, the Good Wife is trying to obtain the status of accredited trainer for the courses she also runs, principally so she won't have to pay her crippling three-monthly TVA bills. This has brought her up close and impersonal with a little known but singularly ghastly administrative quango based in the good-for-nothing city of Poitiers. There they practise the functionary's ruse of Keep it moving. In other words, when another file lands on your desk, you find a way of passing it on to someone else or going back for further information. I speak from experience, although being cursed with a conscience, I lived by the credo during my 15-year tenure that The buck stops here.
In trying to satisfy some specious request for further details, my poor wife made the mistake of phoning the quango. Her usual interlocutrice was absent and some even worse dragon launched into a diatribe about the stress she was labouring under. Unable to get a word in edgewise, she somehow managed to maintain the dignity and patience of a saint. Nevertheless, she was effectively told that she really didn't have a chance in Hades, so it wasn't worth pursuing her demand. She will, because she's determined not to be cowed by unbelievers.
However, we're already discussing contingency plans. Some lifelong trainer she knows of apparently refuses to pursue official dispensation. Even if granted, it has to be renewed annually, thereby creating more folders to move from in-tray to in-tray until one party cracks. The trainer was told by his accountant that the only alternative to hoop-jumping was to cheat. It's incredible the number of times we've heard words to the same effect during 22+ years here. It leads you to believe that corruption must be as endemic in France as it is in Italy and Greece.
Back in the DisUK, it all seems deceptively easier. Despite all the headline-grabbing political mess and the winds of xenophobia unleashed by the great Brexit deception, life in well-heeled middle-class Romsey potters on at the kind of leisurely pace my father manages on his morning perambulations. I led him around for a few days, deputising for my sisters while they took a break from keeping the Ageing P in the style to which he has become accustomed after the death of our ascetic mother. We dipped into charity shops and took coffee and croissants at Luc's delicatessen and laughed about the knitted bollards. The town was 'yarn-bombed' – to use the term my daughter revealed – in aid of the local festival. Charities, clubs, associations and groups of individuals created all kinds of crazy woollen bollard-cosies in aid of... something. Perhaps simply our amusement.
I began my self-employed career back in my homeland. If you want to call yourself a training consultant, as I did briefly, you call yourself that. You then sink or swim according to your self-belief and the amount of effort you're prepared to put in. I largely sank, which was one reason for moving to France. In any case, being salaried is no big deal in this day and age of short-term contracts and evaporating job security. A self-employed person pays a modest amount of money into the National Insurance and trusts that, when it's time to hang up the accounts, the government will still be solvent enough to pay out a decent monthly pension. I have a few more years yet to wait and see whether or not the promised Shangri-La will prove to be pie in the sky.