Code breaking

The other day I had a long list of things to achieve whilst the children were at school. It was unlikely that I would get everything done, but I was going to give it my best shot.

At 11 am I was on target. By midday I had surpassed even my wildest ambitions. By 2 pm there were but three items remaining on the list. I was on fire. It was therefore with some perplexity that, at 3.30 pm, I found myself sitting in someone else’s house, sipping espresso and making polite conversation, with two of my tasks for the day still incomplete, and absolutely no prospect of leaving before I had to pick the girls up from school. You might well ask how I could have let it all go so wrong.

It was at 2.50 pm when the rot set in. Finding myself ahead of schedule I decided to dash to the boulangerie for some bread for supper. There I encountered someone I knew a little bit from the school gate. I smiled broadly at her (I was feeling smugly efficient). In response she, too, broke into a smile. We exchanged bonjours. One thing led to another and, before I knew it, and to my considerable alarm, I found myself pulling into her driveway.

It is, of course, preposterous to complain that you find yourself accepting someone’s hospitality against your will. Unfortunately, though, this is not the first time that I have got myself into this predicament. The reason each time is the same, and has to do with my Britishness.

British people, you see, speak in code: it is a question of manners. These manners are so ingrained and are so much a matter of routine for us that, most of the time, we don’t realise that we are doing it. It is only when we encounter people from cultures which don’t speak in code that we become aware of it.

Let me illustrate what I mean with the conversation that took place in the boulangerie. My parts of the conversation are in bold. The nice lady’s (NL’s) parts are in italics. Translations, where necessary, appear in parentheses. Needless to say we were both speaking in French.


Me: Bonjour (hello: it’s too late to scurry out now that you’ve seen me so I will greet you to be polite)

NL: Hello.

[Polite pause of about five seconds, during which I feel a mounting sense of panic and scrabble for something to fill the silence. NL, by contrast, does not appear uncomfortable.]

Me: How are you? How is the new house? (Thank God I have found something to say that doesn’t involve the weather. What a good conversationalist I am to dredge that up from my memory. In French too!)

NL: Ah, how good of you to remember! We’re very pleased with it, thank you. It has a wonderful view and the builders have done an excellent job.

Me: Oh really? Was there a lot of work to do? (This is getting into a level of detail I didn’t anticipate but it would be rude to break off now, so I’ll plough on.)

NL: Yes, there was. The place is unrecognisable from the photos we took before the work started. They really have done a good job. Perhaps you’d like to see it some time?

Me: Oh yes, I’d love to. Thank you. (That’s nice of her. I’m sure she will forget that she ever suggested this in a few days’ time and we can go back to smiling at each other outside the school.)

NL: I tell you what, it’s probably not very tidy, but why don’t you come round right now? You could have a coffee and look at the view. It’s such a lovely blue sky that you will be able to appreciate it.

Me: Thank you. That’s very kind of you. I am sure we can do this another time though. I don’t want to trouble you if you have things to do. (Eek! I can’t possibly go round now. Why is she taking me so literally? Hopefully she’s just being polite. I’ll give her a get out clause.)

NL: I don’t have anything to do that can’t wait and I’d really love to have you round. It will be my pleasure.

Me: You are very kind. But really, are you absolutely 100% sure? (You are being very kind but I really, really don’t want to come round right now. Please, pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease don’t insist.)

NL: I’m sure. You can follow me in your car if you like. (Why is she grovelling?)

Me: Thank you ever so much. (Really this is just too bad. What is she thinking?)


I mentioned my discomfort at this situation to one of my French friends who, once she had finished laughing, said ah oui, la fameuse hypocrisie des anglais. I was, of course, shocked and appalled. I associate many negative attributes with my fellow countrymen, but routine hypocrisy – renowned hypocrisy even – has never been one of them.

Yet of course, now that I’ve transcribed my conversation, I can see what she means. To a French person, integrity means wearing on the outside what you feel on the inside. Thus, whilst I am busy beaming away at everyone on the school run even though I want to throttle half of them, many other parents don’t bother to wipe the scowl off their faces in response. Why should they? It is early; it is cold; they are feeling rubbish: what on earth is there to smile about?

When someone asks me how I am and I respond with a polite ça va, I am not, in fact, providing an accurate translation of the “fine” I would have uttered had the conversation been in English. You see “fine” can have any number of meanings ranging from, “I’ve had a tolerable day actually” right through to “as it happens I am really, really annoyed right now and I would advise you to steer well clear of me if you know what is good for you”. I don’t need to specify which meaning is intended because a fellow Brit will be able to work it out for themselves. It is no more than elementary code-breaking for them.

