Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Cycling and the French

In this month of July when French television is dominated for three weeks by daily live coverage of Le Tour, it is interesting to note how France fares in the league table of cyclists compare with other European countries.

Surprisingly, the answer is not too well. Latest estimates suggest that as few as 2% of the overall population are regular cycle users - either for pleasure or normal daily use (riding to work for example), compared with Britain (4%), and the three northern countries dominated by Holland (an asronishing 43%), Denmark (30%) and Finland (28%).

On closer examination however, the numbers rise dramatically when individual cities make a special effort to encourage more people to use bicycles. The undoubted leader in France is the  city of Strasbourg which has created nearly 600 kms of cycle ways, together with Bordeaux and Grenoble where the mileage is consierably less but well above the average.

In Britain also certain cities dominate - including Cambridge (39%) and Oxford (19%), due to their high level of students and tourist cities such as York with an estimated 14%.

As well as building safe routes, pioneer cycle cities in France and elsewhere also provide 'cycle training' and encourage cycling events to help popularise cycling as a healthy sport, as well as planning out-of-town cycle routes for leisure/family use and offering bikes for hire.

Analysts trying to find out what puts people off cycling compared to other means of transport (particularly when travelling to work) found that they include fear of bad weather, accident risks, distances too long, route 'too difficult', worry about stolen bicycles, having to wear 'special clothing', arriving 'hot and sweaty' at work, difficuly storing/parking a bike either at home or at work.

Even in the exemplary case of Strasbourg, its dedicated cycle network fails to reach some of the poorer outer suburbs compare with other more attractive areas.

Finally it is surprising to note that despite all the efforts to encourange cycling, bicycles still account for no more than 1% of all road traffic!

* Some figures taken from an article by Antoine de Ravignan, Alternatives Economiques,
July/August 2017.

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Buying French property? Beware of false images...

Like all product advertising, vendors and agents can use a number of visual tricks to enhance the look of a property for sale, including clever photography and hiding or masking defects.

Despite the procedures shown on French TV programmes such as "Cherche appartement ou maison' (Channel 6) in which would-be buyers join the agent on site for a series of visits, in real life more time is - or should be - spent in the agent's office discussing the clients' needs in detail, and as a preminary going through the agent's catalogue of available properties to have a general idea of what appeals to the client - or not.

French agents tend to cover a wider area, in my own experience it was quite a large chunk of Pyrénées Orietales and as a result often difficult to visit more than three or four properties during a morning or afteroon. Not just because of the distances to be covered but the admin required to contact owners, pick up keys from a branch office or keyholder, and arrange appointments.

As a result the preliminary meeting in the agent's office is important, to discuss the client's aspirations, budget, likes and dislikes, and view selected properties in the agent's catalogue. Many agency photographs are notoriously bad and frequently the subject of criticism. They rarely show an exterior due to the fact that several agencies may be handling the property for vendors who have signed an a non-exclusive multiple agreement. Very few are the work of professionals.

Using a professional photographer however has its good and bad sides. Photographs can be used to enhance the look of an average property - using more or softer lighting,  or taking shots from high up or low down to enhance the size of a room,  and at worse hiding or disguising defects.

Typical of these are proximity to a main road or railway line, surrounding buildings such as a factory, school or supermarket, or undesirable objects such as overhead electric cables and high voltage pylons. Frequently clients will arrive on site and are already rejecting the property before going through the front door.

Also anoying for potential buyers is the lack of a floor plan, which the vendor should be able to supply as it would normally have been included as part of his/her sales contract. This helps to visualise the proerty as a whole, see how alterations might enhance its potential, and offers an accurate scale plan showing actuall dimensions.

Curiously these small practical details are neglected by some vendors and agents, and sales are lost despite the property being within the buyer's budget. The programme noted above includes some interesting examples. not forgetting it is primarily designed for popular  viewing and includes much pratical advice from the presenter Stéphane Plaza.

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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Selling your French home? Targeting your potential buyer.........

Marketing is very much about tailoing your product or service to a specific group of potential buyers which you have identified from research. And depending on whether you own a one-room apartment or a three-bed house there is someone out there looking for exactly what you are trying to sell.

Recent research from America - and it can easily be applied to France - has identified five specific groups of buyers and what it is they are looking for and why. According to the figures:

- 30% of buyers are looking for a larger home as a result of an increase in family size (arrival of a second or third child for example)

- 27% are looking for their first 'real home' as a result of marriage or deciding to live together

- 24% as a result of a change in family circumstances, such as children leaving home or a change of job

- 39% of 55-65 year olds are looking ahead to retirement

- 28% of over 65s have reached retirement and are looking to downsize or move to a more relaxed area (such as the huge north/south shift in France as the post-war generation comes up to retirement and have a property to sell whose value has risen due to house price inflation.

