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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To read other blogs about life in France, a good place to start is the #AllAboutFrance linkup on the LouMessugo blog.