In French, though, ça va basically means OK: no, you’re not so joyful that you might swing from the rafters swilling champagne, but neither are you at rock bottom. If the situation had been a bad one you probably would not even have spoken to me. You would just have scowled.

My British code is there to save face: it ensures that nobody feels slighted or humiliated at any point. When you invite me round on the spur of the moment, you do so to make me feel wanted, without necessarily expecting me to turn up on your doorstep. When I say that I would love to come but don’t want to disturb you, it is my polite way of thanking you whilst signalling that I have better things to do at that moment. When you agree that actually you do have things to be getting on with, you are gratefully accepting the escape clause I just offered you. Ours is a code that presupposes that we are all sensitive little flowers who need protecting from the harsh social realities around us.

In France, on the other hand, if you don’t want to invite someone round, you don’t do it. If someone invites you but you don’t want to go, you say so. It all seems so simple when I put it like that…



Taxing times

In the UK your payslip is comprised of a few, very simple, elements. Your name is stated – correctly – in one corner. At the top is a number representing your gross pay. Below that you will find amounts deducted for income tax, national insurance contributions and, depending on your employer, perhaps pension, bike scheme or childcare vouchers. At the bottom is your net pay. That is the amount that will appear in your bank account. It is all yours to spend as you wish. Whether you find this amount sufficient or not, the system at least has the merits of being straightforward. What you see is what you get.

Next to its French equivalent, your payslip would appear somewhat bijou. In the UK, a payslip usually occupies two thirds of a sheet of A4, most of it blank. In France, a bulletin de paie occupies an entire sheet of A4, often double-sided. This is true whether you are well remunerated or not. In the last school year, for example, I was paid 412€ gross per month for my four hours of teaching per week. Despite the modesty of the sum (and my hours), my payslip had 32 separate entries on it.


It took me a good few months to summon up the mental energy required to decipher this complex document. For the most part it consisted of a list of payments made to funds with baffling names such as B2V APEC TB or FNGS. Closer inspection revealed that B2V APEC TB – whatever it was – had been awarded the princely sum of 0.02€, and FNGS 1.24€. Trifling though these amounts may have been, cumulatively they provoked in me a sense of profound indignation. I had only started with 412€, for pity’s sake, and yet someone had seen fit to reduce that amount, not once, but 30 times. That is almost one deduction for every 10€ of take-home pay.

To make matters worse, it dawned on me that the 318€ which remained was not, in fact, mine to spend as I saw fit. Although this sum was described on my payslip as being net à payer, it had not yet been subject to income tax. In France, you see, you are paid your monthly salary after deductions of approximately 20% for your cotisations sociales (social security contributions). The 80% that remains is then subject to income tax, but this is calculated and collected later. For people accustomed to having their taxes taken at source, this has the unnerving effect of making you feel that a sizeable portion of the money you have been paid is only really on loan.

The need for the double-sided, minutely-itemised payslip seems to arise from a deep-rooted suspicion about the motivations of the French taxman. Unfortunately, though, far from reassuring the nervous tax-payer, the excessive transparency of the average bulletin de paie serves only to deepen resentment.

The psychology is quite basic: if your tax is taken in a single lump, however large that lump might be, it is basically tolerable. Taking your tax in multiple instalments, on the other hand, is the fiscal equivalent of death by a thousand cuts. You were quite happy to pay for your healthcare, but, really, the 1.24€ you have been forced to give to the FNGS is too much. Even if you’ve only ever visited France as a tourist, you will be familiar with this syndrome: when your hotelier or B&B host insists that you pay them 0.38€ in taxe de séjour, you question the extra cost far more than you would have done had it simply been subsumed within a price tag that was 1€ higher at the outset.

It goes without saying that, wherever resentment of the taxman is to be found, a multitude of ways of cheating him will flourish. In France, getting one over on le fisc is a national pastime, freely discussed in public in vitriolic tones that would make those UK politicians currently waging righteous warfare against evil tax-evading corporations and fat-cat billionaires blush.

It is fairly common, for example, to hear people describing with glee how a bedroom or playroom in their house has been officially classified as a grenier, an annexe or a cave, meaning that it does not have to be counted in the square meterage of the property for the purposes of paying the taxe foncière. Whereas at this point a UK solicitor might dourly advise their client not to discuss such matters within their hearing, the French notaire would be more likely to chuckle, shake their head, and remark that, malheureusement, new building regulations meant that this little ruse was becoming less viable. I steer prudishly away from all discussion of personal tax returns in friendly conversation, but I have nonetheless had no shortage of people offering me advice on how best to reduce my tax bill by means of varying legitimacy.

The moral of this story? Next time you are staring miserably at your meagre pay packet, spare a thought for all those poor French employees, burdened with paying entire centimes for their B2V APEC TB.



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