29th March 2009

First, thanks to those who read and left comments on last week's entry. I haven't published most of them because I couldn't verify the sources they cited. However, I can assure everyone that I sourced my information from the March 09 edition of The Connexion - a well-respected national newspaper in France.
I was surprised to hear how much it now costs to renew a passport, and couldn't understand why it's cheaper to renew a British passport in the UK than at the Paris embassy. But, the British Consulate in Paris has warned against using friends and relatives in the UK as a sort of go-between to obtain your passport at the cheaper price. Apparently some have obtained an application form via people in the UK, who then receive the passport and forward it on to you. But the Paris consulate has said 'non'. You should apply for a form via http://www.britishembassy.gov.uk/, print it off, and send the signed form together with attachments (including the exorbitant cost). Paris says that it's dearer there because they don't have the expat resources to deal with such things as the UK does.
The UK rate of £72 (including delivery) compares with 143 euros plus 21 euros delivery for those living abroad. Apparently, the only way to get the cheaper price is for you personally to arrange a pre-appointment, travel to the UK, apply in person there and then be around to sign for it when it arrives at your friend's/relative's house! You must also check whether you 'qualify' for an iris-scan!!
Why does everything need to be so difficult?
'Job's worth, job's worth
It's more than my job's worth,
I don't care, rain or snow,
Whatever you want,
The answer's No!
I can keep you waiting for ever in the queue
And if you don't like it, you know what you can do......'
(courtesy of John Williams).

22nd March 2009

Many people who have left the UK cite reasons such as 'too many immigrants have been allowed to enter the country, without feeling obligated to take on the new culture and language'. So, I was interested to read that France is introducing free and obligatory French lessons to immigration candidates before they leave their country. Those currently applying to join family members in France - some 35,000 people - must now take a test to ensure their French is of a high enough standard. Also, answer questions like 'In France, does a young woman need the permission of her husband to go to work?' Interesting words because they reveal the immense gap between different cultures. Those who fail the test will have to take lessons in their own country.
France will be the first country in Europe to introduce such a scheme. Of course, France says that the tests are not a prevention to immigration. However......
For me, although I approve of these measures, it is not nearly enough. I have always liked the US style of requiring immigrants to swear on oath to 'uphold the principles' of the new country. There is a subtle difference there. It's one thing to be forced to learn about a new culture, quite another to change long-held beliefs and behaviour patterns so that newcomers begin right from the start to integrate fully. By that, I mean: wear the clothes of the new country, speak the language, integrate with the indigenous population and don't live in ghettos with former immigrants. One can hope I suppose.

15th March 2009

At last - the warm weather has arrived in our region. This last winter was much colder than usual. But the last few days have been gloriously warm and we have been sitting out on our terrace to enjoy lunch.
However, my relaxation was spoiled by two events - the dentist and the tax man - surely the two most dreaded things in anyone's life. The first was much soothed, though, by a wonderful woman dentist in nearby Cordes. Her name is Dr. Julie Bacque and she is so so gentle. Although I needed root-canal work + crown on one tooth - because my old UK filling was more than 30 years old - the only pain I felt was via my wallet! The cost was high - 400 euros - but this was tempered by a reimbursement of 230 euros by CPAM (the French health service) and 70 euros by our top-up health insurance. (I do like the top-up health insurance system because you don't ever need to claim - it's done automatically by CPAM). So, not too bad. The second - the dreaded taxman - was necessary because I had misunderstood the complicated French tax rules. (I never had to complete a tax return in the UK). I had 'foolishly' thought that because the interest paid on my one English bank account was paid 'net', I didn't need to declare it on my French return. Wrong! So, now I need to pay the UK tax for the last few years again and hope to get reimbursed sometime in the future via the double-tax treaty. Let's hope all this is in my lifetime.....life's too short.
But at least I can now relax again in this glorious sunshine - at least until the next unknown French problem hits......

8th March 2009

A British couple from Pas de Calais are threatening legal action against the UK government if certain benefits (e.g. DLA, attendance allowance, carer's allowance) are not restored to expats in France. All this raises the much wider question of all British rights available to expats. The whole thing is an unknown zone, pushed under the carpet by the UK in the hope it will go away. It won't.
I, myself, paid N.I. contributions for over 30 years, but it goes to fund payments for the present population. This is clearly unfair. What you don't need is for someone to deny one's hoped-for security blanket in old age just when you need it - simply because the current economic climate can't afford it. There are hundreds of expats in the former Commonwealth countries who don't receive the annual State pension increase in April, whereas those in Europe or the U.S.(!) do. Additionally, all expats (including me) are denied the extra benefits that are available to UK pensioners, e.g. top-up pension credit, winter fuel allowance etc. - for WFA, you had to have applied whilst still in the UK.
There seems no logic to any of it. UK pensioners who have paid into the system all their working lives, should receive the benefits no matter what.
I say: change the system in a graduated way so that NI contributions go into a guaranteed 'insurance' pot for when an individual reaches retirement age - whatever the future national economical situation might be.

1st March 2009

There are some Brits here for whom, economically, times are really hard. They are the ones who relied on either working (even the French can't find work) or living off interest savings (which have plummeted to zero). When things get really desperate and the outgoings exceed the income - like Mr. Micawber in Dickens - there are basically two options. You can either go back home to the UK and stay with a relative whilst looking for a regular (all-year) tenant for your French property, or consider downsizing in France.
For the latter, you can usually get a French bridging loan for 70% of the value of the existing property, which you can use to buy a pretty village home in France - there are loads of cheap properties available all over the country. These loans are normally granted for a period of up to two years which can be extended in some cases, but you don't need to pay it back until your original house is sold. In the meantime, you put your original property on the market at a realistic price and when it eventually sells, you pay off the loan and bank a large cheque.
Of course, you need to take account of all those extras, like estate agents' and notaires' fees. There is no standard agent's percentage - you need to check out the rates in their window. Certainly avoid those who charge more than 8%. A cheaper way of selling is to do it via a notaire. They are required by law to stick to a standard fee, which is always cheaper than an agent's fee: 5% of the selling price up to 45,735 euros and then 2.5% thereafter plus tax. Details of properties on sale via notaires can be found at http://www.immobilier.notaires.fr/.
The rule remains the same here: secure a regular income (it doesn't have to be large - we've found that you can live quite well on 1000 euros a month). The sun is shining, the air is clear and life is good.