I was rather hoping that Nicolas Sarkozy might appoint a Brit to his new cabinet. It is true that his Prime Minister, Francois Fillon, is married to a woman born in Wales, speaks English and has even passed several days as a fly on the wall observer in Downing Street to absorb Anglo-Saxon attitudes.
But why accept imitations? Sarko has appointed a socialist as his foreign minister. Why not a Brit in charge of, say, economic competitiveness?
I’m sure there are plenty of ex-pats here who would be up for the job. I would volunteer myself although there are others with far more direct and bruising experience of the French paradox. On the one hand this is a country that declares itself a beacon of competitiveness and seeks to attract foreign investment, while on the other its officials pursue ruthless vendettas against anyone who gets off his bum.
Tracy McVeigh, for example, who runs the Hotel de Vigniamont in Pezenas, would love the job of re-thinking France’s policy towards small business owners. Tracy and her husband Rob bought a run-down building in the centre of Pezenas in 2003 which they converted into a boutique hotel. Three years later, the business is a success, but Tracy feels the French government is now doing everything it can to thwart them.
“It feels like we’re being punished for doing well,” she tells me. “Hardly a day goes by without us receiving yet another piece of bureaucratic paperwork that either needs our attention, our accountant’s attention or, more often than not, another cheque to the sécu. Our social charges have gone up by 65% in the last year and of course our tax bill has increased as well.”
So although Tracy and Rob have seen a 40 % increase in business at the end of this season they will actually be worse off than they were when they were making less money. “This is not exactly an incentive to make you want to succeed,” says Tracy. “Sarkozy needs to provide better tax breaks incentives and reduce social charges for small business owners to start up businesses.”
Small business owners in France generally have to pay around 40% of their net income (before income tax has been paid) in contributions to the French social administrative departments, mainly the URSAFF which controls the healthcare, pensions and welfare benefits. Not surprisingly they find survival tricky. Two-thirds of new businesses fail during the first three years. “Once the tax breaks given in the first two years cease to apply life becomes impossible,” says Craig Nunn who runs a small building company in Limousin. “Most of the people who were on the same course at the chamber of commerce as I went bust during their third year in business.”
There are of course other gripes Brits living in France have. Were Lauren McMullen to get a job in Sarko’s new cabinet she would abolish inheritance tax. The new President made abolition of the tax one of the key pledges in his campaign. “The fruits of a lifetime of work should not be handed over to the government,” he said. But of course what men say when they’re trying to seduce you and what they actually do are often completely different.
Lauren, a sports marketing consultant, and her boyfriend Michael Groom are selling their four-bedroom farmhouse in south-west France, but they might re-think if inheritance tax is abolished. “France is already attractive,” she says. “Inheritance tax free, it would be irresistible. For our age group, this tax is a constant preoccupation. By now, we should be able to relax and enjoy life; instead we are worrying about passing over assets to our children early, to avoid 40% tax and, if we do, whether we have enough left to live on. And I know we’re not alone in this.”
Sarkozy has also pledged tax relief on mortgage repayments to encourage people to buy property. I think this is a grand idea, but would prefer some relief from the actual mortgage payments.
My friend Caroline says the first thing she would do would be to pass a law making it illegal to keep dogs tied up or locked up for hours so they bark incessantly. She lives in a small village and about three houses behind her lives a man who keeps his two hunting dogs tied up for almost 23 hours a day. “He takes them out for an hour but basically the rest of the time the poor animals are cooped up. They bark incessantly, mainly at night or early morning. I’ve lost count of the amount of times they’ve woken us up. I lie there listening to them at 2am and wonder what sort of person doesn’t try to shut their dogs up at that time of the night.”
Obviously as soon as Sarko tries to implement any of the changes that will deregulate the labour market there will be strikes. These are normally terribly inconvenient as they always seem to happen on the one day I happen to be on a TGV or at the airport trying to get somewhere. My suggestion to Sarko is that he employs Margaret Thatcher as a consultant on how to deal with irritating strikers. This will scare the hell out of the unions and he can threaten them by saying that if they don’t agree to negotiations he’ll make her deputy prime minister.
He could recruit 10,000 or so retired Brits to drive the buses and trains on national strike days, as well as retired doctors to see to patients, teachers to look after the children and so forth. We have lived here for almost seven years and have had around 10 strike days at our children’s school. Things have been quiet over the winter but I suspect now that summer has arrived they will be back.
And while we’re on the subject of schools, were I to be offered a place in the Sarkozy cabinet I would make school uniforms obligatory across the country, for all ages. Obviously they would be modelled on the classic Chanel tailleur, cream and black: little skirts and jackets for the girls; trousers or shorts and cotton jumpers for the boys.
Sarko’s life in reforming France will not be easy. As well as coping with the restive French, who are unlikely to fall in to line with his radical suggestion that they work more than 35 hours a week, he will face resistance from the many Brits who fled the British Isles to escape Margaret Thatcher. These people, most of whom have gone completely native, should be informed, rather like those Japanese who think that the Second World War is still continuing, that Thatcher is no longer in power. However, should they wish to remain in France they must swear allegiance to the concept of economic reform and the free market, or they will deported back to Blighty. The reason? As a French admiral remarked when asked why the English court-martialled and shot Admiral Byng: “Pour encourager les autres”.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019