Inside one of the offices, I was conscious of my scruffy self in slacks and polo shirt sitting opposite a couple of razor-sharp suits, no doubt owners of at least two of the shining vehicles parked out front. He was the tax lawyer with whom I had an appointment and she was the young, thrusting executive assistant, who no doubt did all of the actual work; they were both bilingual, bien sûr. As for why I was there – I still wasn’t sure, but their attentive stares seemed to suggest that I was rather important. I didn’t feel important mind you; I felt like an idiot.
The only reason I had made the trip was on the seemingly sage advice of my bank manager, also bilingual. “You’ll need a tax lawyer,” he’d said a few short seconds after I had told him that I wanted to transfer my UK business activities to France, and he’d handed me the business card of our man at Deloitte. “He speaks very good English,” he added, clearly appreciating my need for some linguistic assistance. I was of course in no position to argue. I had been in France for little more than three months and in that time had spent the best part of my energy on learning the language. Getting my head around French business legislation was still way down on the To-Do list, so any advice I could get I had a tendency to swallow whole with a grateful smile, regardless of its reliability.
After introducing the credentials of one of the world’s biggest financial services firms, of which I was already familiar, Monsieur le Tax Lawyer struck the ball firmly into my court: “So, tell us about your company.” It was at this point that I should have apologised for wasting their time and got out of there before embarrassing myself, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. Feeling completely out of my depth, I nonetheless stumbled through a brief executive summary, dressing up the current state of my cottage-sized activities to make me sound more of an entrepreneur than I could ever possibly hope to be, finishing, professionally, with a projection of my organic growth potential: somewhere between un petit peu and naff-all.
While the suits solemnly considered my position, I had time to marvel at an unseasonable ball of tumbleweed rolling past the window to the chimes of a distant church bell striking thirteen o’clock. “There must be some mistake,” he said, breaking the awkward silence. It was hard to argue otherwise.
Do I really need a tax lawyer?
I was but a simple, home-working freelancer, who happened to have a company registered in the UK in order to charge VAT to reinvest in the business. I had precisely no intention of employing people, renting office space or becoming a multimillionaire through buying low and selling high. Common sense told me I had no need for a €300 an hour tax lawyer, and I’m sure the prospect of myself as a client was far from appealing from their perspective, but it was in that conference room that I realised my bank manager had made the spectacularly wrong assumption that I was on the Forbes Rich List; the only situation in which you’d require a tax lawyer is if you were transferring significant assets to France.
A couple of PCs, some pocket money and a beat up, old, right-hand-drive Volkswagen Polo did not constitute an international, tax-treaty conundrum requiring significant man hours from one of the world’s greatest audit firms.
The meeting ended as swiftly as it had begun with a mumbled promise of a proposal to be stuck in the post forthwith. The proposal never arrived, of course, but in the end it didn’t matter. A few weeks later, I had found myself a bilingual accountant who could guide me through endless form-filling and explain the countless communiqués arriving in my mailbox as I entered the self-employment hell that is Entreprise Individuell – Travailleur Independent.
It would perhaps be unfair to place the responsibility for this episode squarely at the feet of Peter Mayle, whose Year in Provence set the impression that all anglophones moving to France did so with their pockets stuffed with cash and little regard for where it goes, but I have yet to find a more convincing explanation. Why else would my bank manager believe I was wealthy beyond measure?
Today, thankfully, attitudes have changed: now everyone knows you should trust a banker just about as far as you can throw him.
Barth Hulley from Somerset has been a freelancer in France for ten years. His most recent book, Freelance in France 2015 offers practical advice on the variety of ways of working for yourself in France. A fluent French speaker, he lives in Strasbourg and divides his time between writing, teaching and quietly sniggering to himself. See www.freelanceinfrance.fr