FEDAE – Working To Support Auto-Entrepreneurs

I joined a union today. See, I’m taking my drive to become a French national this year very seriously.

I’ve signed up with the FEDAE – Fédération des auto-entrepreneurs. And on a good day since today the federation presented its livre blanc to the government. A livre blanc, literally white book, is an official document published by a parliament or an organisation which lays out its aims in a ‘don’t mess with me’ kind of way that demands official respect.

OK, so what exactly is an auto-entrepreneur, in case you’re not familiar with the term. He or she is an entrepreneur – i.e. self-employed business person – on a small scale. If you provide a service (e.g. editing, translating, book-keeping) and your income is less than €32,600, or if you are a commerçant selling things, and this includes holiday accommodation, and you earn less than €81,500 then that qualifies you to an auto-entrepreneur. (It is optional though – you can choose another form of business but that’s for another blog.) The main benefit is from the simplified fiscal regime auto-entrepreneurship allows you. You pay your cotisations every 3 months at the relevant level (either 12.3%, 18.3% or 21.3%). If you haven’t earned anything at all, then there’s nothing to pay. However, if you don’t earn anything for more than a year, you lose the status.

The FEDAE has presented its livre blanc today on behalf of its 33,000 members – I guess I make it 33,001 now!- and also on behalf of the 1,000,000 auto-entrepreneurs in France, because people, mainly politicians and bureaucrats, keep giving us a hard time. Since introducing the auto-entrepreneur scheme in 2009, the authorities seem to have been trying very hard to get rid of it. It’s no exaggeration to say that there is a definite air of dislike and distrust emanating from the various bureaucrats towards auto-entrepreneurs. AEs are attacked from all sides. Recently there have been plans to make them pay TVA, to have their accounts audited and to allow them to only be auto-entrepreneurs for 2 or 3 years. After that, it’s back to the mainstream business types. I think this latter is the stupidest suggestion of the lot. Why on earth should there be a time limit? If you’re a small enterprise, then you’re a small enterprise, end of story. SARLs, EIRLs, EARLs etc don’t have a time limit. Why should this business type be any different? Are we all meant to involve into multi-million multi-nationals overnight? Hmm.

The auto-entrepreneur scheme is frankly a godsend to small traders like me. You pay what you owe on your actual earnings. The Micro-BIC scheme which was the closest there was to AE before 2009, and what most new businesses started as, demanded cotisations based on pie-in-the-sky estimations of earnings set in place by the fonctionnaires (bureaucrats). So for our first few months of business in 2007, we earned €60 and paid €600 in cotisations. The next year, 2008, we had a gross income of €4,200 and paid just over €3,000 in social charges, due to their being based on these certain immutable imaginary amounts. And then in 2010 I got a demand to pay another €400 on 2008’s earnings. I never did full understand why, despite writing letters, phoning, going in to the RSI etc. I just had to hand the money over or they’d have sent in the firing squad.

It’s no wonder why people couldn’t wait to go the AE route and get away from this crazy system of social charges, not to mention the general lack of support that was forthcoming from the bodies that were meant to be looking out for the small business person. I won’t go into details since it’s bad for my blood pressure.

So, the FEDAE is here to keep an eye on the various threats to the AE régime and fight to protect it. It organises workshops, petitions, exhibitions, offers advice and assistance, and generally works to promote the image of small-scale entrepreneurship to the public in general. It’s got its work cut out but thank goodness it’s there for us.

Vive la FEDAE !

 

 

Cheese on Tuesday – Camembert

I’d meant to talk about Boursin this week, but since I came across this in the sales at the weekend, I decided it had to be Camembert.

Isn’t it cool? It’s specially designed with those movable plastic bits inside to conserve your Camembert and help it ripen properly by retaining its odour.

So, onto the cheese itself. This is one of the family of fromages à pâte molle et à croûte fleurie (soft cheeses with a floury crust). It’s less fatty than its pressed cheese cousins since it contains more water. It contains around 320 calories per 100g which is pretty good for cheese.

