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The shocking news from France this month is that female students are paying for their accommodation through contre services or barter. This normally means sex...

The shocking news from France this month is that female students are paying for their accommodation through contre services or barter. This normally means sex. Plucky Libération journalist Ondine Millot went deep undercover for six months to expose what is being called ‘France’s sordid housing crisis’. She discovered advertisements with headings such as ‘apartment in exchange for libertine services’ and one even specifying a flat in return for ‘sex twice a month’. Twice a month seems quite reasonable to me, I wonder if it’s in a good area and how many rooms it has?

With the pound dropping against the euro, does this mean that many of the pensioners who have moved south in search of sun and cheap wine will have to come to some new agreement with their landlords? It may be easy enough for young female – or even male - students to strike barter deals, but I think this may prove tricky for many of the sixty-somethings.

Everyone knows it’s impossible to make any money in France legally. The fact is that if you want to survive in France you have to do it illegally. Of course students can’t afford to pay the astronomical rents in Paris. “Laura” a 19-year-old language student has written a memoir entitled Mes Chères Etudes where she recounts how she was forced into prostitution to pay for her studies because rent took over 70% of her income. My own mortgage is at least that and if I could come to an arrangement with my mortgage lender I would. But I don’t think she’d be interested, and my husband Rupert has a bad knee.

France has a reputation for a punishing tax regime, but there is a simple solution to that: have lots of children and the tax man will leave you alone (as will everyone else you know). After three nippers you get all sorts of benefits like first-class rail travel at a bargain price. The caring state obviously thinks you deserve some reward for bringing future civil servants into the world. For it is the infrastructure they work so hard to maintain that really hits you when you move to France and if you, like we did, think the best way to live here is legally.

Our biggest monthly bill - after the mortgage, and it’s only a matter of time until we sort that out - are the social charges. These cover health care, our pension, sickness benefit, unemployment benefit and a whole host of things I would never consider claiming for. Last year when I had a kidney infection I should have, according to our accountant, got money from the state for the days I couldn’t work. So I could have lain in bed while the state paid my bills. It didn’t even occur to me to claim anything. More fool you, would be the reaction of most French people. But I don’t really think it is right to perpetuate this system of benefits and culture of claiming that I may be paying for but I loathe. In my opinion it’s much more honourable to engage in some contre services than to sponge from the state.

What this claiming culture is doing is creating a society where you are punished for working and punished for being successful. It is no surprise to me that any French person who is interested in making money moves to London. Some friends of mine who run a hotel here which has done very well harp back to the days when they weren’t making any money. They were better off then. “I wish people would stop booking,” says Karen. “I think we might have to start pretending we’re full. What’s the point in making money to then give away even more?”

The sad fact is that as someone who is self-employed or runs their own business (which is more often than not the case with Brits who have moved to France) you often end up being penalised for working. A friend of mine is semi-retired but does some work as a journalist. Last year he earned €1919. He paid €2410 in taxes and social charges which left him with a loss of €491. Another semi-retired friend of his earned €581 in 2007 and was charged €1333 just in social charges.

Patrick, another friend started a property search business a couple of years ago. He is retired so has hardly gone out of his way to find clients and treats it as a hobby. This year he doesn't have any clients at all and is still charged € 425 per month social charges just for the pleasure of having opened a company. “I'm going to close it" he told me the other day. “It's a very expensive hobby now and just think of the wine you can buy for €425 per month. Really good wine too.”

A French friend of ours runs an extremely successful building business here. He is thinking of moving the whole operation to England to save on the enormous social charges he pays for every employee (100% of their salary). Quite apart from that, the employment regime here is so rigid and favours the employee to such an extent that he is scared of employing people.
“They can work for me until they get a fixed contract, then get themselves fired and I end up paying their salary for months on end,” he says. “This has now happened to me three times and what it means is that you end up employing people illegally instead. I would advise anyone setting up a business here to think again.”

Or you could run your business purely on a contre services basis. Not in return for sex obviously, (the Brits aren’t interested in that), but if you work as an artist or a carpenter for example, instead of being paid money you could be paid in wine or French lessons or even plumbing services, thus avoiding any tax or social charges.

Or you could just do what the French have been doing for years, but that might involve getting your kit off.