Whether you are trying to sell your apartment or house to a buyer from virtually any of these groups, the most important criteria have been identified as:

- most typical purchase is a three-bedroom, two bathroom property

- 86% rate the kitchen as the most important deciding factor

- 50% are looking for a master bedroom or parental suite with its own bathroom etc.

- the principal living space tends to include an open-plan kitchen, dining area and lounge area

- quality of outside space, such as a terrace, garden, pool etc

With acknowledgements to USA.

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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Brexit: EU working paper on "Citizens Rights"

The Europen Commission Task Force, which will conduct the Brexit negotians with Britain under Article 50, have issued a Working Paper outlining the "essential principles" that will guide their decisions when dealing with the human aspects - and consequences - of Brexit.

Importantly, the paper emphasises that EU nationals living in another state at the time of the announcement of withdrawal will retain the rights that they had at that moment and will include family members, students and others, anyone who works or has worked in another Member State.

These 'acquired rights' under EU law will be applicable 'for life' and the paper insists that any disputes will (continue to) be handled by the Euopean Court of justice.

The four-page document is highly specific and is accompanied by a longer (10pp) discussion on economic issues.

The documents have received virtually no coverage, other than in the British Guardain newspaper and were not discussed during the recent TV confornation between May and Corbin, despite the British elections being just a few days away.

They are the first sign of comfort for the five million or so EU nationals currently living in another Member State.

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Monday, May 22, 2017

Do I need a translator when signing French property documents?

Buying a home in France is relatively complicated and involves reading and signing several important documents (in French). They include the following:

- Offer to buy. This is your first important document that you will normally sign after visiting a property and making a formal offer to buy at or below the asking price. If the vendor agrees, he or she will countersign his/her acceptance.

- The initial contract (compromis de vente) which may include a number of conditions that must be fulfilled before it become binding - such as 'subject to survey' , 'subject to securing planning permission' etc. If these conditions are not fulfilled, the buyer may pull out and the transaction lapses, leaving the vendor with the task of securing another buyer.

- The final act which is the final sale document, based on the initial pre-contract and becomes the equivalent of the title deeds to the property (titre de propriété) and lodged with the French land registry. Copies are normally also held by the owners and Notaire who handled the transaction.

- The preliminary and final contracts will invariably include a number of supporting documents, from technical surveys to information about possible flooding etc.

- If you are buying an apartment in a shared building, recent legislation requires full reports of any works done or anticipated, details of the co-ownership management, and the scale of charges payable monthly to cover the cost of shared extras such as central heating or a lift.

The above documents may run to over a hundred pages and at first sight appear quite daunting, particularly if you have little or no knowledge of French and you are buying in France for the first time. However it should be borne in mind that most are totally standard and have been tried and tested over the years,  While many 'extras' such as a report on the risk - or not - of flooding are based on publicly available at the local mairie (town hall).

The Notaire handling the transaction will want to ensure that you understand what you are signing and in some case insist on an interpreter/translator being present for the signing, depending also on the Notaire's own proficiency or not in English.

In my view a complete translation is not necessary (and is costly) as legal language in either English or French is frequently unintelligible if you have no kowledge of law. A legally trained interpreter is often the best solution, as he or she can explain the document as the meeting proceeds - bearing in mind that the final act is very similar to the compromis de vente that you sign many weeks ago when you committed to buying the property (subject to any suspensive clauses that you may have insisted on at the time).

Another possible solution, which I normally propose,  is ask a bilingual (English/French) legal expert to review the contract(s) in draft and advise whether to sign them or not, or advise on changes. If they are based close to where you are buying they can also be present at the final signature.

And finally do not forget that the estate agent through whom you are buying the property has also overseen many similar transactions perhaps over many years 'on the job' as a negotiator and guide. His/her experience can be invaluable.

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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Furnished properties sell faster....

As any estate agent will tell you, when home hunting  potential buyers are more likely to be attracted by houses or apartments that are presented furnished rather those which have been stripped of their contents as the previous owners/sellers have already moved out. This is of course the reason why speculative housing developers invariably feature a 'show house' to give buyers an idea of what the property could like for potential purchasers.

Totally empty properties are difficult to visualise and viewers are often unable to imagine what their furniture would look like occupying the huge empty spaces around - though in fact some rooms may look smaller when empty than they actually are. Empty spaces tend to show off any minor defects - tired decor, worn or damaged floors, loose electrical fittings - that should have been put right by the previous owners before putting the property on the market.

