Business in France – A Whole New Kind of Logic

I don’t know whether to laugh, be disgusted, or terribly afraid. In January, I registered in France to start business as an auto-entrepreneur…er…scratch that…as of 2016, it’s now called micro-entreprise. Whatever it’s called, I have one…or became one.

My husband, on the other hand, has had his own micro-entreprise here for many years. Only he’s always been called a micro-entreprise because he started business before “auto-entrepreneur” even existed. Now, though, all auto-entepreneurs are called micro-entreprises. (Oh wait! I shouldn’t be using hyphens in those terms! The French just did away with hyphens…and the oignon which is now ognon but as far as I can tell, still a vegetable….which incidentally the French call legumes. But I digress.)

Art by Stuart Davies

Confused yet?

Perusing my Expat Facebook forums this morning, I read of yet another panicked businesswoman who has received notice of owing CIPAV, an agency responsible for retirement, a whopping sum of over €50,000. Sadly enough, this is an all too common experience here. French and foreigners alike doing business in this country are frequently driven to harakiri over such tribulations.

My fellow Americans, imagine if the IRS sent you a letter that said, “We’ve made a mistake. We are so very sorry. However, because we failed to collect from you the appropriate amount in social security contributions over the last several years, you now owe us $50,000 payable immediately. Have a nice day.”

It brings to mind memories of last year at this time, when my husband and I were dealing with a very similar issue. We discovered that he owed some €6000 to this same organization and were having some other very stressy troubles around money. We lived through that time, but we’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop because that seems to be what happens here. It’s almost as if these business agencies just make up things as they go along. And according to inside sources, this isn’t just the perception of expats but natives as well.

It just seems like if you don’t set aside at least 60% of your income here, eventually someone somewhere is going to claim that all that money you spent on food and rent was actually supposed to have gone to them. The problem is that nobody seems to know what the $#*& is going on in this country…EVER.

When I was preparing my business, I went through a program for the unemployed. It was very helpful, actually. My counselor was wonderful and even spoke English fairly well. She alerted me of my rights to join an organization called ACCRE which would result in a reduction of “taxes” or “cotisations” that I paid in the first three years of my business. What new business doesn’t need that? Of course, I affiliated myself…or at least, I tried to. At first, the registering agency claimed they had not received my application, so I had to resend everything, including a copy of a signed receipt that says they actually did receive my first application. I’m still waiting to hear back.

Yet again this morning, I read another panicked Facebook post from a businesswoman affiliated with ACCRE who is now being charged €3000 in back pay for going over some kind of income threshold. It threw several of us into a panic because it was a mysterious threshold that none of us had heard of!  Eventually, someone was able to cut through the underbrush and clearly explain the facts, but more often, the explanations sound something like this:

It’s because cotisations are regularized by a percentage of your expected income for the first three years plus the amount you didn’t make when you weren’t in business at all multiplied by the number of cats and dogs in your household. This is only reported in January, and only if you fill out form 8067 which you can only do online between December 13th and 31st of the prior year, but which is actually due Dec. 1st, and only if the website is working at the time. So really, everything is just as it should be. Simple!

Case in point. My husband recently hit his own threshold and was required to start collecting TVA (VAT)…sales tax…on his invoices. So, being dutiful, he registered for a tax number and proceeded to collect sales tax. Several months later, a business associate in the UK relayed to him that they shouldn’t be paying this tax due to some agreement between countries. Even our French accountant said, at first anyway, that this was not true; he did have to collect tax. Eventually, the accountant discovered that he indeed did not need to collect the sales tax after all, meaning he now had to reimburse this UK business several thousand euros in taxes. Thank God he hadn’t paid it to the tax department yet. I shudder to think of the chaos that would have induced.

Nothing ever really adds up in France, at least not in my experience so far. What good is an estimate if it’s off by thousands of euros or a schedule of fees if they are just guidelines? And the worst part is, there is ZERO protection, it seems. (If I’m wrong, someone enlighten me.) Banks, agencies, bureaus…they all seem to be able to make up things as they go along and never inform anybody…let alone each other! Talk to one person, get one answer. Talk to another and get another answer. Choose the answer you like best, but be prepared to pay heavily for it in two or three years when someone just back from vacation decides they don’t like the answer you’ve chosen!

This is one crazy Matrix, here.

Believe it or not, it’s been good for me. It’s forced me to let go of my high ideals of efficiency and organization. It has also given me excellent practice in reigning in my total freak-outs to find that the sky hasn’t actually fallen and that the sun still rises in the East. Of course, the Sun is one of the last remaining free enterprises!