Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Er ... who am I anyway?

Unlike others, we've encountered few of the frustrations with France's legendary bureaucracy that seem to be experienced by so many other EU immigrants. Reading any of the hundreds of 'how to do it' guides that have proliferated since the heady Amanda Lamb era, you'd be forgiven for thinking that only with (amongst a tonne of other things) eighteen copies of six generations' birth, marriage and death certificates would you be allowed to darken the country's doors at all, let alone open a bank account, buy a house, re-register your car, join the health system, pay taxes and social contributions, start a business or association, and so on and so on and so on. No, in the last eighteen months we've done all of those things and more, and for us it's been relatively plain sailing; indeed every fonctionnaire in the book has only been too willing to take money from us ... Apart from one thing, that is. My name.

Now I admit that the whole situation around my name is probably not normal. My legal name - that of my passport, driving licence and every other bit of identification I carry - is not the name that I was born with. So what, you might say. But I don't mean just my surname; I mean both my first name and my surname. Some years ago I changed both by statutory declaration: Kalba is part of a spiritual name given to me nearly 25 years ago by the spiritual master Osho (it means 'heart' in Arabic, although I am also reliably informed that with a slight difference in pronunciation it can also mean 'bitch'. Hmm. You choose ...); Meadows I took some time later just because I liked it, and because I wanted a name that was mine and not given to me by anyone else. The UK, bless its little cotton socks, took all this on board without a murmur. I only wish I could say the same about La Belle France.

The problem is that name changing just doesn't happen here, probably because you have to have the permission of the President to do it. So there's no precedent for a bizarre foreigner who turns up with a birth certificate in one name and a passport in another, with nothing to link the two other than the rather ordinary looking, battered piece of paper which is the only proof I have that I have Statutorily Declared. No wax seal, no Royal thumb print, no Prime Minister's blood ... nothing. Not even the inevitable dossier, without which no French person may exist. I've lost count of the number of French fonctionnaires who have gone into a major crise at the sight - or rather lack - of my documents. So far, though heaven knows how and not without endless explanation on my part - I've managed to avoid receiving any vital pieces of paper in my birth name. Today, though, a whole new saga has emerged.

Because UK and French tax years run differently and so we only had to declare for a part year (while being able to claim the allowances for a full one), we've managed to stay below the income threshold for paying any tax this year. This is great, because it lets us claim the French government's special heating allowance for non tax payers who have oil central heating. A year ago I might have felt a bit guilty about doing this; actually, at the moment I don't, because our income - which is still all in sterling until we finish the renovation and was not huge to begin with - has actually decreased by over 35% in 12 months as a result of the exchange rate and interest rate cuts, and I don't mind admitting that times are A Bit Tough. So today, I thought, I'd fill out the claim form. So far so easy, until I got to the bit where you have to provide your 'avis d'imposition' (tax statement) and your oil bill. "These two documents must obligatorily be in identical names!" screamed the form. Well yeeeesss ..... but no.

I ordered and paid for the oil, but - and I only noticed this this morning - our avis d'imposition is in John's name. Not mine. (Here, partners are taxed as a household, not as individuals). No problem, I thought, I'll just give them a ring and get it put right, friendly helpful tax office that they are. No, they are. Really. In spite of the bizarre conversation we had for over half an hour today. I have, it appears, committed a Sin. I (being the one who does all things business and financial) completed, and put my name first on, the tax declaration, thus pronouncing myself to be the 'chef de famille' - the head of household. Nothing wrong there, I thought. It seems, though, that there is - I, being a woman living with a man, can simply not be head of household, and therefore I should have put my name second. And moreover, putting my name first in such an erroneous and upstart-ish fashion means that I have lost the right this year for my name to appear on the tax statement at all, which is why it isn't there. If, apparently, I had put it second, thus demonstrating that I knew my place in the world, it could have appeared as a secondary name on the avis. Yes, I know you don't believe this story, but it's true. Honestly. My tax conseiller couldn't quite grasp why I was laughing uncontrollably (disbelief? hysteria?): for her, this was the Natural Order Of Things, and when I finally picked myself up off the floor and explained to her that I'd always been the main player at my tax office in the UK she couldn't grasp that either.

So now I have to go back to my oil supplier (who is - how can I put this - a couple of centimes short of a euro when it comes to admin) and ask for a revised bill in John's name so that I can get my heating allowance ... . I think I've said this before, but you really couldn't make it up, could you?

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