Sordid ‘sex for housing’ deals are just another symptom of the scandalous cost of living in France
The shocking news from France this month is that some female students have been paying the mounting cost of accommodation on a “contre services” basis. The phrase, which best translates as barter, can cover innocent activities such as cleaning or washing – but, this being France, more often than not it means sex.
Ondine Millot, a plucky journalist from the left-leaning newspaper Libération, went undercover for six months to expose what is being described as “France’s sordid housing crisis”. She came across advertisements with headings such as “Apartment in exchange for libertine services”, and one even specifying a flat in return for “sex twice a month”. (Twice a month seems quite reasonable to me. I wonder if it’s in a good area, and how many rooms it has.)
So, as the pound continues to fall against the euro, does this mean that many of the British pensioners who have moved south in search of sun and cheap wine will try to come to some new agreement with their landlords? It may be easy enough for young female – or even male – students to strike such barter deals, but I think it could prove tricky for many of the sixtysomethings.
The fact is, if you want to survive in France, you often have to do it illegally – especially if you live in Paris, where rents are astronomical. “Laura D”, a 19-year-old language student, has just written a memoir entitled Mes chères études, in which she recounts how she was forced into prostitution to pay for her studies because rent accounted for more than 70% of her income.
My own mortgage is at least that – and, if I could come to an arrangement with my mortgage-lender, I would. I don’t think she’d be interested, however, and my husband, Rupert, has a bad knee.
France has a well-deserved reputation for having a punishing tax regime, but there is a simple solution: have lots of children and the taxman will leave you alone (as will everyone else you know). After three nippers, you get all sorts of benefits, including first-class rail travel at a bargain price. The caring state obviously thinks you deserve some reward for bringing future civil servants into the world. The trouble is, someone has to pay for all of this.
Our biggest monthly expense – after the mortgage – is the various charges sociales. These cover healthcare, our pensions, sickness benefit, unemployment benefit and a host of things nobody living in Britain would ever contemplate even trying to claim for.
Last year, for example, when suffering from a kidney infection, I should, according to our accountant, have received money from the state for the days I couldn’t work. So I could have lain in bed while the state paid my bills.
It didn’t even occur to me to claim anything. “More fool you” would be the reaction of most French people. Yet I really don’t consider it right to perpetuate a system of benefits and culture of claiming that I may be paying for, but loathe. In my opinion, it’s much more honourable to engage in contre services than it is to sponge from the state.
This claiming culture is creating a society in which you are punished for working and punished for being successful. It is no surprise that any French person interested in making money has long since moved to London.
Some friends of mine here who run a hotel that has done well hark back to the days when they weren’t making any money – but, perversely, were much better off. Apparently, by taking more money, they have been pushed into a higher band for both tax and social security, which can be expensive. “I wish people would stop booking,” Karen says. “I think we might have to start pretending that we’re full. What’s the point in making money if you then give away even more?”
The sad fact is, as someone who is self-employed or runs their own business (which is more often than not the case with Brits who have moved to France), you often end up being penalised for working. A friend of mine is semi-retired, but does some work as a journalist. Last year, he earned £1,500. He paid £1,884 in taxes and social charges, which left him with a loss of £384. Another semi-retired friend of his earned £454 in 2007 and was stung for £1,042 in charges sociales alone.
Patrick, another friend, started a property-search business a couple of years ago. He is retired, so has hardly gone out of his way to find clients and treats it as a hobby. This year, he doesn’t have any clients at all, yet he still has to pay £322 per month in social charges for the pleasure of having a company.
“I’m going to close it,” he told me the other day. “It’s an expensive hobby now, and just think of the wine you can buy for that amount. Really good wine, too.”
A French friend of ours runs an extremely successful building business here. He is thinking of moving the whole operation to England to save on the enormous social charges he pays for every employee (100% of their salary). Quite apart from that, the employment regime in France is rigid and favours the employee to such an extent that he is scared of taking people on.
“They can work for me until they get a fixed contract, then get themselves fired – and I end up paying their salary for months on end,” he says. “This has happened to me three times, and what it means is that you end up employing people illegally instead. I would advise anyone setting up a business here to think again.”
If that’s too drastic, perhaps you could run your business purely on a contre services basis. If you work as an artist or a carpenter, for example, then instead of being paid money, you could be paid in wine, or French lessons, or even plumbing services, thus avoiding any tax or social charges.
Alternatively, just do what the French have been doing for years. Bear in mind, though, that you may have to get your kit off.