French Mistress: You don’t have to be mad to work here…
Most people move to France in order to do as little as possible. For as long as anyone can remember, you go to England to earn money and to France to spend it.
Once in France working is the last thing on anyone’s mind. How can you possibly do anything when every Monday is a bank holiday, shops seem to be closed more than they’re open and everything stops for a two-hour lunch?
At first you find this frustrating; then you find it reassuringly civilised; eventually you can’t imagine living without it.
For those of you that are planning to rebel and actually do some work in France there are two options; get a job or set up a business. Getting a job is tricky. English qualifications are often not valid. And even if you have the right qualifications you will need to speak fluent French, unless you’re planning to get a job in an English pub or a Best of British shop.
Setting up a business gives you a lot more options. You can do anything from selling garden gnomes to running a dating agency. Or maybe a combination of both.
But prepare for some surprises. Of course we all know that the French are madly bureaucratic, one of the most irritating things about living here is that without the right piece of paper life can be practically impossible. But one friend of mine was amazed at just how flexible this famous bureaucracy can be. On his first visit to the Montpellier Chamber of Commerce he was told that as he was married his wife also needed to sign the papers he needed to start the business.
“But she lives in England,” he told the lady dealing with his enquiry. “She’s not coming over for another three months and I want to get on with my business.”
The lady looked at her computer and then back at my friend. “Are you known to us?” she asked.
“No,” he said.
“Bon, from now on you’re single,” she said with a wink.
Another English friend of mine who moved to France seven years ago to set up a building business says that on his first visit to the Chamber of Commerce he was told that he would need to hide at least a third of what he earned, otherwise he would never make a profit.
“I would have thought I’d misunderstood her,” he tells me. “But she was speaking English so there was no way I got it wrong. Obviously I haven’t followed her advice; you have to hide at least half.”
Part of the reason it is difficult to make a profit in France is the enormous social charges you have to pay. If you employ someone you pay 100% of their salary again in charges that cover sickness leave, pensions, maternity leave and just about every other eventuality. French is only half-jokingly known as the only functioning communist state. As soon as you register a new business you pop up on the radar screens of the tax, social security and pensions authorities. The latter two will inundate you with invoices even if your business has yet to make a penny. As one budding entrepreneur told me; “So far this year I have made a negligible profit and paid out over €4,000 in social charges. I dread the letters from them, they’re never good news.” I know how he feels. In France it is not the taxes I fear but the monthly bill from the social security which runs into hundreds of euros.
When a friend of mine called Patrick set up a house-search business called www.primelanguedoc.com he was immediately asked to contribute to a pension fund. He pointed out that as he was already retired and receiving a pension from the UK it seemed a little eccentric to be paying into another one. “This was to no avail,” he says. “I assume that when I retire for the second time I will receive a monthly payment which will probably be enough to buy a rather mediocre bottle of wine now and then.”
David Hammond who set up Burgundy Discovery in 2003 (www.burgundydiscovery.com) writes articles about running businesses in France. He suggests we adapt to the French way, rather than expecting them to change to suit us.
“It seems some Brits have a brain by-pass when they get here,” he says. “Don’t blame the French system. Basically nothing’s changed since Napoleon so don’t think it will change for you. It’s also amazing how many people are genuinely shocked to discover that the accountant, bank manager, mayor and all other officials in France actually speak French, not English.” Having said that it seems some French institutions seem to be keen on attracting English speakers. I just received a letter from my bank offering an English-speaking service, but maybe that’s just in the hope that I will explain to them when we’re going to pay off our overdraft. There are often English speakers on hand at regional chambers of commerce to help out should you need help.
Patrick advises anyone thinking of starting a business to fill in the numerous forms needed at your local Chamber of Commerce rather than sitting at home with a dictionary getting confused and losing the will to live. “I found the staff extremely helpful,” he says. “Especially if you adopt the role of the poor uneducated foreigner who needs help.” You could also contact the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce (www.francobritishchambers.com)
But even once you have set your business there is no guarantee that you will get any punters. James who lives in the Loire tells me he set up a gardening and swimming pool business a couple of months ago. “I put in a dedicated hotline at home to answer calls from clients,” he says. “So far it has rung three times. The first time it was someone thanking me for dinner, then someone trying to sell me cheaper phone calls and finally a wrong number.”
Sounds ideal, now that summer’s almost here, who wants to do any work anyway?
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. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
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