A typical 250g Camembert is made from two litres of milk, so lots of healthy calcium in every slice, and also a good dollop of phosphorus too. There are vitamins A and B2 as well.

Generally, the longer you keep Camembert, the better it gets provided you don’t go past the eat by date on the packet and don’t leave it to shrivel up in the back of your frigo like we sometimes do, only rediscovering it the next time a full-scale fridge clean out is called for due to there being a funny smell. Which is usually the Camembert! If you eat it affiné, ie about 3 weeks after it’s been made, it’s light and delicate. When it becomes à point about a fortnight later, it’s altogether a more determined cheese. But wash it down with a swig of good strong red wine and it’s extremely palatable.

You can eat it in many different ways. Straight out of the packet on baguette is always nice. But slices rolled in breadcrumbs and then deep fried are my favourites. I once had these with a redcurrant sauce as a starter many years ago, and I can still remember how lovely it was.

I’ve never done it, but apparently it’s delicious if you cook the camembert in a moderate oven in its wooden box (assuming you buy the posher varieties) until the wood is starting to blacken. You then take the crust off with a knife and dip bits of bread into the melty cheese underneath. Something to try but keep a fire extinguisher handy.

I’ve read that Camembert chocolates and camembert sorbet are highly acclaimed gastronomic delights but I can’t say they sound very appealing.

Onto the cheese’s history. Legend has it that it all began with Marie Harel, a farmer in the village of Pays d’Auge at the end of the 18th century. She kindly sheltered a refractory priest, Abbé Charles-Jean Bonvoust, when he was on the run from the guillotine-obsessed authorities during the Revolution. He was from Brie originally, and to show his gratitude to Marie, he gave her the recipe for his native cheese. She combined this with the cheese she traditionally made and voilà, Camembert was born. Except this isn’t true. Camembert already existed. There are references to it that date back to 16th century. Nice try Marie!

The railway helped Camembert become famous since it could now be easily transported to markets in Paris. Once Napoléon said he liked it and officially called it Camembert, its success was assured. The famous round wooden boxes for Camembert were invented in 1890 by Ridel. These allowed the cheese within to breathe and thus be transported further afield to conquer foreign markets.

Until 1910 Camembert actually had a bluish mould on it. This ended with the discovery of penicillium candidum which produced a more attractive white mould. And it’s said that the cheese became the unofficial symbol of France when it was included in the daily rations of soldiers in the Great War.

So, rather an interesting cheese all round.

 

Winter

Winter is here, if only for a few days. (It’s forecast to warm up again towards the end of the week.) It was minus 7 degrees C for the lycée bus run this morning at 6.20 am, brrr! And a lovely crispy walk to school with Rors to Nouzerines an hour and a half later.

So Les Fragnes is finally in full winter mode. The lakes have almost completely frozen over, well behind schedule. Most years I do my Christmas Eve end-to-end, death-defying walk on the big lake, but not in 2011.

The duck pond, recently refilled by November’s rain after drying out in the summer, was completely frozen …

… until Ruadhri got to work on it!

Rors seems to have been programmed since birth to break any ice he comes into contact with.

And the water butts were iced up, this one able to withstand Roly Poly’s considerable weight!

There was a heavy frost this morning. These crazy daffodils came up far too early. I hope they’ll survive the cold OK.

Our wood supply is holding up well, thank goodness.

The llamas, alpacas and sheep don’t even notice the cold. In fact, it’s their favourite kind of weather. The chickens aren’t so happy with it, but are coping. And we’ve tucked the guinea pigs up nice and warmly in their cages with bubble wrap round the sides and old coats over the top to keep the draughts out. Bunny, who roams free, seems to have hunkered down in the hay barn for the moment.

I don’t mind the cold. I prefer it to the wet, dismal (i.e. Irish) weather that we’ve had to now. Of course, if it stays like this for another six weeks and the pipes start freezing I may change my tune! At the moment it’s possible to break the ice on the animals’ water buckets and butts, but give it a few more subzero days and they’ll be solid. It’ll be in and out with a kettleful of boiling water than.

But for the time being, I like winter.

