If you’re planning to try something new, like jump out of an aeroplane with a silk sheet tied to your back, then you’d be wise to seek a bit of advice on how to do it – before you do it. Now imagine your “jump coach”, the guy behind you on the plane, tells you just before he shoves you out the door that he’s never actually done this himself. Then, as you’re hurtling towards the ground, you realise you have no idea which strings to pull … because you forgot to ask. Well, that’s what it’s like becoming self-employed in France.
France, it seems, is full of jump coaches ready to encourage your free enterprise. Fonctionnaires, accountants, politicians, bankers, more fonctionnaires … but you can be sure that not one of them has ever been self-employed. They simply want to ensure that you pay your taxes and, hopefully, employ people who also pay their taxes but whether your business succeeds or ends in ruin is neither here nor there.
Barth HulleyThe advice I had before becoming a Travailleur Indépendant was nothing short of useless. Three years in, I came close to cancelling Christmas after receiving a shock stack of bills from the state demanding payment of some €9,000, which I was required to settle before Santa had even packed his sleigh! The only surprise though, as far as my accountant was concerned, was that I hadn’t expected this. And even though he had forgotten to tell me to expect it, this didn’t result in a downward adjustment on his annual fee.
“Well you should allow for around 35% of your earnings to be deducted,” he crowed from inside his crisply ironed shirt.
“Fair enough,” I replied, trying not to sound too pathetic, “but I appear to be paying between 50 to 60%?”
“Ah yes, well.”
And then he gave me one of those famous disregarding Gallic shrugs, linguistically translated into English to mean “I’m glad I’m not you”.
Festive celebrations that year were understandably low-key. Soon after the children had un-wrapped their Yuletide lumps of coal and gorged themselves on beans-on-toast with all the trimmings, I was forced to visit the bank manager to plead for that very un-French of financial facilities: credit. Yes, I was going to have to borrow money just to pay my taxes!
How was this possible? I wasn’t lacking in clients or turnover. I was being paid by a client to commute from my home in Strasbourg to the UK every month. In any other Western economy this would have assured my survival but, in France, the sudden devalued pound coupled with a drop in earnings was going to result in a net outflow of cash from me to Monsieur le President until the end of the year; leaving me, and my family, with practically nothing to live on.
The underlying issue to my predicament was the Travailleur Indépendant system. Although to describe it as a “system” would suggest it hadn’t been conceived by someone with a sub-zero IQ and a dark sense of humour, because, under this harebrained scheme, you’re required to pay your dues before what you owe has even been determined.
It’s not unlike paying your electricity bill by direct-debit three months before you receive the bill, only to find that it’s been wildly over-estimated. Unlike EDF payments however, earning estimates cannot be corrected before the end of the following financial year. Meaning the state gets to hold on to your money for up to two years while you struggle to survive.
I soon worked out that only with a guaranteed stable or growing monthly income was I going to make it work; and once I’d realised this was impossible – I shut up shop.
Today, I have five successful years under my belt working as a Portage Salarial; the self-employed scheme that my jump coach should have recommended all those years ago, but didn’t. And therein lies the problem: there are sixteen recognised ways to work for yourself in France but no one seems motivated to help you choose the right set up.
Since moving to the Alsace region in 2006, I’ve plied my trade as a translator, teacher, actor, writer, webmaster and communications consultant, and over the years I’ve shared my ordeals with many other equally exasperated entrepreneurs. Consequently, it seems that my experiences have made me something of an expert on France’s self-employed culture. Indeed, I’m asked on an almost daily basis which statute I think someone should choose for a particular business. So knowing how complex things are, and the disaster that can unfold if you are given bad advice, I decided to write an easy-to-follow guidebook to share my knowledge with the world. It’s imaginatively entitled Freelance in France and whether you’re an artist, teacher, web guru or entrepreneur in the true sense of the word – it should allow you to make the jump with confidence.