‘Personal debt’ is quoted as an abstract statistical fact. The latest figure I can find is £1,457 Trillion. Trillion! It isn’t an abstract fact, it’s a cultural icon. It rudely illustrates the difference between the aspirations of UK citizens and those elsewhere in Europe.
In the UK there is a pressing social need to ‘have things’, cars, houses, furniture, clothes. They are seen as both an entitlement and a right. ‘Poverty’ is seen as having less than a set figure which includes the cost of such staples in life as a mobile phone, walking boots and a bicycle. Items, without which, we are assured, you cannot participate in society.
If you don’t have the money to acquire these things Now! – Now! Now!, then you must borrow the money, but have them now you must.
One of the more profound cultural shocks for anyone moving to France is entering the French banking system. You arrive proudly bearing your excellent UK credit rating, and having arranged your current acount you ask for a credit card. The answer is Non! Every time. Non!
I once spent some time pacifying the scion of one of Englands most famous banking families, reeling with shock at being told he couldn’t have a credit card. How was he supposed to acquire the things he ‘needed in order to participate in society’ when he didn’t have any spare cash? It took considerable time and effort to get through to him that actually, what he was supposed to do was to go without until he did have the cash. It was such a novel suggestion to his English mind that it came close to eliciting an epileptic fit.
‘But the Nanny is coming down next week with the children and we have no curtains for her room’.
Close the shutters.
‘There’s no oil for the central heating’.
Light the fire.
On and on he went, each wail receiving a logical answer from me, until finally he exploded – ‘So I’m supposed to live like a pig am I?’ There was really no answer to that.
Credit cards here are virtually unknown. There is a variation of a credit card. If you are in employment and can prove to your bank that you can easily repay, say, the cost of double glazing for your house, then you can arrange a loan, this can be given in the form of a card up to the agreed amount – not rolling credit, but the agreed amount, for ease of spending the loan.
If you have just arrived from another country, have no employment, and merely think that you need ‘goodies’ now in order to participate in society, then a French bank manager who mean Non when he says Non will be rapidly re-educating you.
As a direct result of the difficulty of obtaining credit for things you can’t yet afford, is the sheer absence of places on which you can spend money on anything but the lowest priced version of essentials.
If you need a new pair of jeans your local town will give you a choice of either the clothing section of the supermarket – or the clothing section of the local agricultural store. Perhaps a small independent retailer as well. If you want to spend five times the cost on a pair of designer jeans, or the price of a small car on a handbag, then you have a problem.
Window shopping, lusting over goods that you can’t afford, being assailed at every moment with more things that you don’t really need and can’t afford, is a pastime exclusively reserved for Paris and Nice. Does that mean that the French ‘live like pigs’. I would say not.
Young couples round here who are in the minority in that their parents have no house which they will inherit – another shock to the English system – you mean you can’t disinherit your children? Nope. Anyway, the few who will inherit nothing, not even a share of the family home, buy a piece of land. It is relatively cheap. The hold the land for several years whilst they save up the cost of building on it. By building on it, they don’t mean an aspirational five bedroom mock tudor mansion, they mean the minimum living space necessary. Two rooms, kitchen and bathroom. It will be built in red brick which is intended to be rendered. Rendering is not a necessity for the house to be habitable. So they will live in it for several years whilst they save up the cost of the rendering in its raw red brick state. They might stretch to gate posts, if only to have somewhere to attach the ubiquitous poste box. Depending on how many children have been happily begat in this minimum space, they will order the next priority – either enlarging the house, or turning the garden into a more agreeable space.
If they do have children, then credit is even further restricted, because French law says that since the children have an interest in the house, pace the inheritance laws, you can’t mortgage away their future inheritance just to impress the neighbours with fancy curtains in your new abode. The system is double-edged, for the children also have a responsibility to you.
As you grow older and less agile, it is the responsibility of the children to maintain the house. It will be theirs one day. If the roof caves in, and you have no money to repair it, then they must stump up the cost.
Some children escape this responsibility by disappearing. They might not have been heard of for many years – since that fatal argument over the length of their hair for instance. In which case, the Mairie will repair the roof – but with a sting in the tail. They will hold the cost against your future inheritance. When your parents die, you get 25 years to remember that there was a time before you renamed yourself Ziggy Moonbeam and you weren’t found under a gooseberry bush, before the Mairie cry ‘Time’s up’ and reclaim the house for the benefit of the commune. They will sell it – perhaps to some English couple happy to find a house that hasn’t been lived in for 25 years and is just ‘crying out’ for restoration.
The so called Labour ‘Death Tax’ would appear to be a variation on this scheme – either look after your parents yourself, of loose out on your inheritance.
The world of DFS – ‘Amy wanted a sofa but she didn’t want to pay for it for a year, no problem’ – is unknown here. Houses are things that keep the rain and sun off your head. Cars are for getting to work in the morning, not for sitting in the driveway impressing the neighbours whilst you take the bus to collect your dole money. Children are something you protect and nurture, and they have responsibilities towards you in return. Land is for growing things on that you can eat.
Credit is for people who want to end up living in houses they can’t afford, sitting on sofas they don’t own, manipulated by politicians they don’t trust.