Water Torture

Our water bill landed in the post box with a moderate thunk this year, fortunately not as heavy a one as I’d expected. However, we’re still paying €530 euros between the two houses and pool. Of this total, almost half, €220, isn’t actually for water.

First up there’s the abonnement which is €80 per account, so a total of €160. (We have two accounts since each building must have its own supply and meter.) Abonnement is generally used to mean ‘subscription’, suggesting an optional element, but in the case of the utilities it translates as ‘standing charge’. And don’t the utilities love those! The remaining €60 odd euros is taken by the redevance pollution d’origine domestique – tax on household pollution, which is proportional to the amount of water you consume. This seems a tad cheeky when all our wastewater goes into either the bacs à grasse (soakaways) or the fosse septiques (septic tanks) whose installation we paid handsomely for during the renovations. Our wastewater isn’t being taken away by a sewage system, as in towns. In fact, until 2008 most small communes were exempt from this redevance for that reason, but obviously some keen-eyed politician saw a nice if unfair way to make money, as politicians always seem to do! Official websites explain that this redevance income will be used to improve our water quality and the supply system. So what is the abonnement money going towards then?

The back of the water bill is interesting. It gives a breakdown of the water quality, and, if your water is consumed by guests at all, is something you should make known to them (by law). I put a photo copy into our gîte welcome pack. Our water was tested for bacteria five times in 2011 and passed each time, so that’s a relief. There was one test for pesticides and one for arsenic, and both were well below the accepted levels. Five tests for nitrates came out at roughly half the accepted level. Our water isn’t officially turbid either. However, it’s as hard as nails and failed the pH and dureté tests dismally. Might the abonnement or redevance go towards correcting those? No mention of it. But we’re used to hard water from Ireland and our brains are probably fairly well clogged up with heavy metals by now, so what harm! I was pleased to see our water comes in at below the government recommended 0,5 mg/l for fluoride. I’ve always been very anti the flouridisation of water. As it is, Rors’ teeth show signs of slight flouriosis with the tell-tale mottling.

Anyway, that’s the last of the big bills for the time being. Phew. They recommence in October with the taxe foncière but that’s ages away yet …

France’s Presidential Candidates – Too Wealthy To Be In Touch?

I was hanging the washing on the clothes airer in front of the fire the other morning, which is how I dry the clothes in winter since neither budgetary nor planetary concerns will allow me to invest in a tumble drier. I idly wondered if Carla was doing the same thing chez les Sarkozy and quickly realised that was extremely unlikely. I also imagine it’s equally unlikely that they keep just the one room warm during winter, or buy stuff from the reduced shelf in the supermarket.

Now, don’t get me wrong. We were happy to downsize when we came here since it meant our lives became infinitely more interesting, challenging and meaningful than they had ever been. But there are an awful lot of people in this country who aren’t massively better off than we are. According to INSEE, the average monthly income in France is €2,068 (and 10% of the population are on less than €1,124). That’s an average salary of €24,816 and bear in mind that Paris will be skewing those figures upwards. I’ve also seen reports that give €19,000 as the annual average, and départments such as Creuse are a good bit lower. The net monthly income per household here is given as €1,893 which is €903 per person. Paris, département 75, in comparison is €3,374 per household, €1,769 per person. (Figs from this website.)

I don’t think many politicians, and particularly not presidential candidates, are living on those average levels of salary. So all this got me to wondering how ‘in touch’ those candidates are with real life. Are they affected by any of the austerity measures, or any of these ‘green’ or ‘anti obesity’ taxes that keep whacking up the price of fuel and food items in the shops? Do they even notice them? I think not.

From http://www.20minutes.fr/

I did a quick dig around and discovered that three out of the four front-runners for presidency are extremely wealthy people. Sarkozy is worth more than 2 million euros. He’s on a salary of €240,000, which he increased from €101,000 when he became President. You can see why people are so keen to get the job if it means you can give yourself a nice pay rise!

