For some Anglo-Saxons recent events might have confirmed that the French are at all levels a nation of cheats. And it’s certainly true I’ve had numerous occasions to observe during my more than 40 years of French expat living that the average Gallic’s conviction that rules are necessary – as long as they’re for others – has generated treasures of resourcefulness and daring in devising ways of getting round them. The fact that the French could be accused of being a nation of cheats is nowhere more evident than with the common queue.
While the Anglo-Saxon approach to queuing reposes exclusively on a notion of orderly, single-file alignment in strict conformity with the rule of ‘first come first served’ – the slightest deviation from which will unleash unbounded fury – not only do the French tend towards a more roundabout conception of linearity but show a marked inclination to favour the principle of ‘every man for himself’. Why only the other day I was waiting patiently in a long supermarket queue when the cash desk next to us opened up. Without so much as a by-your-leave those who had joined our line well after me rushed gratefully into the breach. I’ve also witnessed supermarket customers stick the price tag issued by the fruit and vegetable weighing machine onto their plastic bag before surreptitiously adding a couple of bananas or tomatoes more. And people jumping over a Métro station tourniquet rather than pay the price of a ticket is a fairly common sight. Moreover, a third of those aged between 18 and 65 questioned in a recent survey admitted that at some time in their lives they had stolen at least one article of less than 20 euros in value. And not only does undeclared work and fiddling the national health, family allowance or unemployment benefit system cost the country billions, but tax evasion seems to be a national sport.
Mind you, how else do you expect the engine room crew to behave when the captain and his officers at the helm of state fail to set an example? For somewhere I can’t help thinking that holding public office in France gives some high flyers the idea that they’re 10 000 metres above the law. Take, for example, the case of Jérôme Cahuzac. Now Jérôme Cahuzac, a former reputed surgeon, was until two years ago the brilliant Socialist Budget Minister entrusted by Monsieur le Président with the arduous task of fighting tax cheats. The problem was that, after promising a merciless clampdown on those of his concitoyens who held secret tax haven bank accounts, he was finally obliged to confess (after weeks of vehement public denial) that he himself had salted away an estimated 600 000 euros in a Swiss bank account; he’d even reportedly tried to invest around 15 million euros (£12.7 million) in a Swiss fund in 2009. It goes without saying that not only was he obliged to resign his government position but also that of député (though he was extremely reluctant to do so), and is now being investigated for tax fraud.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, it was revealed more recently that when it came to not paying bills Thomas Thévenoud, a former Secretary of State in the present Socialist Government had no equal. Not only had he not bothered to pay his local taxes but he was late in declaring his taxable income for 2012 and 2014; and he’d even ‘forgotten’ to make a tax return in 2013! Mind you, he was finally obliged to settle a total amount of 41.475 euros to the French Inland revenue this year, including some 12.000 euros in penalty fines.
But this was far from being all. He’d also failed to pay a number of parking fines over the years, and seems to have been convinced that the electricity and water he used came absolutely free. And after hearing all this we can’t really blame a former landlord who revealed that his former lodger hadn’t though it necessary to pay his rent for the last three years. And then there was a physiotherapist who declared that the same highly-placed politician had been reluctant to pay for his two daughters’ physiotherapy sessions back in 2007. Apparently it took two years, several reminder letters, and a visit from a bailiff to remind him that he hadn’t settled the bill. And if that wasn’t enough, Monsieur Thévenoud also omitted to inform the appropriate authorities that he’d been the director of a wholesale wine company in 2010 – though admittedly it only lasted a month. Mind you, I suppose you’ve got to hand it to him somewhere. For in his defence our former Secretary of State (he’s still a député, though now disowned by his Socialist brothers) was imaginative enough to have put all these omissions down to what he described as a chronic case of ‘phobie administrative’. I’ve heard of claustrophobia, arachnophobia, agoraphobia and even acrophobia, but I’ve got to confess that ‘administration phobia is a new one on me.