Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Taxing Times

With the recent furore about possible changes to the AE system, there has been a lot of debate on SFN about the cost of taxation in France and this has got me thinking. Do we really pay more than we should? Is France really that bad? Or is it just part of the human condition to resent handing money over to the state?

Back in the UK my partner was a higher rate tax payer. It used to really piss me off that he was taxed at the same rate as a single male, despite the fact that he had a spouse and dependents. I firmly believe that any stay at home parent is doing a job, a full time job and as such, one that should be recognised and rewarded by society. Stay at home parents are the people who ensure little Kyle and Tyrone go to school rather than hang around on motorway bridges throwing rocks at passing cars.

(And should anyone want to debate the issue of working parents, please start another thread as this one is about taxation!)

We received a derisory amount of family allowance and no help with pre-school fees.

Ah yes, you say, but there was the ‘free’ health system. Well, I’d argue that nothing in life is free and you get what you pay for.

Having always been a healthy type, my first experience of the NHS was a broken arm aged 15. I was sent home from A&E and asked to return the next day as ‘there was no-one on duty in the plaster room’ - it being Sunday and all. Ah yes, you might say, but that was a long time ago. Well, it happened to a friend’s son last year. No child should be left in pain for 24 hours due to a lack of staff.

My next encounter with the NHS involved giving birth to daughter No 1. The whole event was a catalogue of mistakes from start to finish. It resulted in her being resuscitated and me receiving an apology from the doctor who performed my episiotomy. Any ladies reading will know exactly what I mean and for any male readers, suffice it to say that I was unable to sit down for well over two weeks.

Delivery number two was far better. Probably because I was only in the hospital for seven minutes before giving birth. The only issue was that no-one noticed that my baby girl had six toes.

Pregnancy number three saw me have an abortion at 22 weeks for fetal abnormality. This was a condition that could have been easily detected at 14 weeks. Unfortunately budgetary constraints mean that scans are not performed at this point. I fully accept that no health system has unlimited funds and that resources need to be allocated sensibly but equally, no-one should have to undergo such a late termination when it is entirely avoidable.

The termination itself was not an NHS success story. Despite it being pre-booked, there was no delivery room available and no midwife. I eventually gave birth alone. The hospital then ‘lost’ the body for several hours. I threw up at 9pm into a sink in my room and the vomit was not cleaned until the following morning. I was left with retained placenta, suffered two hemorrhages over the next fortnight and nearly murdered the (non English speaking) nurse who on my second trip to A&E, couldn’t read my notes and kept asking ‘Where is baby?’

Before I go any further, I’d like to point out that this is NOT a criticism of NHS staff. There are thousands of doctors and nurses who do a fantastic job. They are dedicated and committed. They are also overworked and underpaid. The NHS is underfunded and if you want a health system that works, you need to pay for it.

In contrast, our experiences in France have been fabulous.

We also get a lot more out of the system. We’ve had physio, IVF, home visits - all things that are incredibly hard to access in the UK.

Then there’s education. Despite it being technically free in the UK, I have friends who have been forced to go private as there are simply no places. I don’t for a minute think the French system is perfect or even necessarily ‘better’ but the basic principle of free education for all is still upheld.

Benefits are far more generous too. As a family on a modest income, we get all kinds of assistance, from help with the mortgage to termly grants for school dinners. Proportionately we get way more than we would in the UK. Then there are subsidised holidays for both the kids and us as a family, cheap rail travel and holiday clubs.

I fully appreciate that there are people who currently pay more in than they get back and I’m sure that there will come a point in our lives when this is true for us too. But I also firmly believe that society has a duty to support the vulnerable.

I don’t want to live in a country where only certain classes can access health care. I don’t want to live in a country where we don’t provide for the aged. I don’t want to live in a country where I pay less at the expense of others.

Don’t get me wrong - I don’t relish paying taxes. Who does? But like cervical smears and root canal treatment, I think they are a necessary, if unpleasant, part of life.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Vive la rentrée!

Yes folks, it is that time of year again. Up and down the country, mothers everywhere are getting out the gin and celebrating the imminent incarceration of their darling children during daylight hours. No more endless requests for lifts here, there and everywhere, no more being unable to get in the bathroom because there are strange teenagers using the shower, no more self-emptying fridge and best of all, no more lack of bandwidth because 'someone' is downloading the last series of True Blood.

All in all, a bit of a result. But before that happy state - la rentrée or children back at school - can be achieved, there are various hoops to be jumped through. The first, and this one starts early, right at the start of the holidays, is the bloody inscription. Or re-inscription. It doesn't make a lot of difference because French school secretaries do not seem to be terribly au fait with either A) computers or B) photocopiers. As a result there are umpteen forms to be filled in. All containing more or less the same information. This year I calculated that I filled in our home phone number 18 times, my mobile number 9 times and James's mobile 12 times. Which is a bit of a joke as he never answers it anyway. Add in a few emergency contact numbers and that is a whole load of numbers. Then there's my address, the children's address (and yes it is the same, there was just no facility to point that out), James's address (ditto), the GP's address, the mutuelle and secu numbers and then the insurance policies (address and policy numbers). Generally, by this stage I have lost the will to live and start randomly making stuff up.