Marine le Pen comes from a very wealthy family. Jean-Marie le Pen is a millionaire and his daughter isn’t short of a bob or two either. I’ve come across references to her as ‘la fille riche’ of M le Pen. And François Hollande, when with Ségolene Royal, declared property worth 1.8 m euros alone.

So it seems it’s François Bayrou, the son of a farmer, who is the most connected to the people he hopes to represent because of his humble background and lack of fortune. He’s also the only one of the big four who didn’t have an élite education.

Is it time for another revolution, but without the guillotine this time around? It’s starting to look like wealthy aristocrats are at the country’s helm again. I for one don’t feel they have any real inkling of normal, everyday life in France. But my feelings are irrelevant since, as a non-French national yet tax paying resident, I can’t vote anyway!

Sold On Les Soldes

France went on sale today, 11th January. From now until 14 February the soldes are taking place in the vast majority of the country. A few stubborn or otherwise non-conformist départements are holding theirs on different dates.

However, they may not be up to much this year since various surveys have found that many French people were planning to spend less at the sales this year. The austerity measures France faces mean that there’s a bit less disposable income jingling around in people’s pockets. Some reports have as many as 65% saying they’ll be spending less in the sales, while some other people have been putting off their purchases until the sales, to save a few euros. The average sales budget is apparently 229 euros. That seems pretty hefty until you take into account that a lot of people buy white goods in the sales (we have in the past when we’ve needed new ones) and that pushes the average up. Generally, though, I usually only buy a few pairs of trousers for various family members, and maybe a jumper or two, and that’s as far as it goes.

Caiti enjoys the sales. She’d been off sick the last two days, so I dropped her back at school this morning, after fitting in a quick dash to a few shops with her. It’s the first time I’d been to the soldes on their first day. I envisaged scenes such as you see on telly of the Boxing Day sales in England where hordes of people swoop screaming through the doorway the second it’s opened, and flatten assistants and old ladies underfoot. But it was all very quiet and civilised. But then Guéret never gets overexcited at the best of times!

Caits found some jeans and woolly tights with 30% so she was well pleased, especially as I was paying for them! However, she still hasn’t got over our early years when we had to watch and justify every single cent we spent, and was apologetic that she couldn’t find anything she liked among the 50% and 70% reduced items, silly but sweet girl. And there’s a reason those particular items are reduced that much – no one would be seen dead in them otherwise! There was a large display of troll skin waistcoats, at least that’s what Caiti reckoned they were. These hairy jerkins have to be one of the more bizarre items anyone has ever come up with yet!

Items in the soldes have to have been on sale in the shops for at least a month beforehand at full price. And sale items have the same guarantees and standards as other items. If you see a sign up saying Pendant les soldes, ni repris, ni échangé (no refunds or exchanges on sales items), then that’s illegal. If the item is faulty you are entitled to get your money back, even if was reduced. So take advantage of the sales, but be aware of your rights.

Happy bargain hunting!

(PS Gremlins struck and this post didn’t get made live until today – a day late. Sorry. It’s all someone else’s fault! OK, not really, it’s mine.)

 

Cheese on Tuesday – Cantal

This Tuesday’s cheese is Cantal.

Cantal (15) is one of the three départements that make up the Auvergne (the other two are Allier (03) and Puy de Dôme (63)). It’s one of my favourite parts of France. We had a great holiday near St Flour when Rors was a toddler, and the other two about 9 and 11 or so. We were staying in the most spartan gîte we’d ever come across. It had electricity and running water but those were pretty much the only modern conveniences! There wasn’t a kettle or a tin opener or any cups bigger than thimbles. We hit the hypermarché to put that to rights. It was a rather gloomy old house with a menacing stuffed squirrel on a shelf as you went upstairs.

St Flour

We met some great people. The Cantalais are very friendly. Chris and Benj had gone fishing so I took the two little ones for a bike ride. It was blazing sunshine when we set out but a thunderstorm loomed out of nowhere so we took shelter in a village shop, since we were in flimsy cotton clothes and it was lashing. I asked the assistant if it was OK for us to hang around there until the deluge stopped. But it went on and on and on, so the shopkeeper offered to run us home and said we could put our bikes in the storeroom to keep them safe till we came back for them. And she was as good as her word.