There are a number of possible solutions if you find yourself having to sell your property in its empty state, among them the tried and tested 'home staging'. Proponents of this alternative include France's best known estate agent Stephen Plaza who in addition to owning a network of estate agencies is the star of several TV programmes such as 'Chasseurs de'appartement' (apartment hunters) and 'Maison à vendre' (house for sale) both on Channel 6. Plaza works with a number of designers and contractors who, in the worst cases, transform typical over-crowded, over-furnished pre- and post-war houses owned by our parents and grand-parents, and turns them into their light and airy modern equivalent. Typical budgets for a major transformation are often around 2 to 3 per cent of the asking price, and almost invariably result in a number of offers and a sale - including many which have languished on the market for weeks or months.  

If your home is empty but otherwise in good repair, you could employ a designer specialising in home staging who can furnish all or some of the rooms with furniture and acccessories for the occasion - say, the living room and one of the bedrooms if you are on a tight budget.  A lower cost solution is to present a computerised version on a laptop or similar showing what a room could look life when furnished. And floor plans which over the years seem to have disappeared from the details supplied by estate agents invariably help potential buyers to visualise where their furniture might fit.

When you decide to put your property on the market is the time to take photographs showing it furnished, as picture of empty rooms are almost worthless when trying to sell.

Finally, it does without saying that your pre-sale preparations should include fixing all those nagging little defects you may have been putting off for years, such as loose tiles, unfinished paintwork, dripping taps, cracked windows, and being ruthless in your de-cluttering.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Booking rental property online.....a cautionary tale

A recent entry on one of the popular forums dealing with life in France tells a worrying story of a British couple who booked a French short-stay property online only to turn up and find the property already occupied by 'friends of the owner' - who is now unwilling to compensate them or return their 3000 euros paid. The booking was made via a well known holiday booking agency - also operating online - which has apparently so far refused to intervene in the case, on the grounds that the final booking details were made directly between the parties and they are not responsible.

In commenting on the incident, I reminded forum members of a case which occurred in Argels-sur-mer last year, when a non-existent property advertised online was booked by over 50 potential renters who had all paid in advance, and who all turned up on the same day to start their holiday, only to find that the property did not exist and that the street number advertised was entirely fictitious.

Not suprisingly the police and local tourist offices take this sort of incident very seriously, as it reflects badly on the reputation of the resort - and the holiday rental business in general.

The only safeguard I can suggest if you are booking a holiday rental in France is to use a local, reliable estate agency which has its office in the resort or nearby, and has the necessary credentials, such as membership of FNAIM, the estate agents' professional body. Being on-site they receive renters personally, accompany them to the property, check that everything is in order and remain on hand during your stay, just in case of any problems. They also have links to reliable tradesmen in case of emergencies such as a burst pipe or electrical failure.

Local tourist offices are very keen to protect the repuation of the area and may have lists of 'approved' rental properties that have been visited and approved, and if you experience problems during your stay, you should inform the tourist office.

Like all online purchases, holiday bookings via an online rental agency are subject to risks and the potential for fraud and property owners and potential renters should made all the checks they can before entrusting them with their money - and their annual holiday.

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Monday, May 8, 2017

Macron elected French president

There was a palpable sigh of relief all over France last night, as Emmanuel Macron was finally elected President of France, with a convincing 66 per vent of cotes cast in the second round. Even though many remain sceptical of his plans to 'revive' France, in line with the policies outlined by his group En marche there us also a feeling that 'at least it's not her' - referring to the far right Marine le Pen who gave the country another first-round scare in a close vote, as she did with the election of Francois Hollande five years ago. Some commentators are now writing that her election would have been 'chaotic for France'.

Also worrying is the high level of voter abstentions, approaching 30% of the electorate, though many are questioning the wisdom of holding an election on a Sunday, in the middle of a three-day holiday weekend in May (today is a public holiday), where many have taken advantage of the fine weather (at last) and are away from home.

Also interesting at the time Britain is learning not only that Brexit is is going to be vastly more complicated and expensive than anyone dreamed, Macron's second emphasis is on reforming and strenghtening the European Union and it will be interesting to watch this happening alongside Brexit.

France will also have to come to terms with a whole collection of new faces in politics, as Macron's likely team of future ministers, many of them unkown to the wider public, take up their positions in government. France goes to the polls again in June to elect deputies to parliament, before settling down for the summer recess and the traditional European shutdown during July and August.