As a result the girls have become very good at form filling (they will make great civil servants one day) and tend to do the bulk of the paperwork, just presenting me with the completed forms for a final signature. Or eleven.

Then there's the school list. Primary is bad and secondary is way, way worse. Last year Tilly was in a college where the students were mainly drug dealers and thus not likely to turn up with any equipment. Actually, they were unlikely to turn up to school full stop but that is another story. The school provided standard issue exercise books, files and folders. It was blissful. This year she is at lyceé and Max is not going to the drug den so I've spent a few happy hours trailing round supermarkets looking for a "cahier avec petit carreaux, 24 x 32, sans spirales, 96 pages" or a "classeur souple, 21 x 29.7"..... and woe betide anyone who gets it wrong.

Then there is the whole bus stop and bus timetable issue. Bus stops and timetables are a well kept secret. I always thought it was me being A) dopey or B) English but last year the neighbour's 17 year old son spent the first term being collected by his Mama as even they were unable to discover where the bus left from. On one famous occasion, I got it so wrong that Daisy was left stranded at the far side of the village and was eventually brought home (in tears) by a passing motorist. Fail!

And with that amount of stress, the only solution is more gin. Which interestingly enough, is "en promo" at our local Intermarche. Hmm. Thank you nice M. Hollande for increasing the Allocation de rentreé scolaire and thus enabling me to stretch to Bombay Sapphire rather than Old Lady.

So, if any of you have any 'Rentreé Survival Tips', I would be eternally grateful if you could share them?

But on the upside, all this effort does provide a sense of optimism. There is something about new pens and clean agendas that is wonderfully cathartic. You get to make New Year's Resolutions without the hangover. Vive La Rentreé!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Happy Holidays

The parents are coming to visit and as always, three things happen. The first thing that happens is that the oven breaks down. Twice now James has cooked Christmas dinner on the BBQ. On these two occasions the breakdown was caused by the glass door shattering when set to 'self-clean', clearly proving my point that Cleaning The Oven Is A Bad Thing. This time the oven has decided to randomly turn itself on and belch acrid smoke at us. All very Overlook Hotel. So I will mainly be devising meals for seven that do not involve cooking. Baguette jambon / beurre anyone?

The second thing that happens is that I clean the house. I usually injure myself whilst doing this, thus clearly proving my other point, Cleaning The House Is A Bad Thing. And Dangerous To Boot. I must admit that I'm a bit of a slut on the cleaning front. I can't really see the point and when you live in what is effectively a building site, it becomes even more pointless. Tidy? Yes. Slavish devotion to Mr Muscle or Monsieur Propre as he is known here? No.

This appalls my friend Colette. You can go round to her house at any time of day or night and find people padding around in socks, the dining room chairs upended on the table and her, vigorously mopping, something. I'm surprised she hasn't damaged the tiles. Here in comparison, you're more likely to find an assortment of people wandering through the main living area wearing wellies and trailing guinea pigs. As a result Colette thinks we're a bunch of ageing hippies who sit around all day smoking weed. I wish.

Now for the third thing. Most son in laws mow the lawn or cut the hedge before the big day. James does home improvements and this is A Good Thing. Our house is akin to an indoor version of Total  Wipeout but without the water. There is currently no lighting on the landing, the stairs or what will be the kitchen. This is fine during the day, but woe betide any one who needs a wee in the night and has forgotten their handy household issue bedside torch. Getting to the loo involves skill and daring.

The landing is not too bad. The stairs need to be tackled with care. The adjoining wall has been removed so you need to keep a firm grip on the banister or risk plunging into the sitting room below. Reaching the bottom there are a couple of random steps to be negotiated before crossing the hole in the floor that separates sitting room from kitchen. Then it's an easy walk across a level floor before a quick skip up a couple of breeze blocks. Then you're in the room that contains the loo. Note, you are not yet in the loo. The loo itself is located in a small cupboard in one corner. There is a light in here but it is at the far side of the room so you need to make your way to the switch in the dark. The dogs also live in here, so you have to run the gauntlet of two dogs who will be very, very pleased to see you and show their pleasure by trying to trip you up. If you make the switch you are home and dry. You then just need to complete the trip in reverse to get safely back to bed.

I'm not sure whether I'll get a replacement wall by the stairs before next week but I'm hoping for a few light switches and maybe a bit of hole filling. Or at least some new batteries for the torch.