There was an elderly farming couple in the tiny hamlet of Farges, where the gîte was. They made cheese and invited us down to watch the process one afternoon. Then another time Madam la Fermière arrived on the doorstep with all the ingredients to show me how to make the perfect truffade, Cantal style without ham but with extra cholesterol. It was delicious. So although the landscape is bleak and rugged, I always think of Cantal as a warm place.

Anyway, to the cheese.

Now a quick test. Can you remember from last Tuesday which family of cheeses Cantal falls into? It’s group 4, pressed cheeses or fromages à pâte pressée. Cantal is a very old cheese and dates back to the Gauls. Henri de La Ferté-Senneterre, a marshall from the Auvergne, introduced the cheese to Louis XIV, or possibly the other way round, and that’s what made it famous. There are two types – Cantal fermier which is made from raw milk, lait cru, and Cantal laitier, the mass market version made from pasteurised milk. The milk in either form comes from Salers cows, but only when they’re being fed on hay. When the cows are grazing on grass in the summer months, then their milk is turned into Salers cheese. Now I bet you didn’t know that, did you! And Salers cows really know how to do horns.

The hard cheese is made into one foot wide cyclinders and aged for anything between 1 to 6 months. It gets a different label according to how long it has aged, namely: Cantal jeune (aged 1-2 months), Cantal entre-deux or Cantal doré (aged 2-6 months), and Cantal vieux (aged more than 6 months). Apparently a lump of Cantal vieux will keep for eighteen months!

Tastewise it reminds me very much of Cheddar. It gets stronger as it gets older, so the Cantal jeune is very milky and creamy, whereas the indestructible Cantal vieux is described as ‘vigorous’. I’m not one for strong cheese so I’ve tended to steer clear of it, but plenty of people do enjoy it. It has a 45% fat content and makes good fondues and gratins.  But I love a chunk with baguette and chutney, and it goes very nicely with fruit cake too.

So another interesting and tasty cheese to try.

 

 

 

Étang des Landes – Limousin’s Largest Lake

A recent geocaching trip took us to Étang des Landes at Lussat, Creuse. This is a 100 hectare lake, Limousin’s largest, set in 165 hectares of nature reserve. Apparently 600 species of animal call it home, with 50 of them being protected. Certain breeds of amphibians are amongst those menacé (threatened).

We’ve only ever seen about three of these species during our many visits to this lovely spot – namely egrets, frogs and ducks. The remaining 597 are awfully good at hiding! The purple heron, one of these shy ones, is the étang’s flagship bird. My sister and her husband think they caught a fleeting glimpse once, but they weren’t entirely sure.

It’s a treasure trove of plants too, with 430 different varieties, including 6 regionally protected ones, and 5 that have sadly been granted European-wide endangered status.

Lussat is about a half hour drive from home. We stopped off for a quick potter round Gouzon on the way, and discovered this lovely old steamroller in a small park …

… and admired the towering church.

It was very wintry at the étang with a stiff breeze whistling off the choppy water. A trio of fisherman at the end of the lake where angling is allowed looked absolutely frozen.

But Rors set a cracking pace for our walk so we didn’t get cold. He found the hidden geocache on the way round, his second so far.

There are some puzzling signs at the étang. Here’s an unclear direction post …

Which way?

And Chris thought the lower one here meant don’t be sick on the flowers, while Ruadhri imagined a lollipop connection!

This great big wood pile wasn’t there the last time we visited. Clearly the trees aren’t protected like the animals and plants are.

As usual we went up to the largest hide at the lake. We were rather disappointed to see that this has new stairs leading up to it. Previously there were sets of steep almost ladder-like stairs that the kids loved because they were terrifying. But they’re gone and so has a lot of the excitement.

The hide is a beautiful wooden construction.

And of course it gives a great view of the lake, which, apart from one duck, appeared to be completely devoid of wild fowl, protected or otherwise!

We carried on round the lake, pausing for a quick snack on the way close to la fontaine des eremites (the hermit’s spring). Rors tried to see how deep it was.