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Monday, May 1, 2017

Buying a French apartment? Beware of management costs!

Buying an apartment in France, as opposed to a freehold house, may seem like an attractive low-cost alternative - until you come to add up the associated 'management fees'. Many seemingly cheap apartments can turn out to be an expensive investment.

In my home town I have been looking at lost-cost apartments, many of them located in the best part of town, facing south onto a park (the old bit of open urban space there is) and many priced at under 50,000 euros for a small studio under 25 square metres, and attractive as a 'pied à terre' or as an income earning buy-to-let investment.

Part of their attraction can include a balcony or terrace, high levels of security, sometimes a resident concierge, central heating and hot water, car parking, and a lift (many are eight storeys or more high). Occcasionaly extra amenities such as a swimming pool, gardens or tennis courts form part of the package.

All these attractive extras however come at a price. Buying an apartment in a share building involveds purchasing the freehold in your individual apartment and in addition a number of shares in the building itself - sometimes refered to as tantièmes - the quantity calculated according to the size of your apartment. You effectively own part of the freehold and details will be written into your contract of purchase - the equivalent of title deeds to your property.

Buildings may be managed by a committee of co-owners - you become one on purchase of your apartment and become entitled to vote at the annual general meeting or indeed become a member of the co-owners' committee. Within smaller buildings, day to day management as well as major decisions such as external painting or renewal of the lift, may be handled by the (voluntary) 'syndic' (committee of co-owners). This can work well for buildings comprise, say, up to ten or twelve apartments. (I currently live in a building with just four co-owners, the largest owning two whole floors, and we meet and discuss informally any needed expernditure. There are no fixed annual costs, other than the obligatory building insurance, which we all share in proportion to our share, in addition to the insurance of our invidivual apartments).

Above this figure it is more usual to employ a firm of external building managers, some of whom are part of a larger group of insurance companies, banks or property investors. And they charge for their services. Many of these organisations have come in for criticism in recent years - for overcharging, poor management and in some cases downright fraud. They succeed in getting away with it because apartment owners are not interested in how the building is run and will pay the monthly bill of charges to the managers without raising too many questions. Until active individuals or members of an alert co-owners committee start to investigate.

The first thing you will know about the level of 'building charges' will be in the state agents' details of the apartment you are interested in buying (in addition of course to local property taxes paid to the commune). And it is at this point you will realise that the 'cheap' apartment you are being shown round may be subject to management charges from 500 to over 1000 euros per year - and possibly additional costs planned in the near future, to pay for external painting or replacement of the lift.

As a general rule the larger the building the higher the cost to maintain and pay for unforeseen contingencies, and as a result the higher the charges demanded - once again in proportion to the size of your apartment. As a result, as part of your French property hunting, if you are looking at apartments you need to be fully aware of the likelihood of additional management charges, which over the years are most likely to rise, while the value of your apartment may fall.

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Monday, April 24, 2017

Ecological and organic - but not quite.......

I watched a fairly in-depth documentary on French television last night, featuring two groups of citizens who had decided 'to go ecological'. The first concerned a largish family who had built their own house, using the latest materials, to ensure that it was self-sufficient in terms of heating, cooling and maitenance. They had installed a series of solar panels in the garden (fairly ugly and I am surprised they got planning permission!), had built a water wheel in a fast running nearby stream (unclear who it belonged to or again whether planning permission was sought or given), and were in the process of improving the drain pipes and guttering on their roof to collect rain water in an underground tank.

What I found most disappointing is that their whole set-up was built around producing and consuming meat - chickens were reared for their eggs and their meat, along with several sheep and cows whose destiny was not explained.

The second case study appeared to revolve around hydroponics (growing plants in water rather than in the soild) and again seemed to be centered on producing feed for animals, which were reared for their meat.

What the documentary failed to tell viewers is the high cost of feeding (vegetable) protein - 50% of which goes to feed animals - in order to produce meat (10 grams produce only 1 gram of meat) when it is clearly cheaper and ecologically sound for humans to eat the vegetable proteins direct and reduce the production and consumption of meat, currently estimated at 100kg per person per year in France!

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Monday, April 10, 2017

France - record high property prices?

Two reports in France's LeFigaro* newspaper higlight the continued rise in French property  prices - now at record levels in major French cities, and why it is a good time now to put your property on the market if you are thinking of selling.

First, property prices approaching record levels.  The evidence is onverhwelming, and following a recovery of the property market in 2016 - by over 5% in the Paris area and over 2 per cent elsewhere - the trend seems to be continuing in the first three months of 2017, despite the common belief that election years are bad for property sales (the French go to the polls in two weeks to begin the process of electing a new President and a new parliament).