It was a great way to spend a Wednesday morning.

The Étang des Landes is a beautiful spot and well worth a visit if you’re in the area. See this website about it (in French).

TEOTWAWKI – No More Public Toilet Roll in Boussac!

Yes, it’s The End Of The Wolrd As We Know It. And it’s not 21st December yet!

Civilisation is crumbling. This notice on the door of the public WC in Boussac confirms it.

It says: Because of so much nicking, we’re not supplying toilet roll any more.

Now that’s sad. It’s sad that people pinch toilet rolls when they’re so cheap to buy, not to mention tough on the next person who calls in to use the loo and may not have a handy spare tissue, and it’s also sad that the conseil has decided to stop supplying the stuff altogether. There are ways around the problem. A lockable toilet roll dispenser, for example, which you find in loads of public smallest rooms. I’ve found some online for around €40. One of those would pay for itself in a year or so I’d have thought in preventing unauthorised losses. The commune clearly has enough money if it can put up a fancy electronic noticeboard, which it recently did and which is ridiculously OTT in our sleepy little town. It’s also ridiculously close to a pedestrian crossing, and very distracting, and I’m actually astonished that no one has been flattened yet. It’s easy to have your eye drawn by the flashing display to see which saint’s day it is today or what the temperature is, and should that happen just as someone is stepping out on the crossing – disaster. Boussac found money for a couple of dozen new Christmas moustaches for the town too! So, there’s no way the Maire can’t afford to invest €40 in caring for the welfare of the town’s posteriors.

A well-kept public WC is a credit to a town, and, in my opinion, a necessity. It’s only a tiny minority of citizens who go around pilfering PQ. (PQ is slang for toilet roll, pécu, short for papier cul i.e. bottom paper!) Why should the rest of us now be inconvenienced? (Pun intended!)

Record Weather for France in 2011

publicdomainpictures.net

It’s official. 2011 was the hottest year in France since 1900, beating previous record holder 2003. The average temperature of 13.6 degrees C was 1.5 degrees higher than ‘usual’. This resulted from a warm spring and a warm autumn. Summer was actually quite disappointing with July being colder than normal.

The warm weather has continued into winter. This is the first in the six winters we’ve spent here when the lakes haven’t frozen over before Christmas. We’ve had practically no snow and that’s very unusual too. A couple of daffodils have even poked their heads out of the ground, three months earlier than in previous years.

Is this a sign of climate change, or just a natural variation? It’s too early to tell yet, but two hottest ever years within eight years of each other could be indicative of generally climbing temperatures. We’ll have to see what happens over the next decade.

The warm year meant that crops ripened early and many plants produced another flush of flowers. A lot of wild birds and animals managed to squeeze in an extra brood of babies. Our swallows had three sets of youngsters this year. That’s amazing, considering that in May 2009 ago most of them were killed by the blizzard in May. Maybe it’s Nature’s way of redressing the balance.

The hottest ever recorded temperature in France was 44 degrees C in Toulouse in 1923, while the coldest is -31 degrees in Chamonix in 1905. (Worldwide records are 58 degrees in Libya in 1922 and -89 degrees in the Antarctic in 1938.)

There are generally reckoned to be seven climate zones in France and they’re shown nice and clearly on this map.  The zones are:

  1. Climat Océanique
  2. Climat Semi-Océanique
  3. Climat Méditerranéen
  4. Climat Semi-Méditerranéen
  5. Climat Continental
  6. Climat Semi-Continental
  7. Climat Montagnard.

Generally, the océanique and semi-océanique zones are wet and fairly mild, the continental and semi-continental have hot summers and cold winters, the méditerranéen and semi-méditerranéen have hot summers and warm winters, and the mountain zone, well, that’s techncially imprévisible i.e. it will do what it wants! However, you tend to get a lot snow in winter.

Here in Creuse we fall into the Climat Semi-Continental zone, but this year so far haven’t had the usual brutally cold hiver that we’d expect. But there’s still three months of winter to come and that could all change …