Paris still holds the record for the highest average price per square metre - currently just over 8,500 euros , followed by Nice (3,800), Lyon (3,440), Bordeaux (3,2776) and Toulouse (2,640). Most of these prices reflect an increase of 5% or more over 2016.

Traditionally springtime and the arrival of warmer weather help boost sales, as buyers prefer to get their house move organised and settle before the July/August holiday break and ahead of the la rentrée in September/October when children return to school and students start at university. Job changes are also popularly organised with a September start in mind and may involve a change of location.

Another group of buyers are the retired who need to get their house hunting done before the July/August recess when second homes may be occupied by their owners or let to summer tenants, and unavaialble for viewing. The traditional holiday period may also delay completion of the property sale as lawyers and much needed public officials themselves go on hliday. Hence the need to get your property selling or buying done before the end of June!


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Thursday, April 6, 2017

French cities going green ....literally!

French cities are vying with each other to create more wide open, green spaces, as part of their effort to combat air pollution and help reduce excessively high temperatures such as those  of the 40 degree heatwave in 2003, responsible for the deaths of over 15,000 people.

Not surprisingly one of the pioneers of this movement is the city of Paris, with a mixture of tree planting, opening up more green spaces and encouraging the installation of 'green roofs' - the use of grass and other vegetation on the roofs of schools, office blocks and other public buildings.

Although the city is well blessed with open spaces, the two largest being the bois de Boulogne and the bois de Vincennes, both located far from the city centre,  Paris lacks a variety of smaller open spaces, easily reachable by the public, for examples during a lunch break.  The two famous bois alone account for 70% of the city's open spaces.

Paris's norther outskirts are particularly short of open spaces and the city also suffers from suburban blight due to the apparently unrestrained development of huge out of town shopping centers which ring the capital, and increasing demands for more transport infrastructure such as roads and rail.

As a result during a typical summer heatwave there can be a difference of 8 degrees or more (higher) between parts of the inner city centre and a typical built-up sector. Cooling these spaces is not cheap and uses large amounts of energy - for example for refrigeration and air conditioning - and to provide insulation and double glazing increases construction costs.

With 75% of French now living in urban areas (compared to the countryside) inner-city pollution is becoming an increasing threat and a drain on healthcare costs. However some successes are already being reported including a reduction of the incidence of asthma.

Another encouraing sign is the growth of healthy eating and organic food production* and the development of small urban 'grow your own' allotments managed by the local community.

Finally it goes without saying that greener cities make more pleasant places to live in and can add to the value of your property investment.

* For more information see my recent post here about France's 'organic revolution' and my article in 'French Property News' issue 314, April 2017, pp 50-52.
And also Alternatives Economiques No. 367, Aptril 2017, pp 58-60 by Bénédice Weiss, who offers further sources.

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Friday, March 31, 2017

School uniforms - Britain versus France......

Reading the British press - mainly the Daily Mail I have to confess - British school teachers seem to spend a great deal of time checking on how their students dress, measuing the lenght of skirts and shorts, and the colour, lenght and style of haircuts. Being sent home or banished from the classroom appear to be the standard punishment for these apparent breaches of the rules.

Happily the French take a much more relaxed attitude. The majority of youngsters attend free public (state run) schools, from the maternité through to the lycée and dress code is not on the list of requirements for entry - apart from that imposed by current teenage fashions taken from television or the web.

In my home town the current fasion is for leggings (apparently now frowned upon by some airlines as 'inappropirate') worn by both girls and boys, with a draughty few inches of bare ankle displayed in both summer and winter. The top half is generally comprised of a T-shirt or other sports gear, with logos, trademarks or slogans of your choice. When it comes to hairstyle - anything goes, length, colour, shape, style, the boys generally following the trends set by footballers. And the minute the sun comes out, everyon is in shorts.

I was waiting for a friend to join me for lunch yesterday and watched several groups of youngsters passing by - including a greed haired lad with two friends - but his appearance did not attract a second glance from a single one of the (adult) passers-by. Joining groups of friends in a café or bistro is routinely accepted and thse pre-adults have a surprising self confidence, especially when surrounded by their peers. Any suggestion that they should be made to conform to a dress code would be considered laughable.

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Monday, March 27, 2017

French furnished lettings - security for both owner and tenant

French furnished lettings provide a measure of security both for the owner of the property and the tenant/occupier, following a tightening of the rules in the loi Alur of March 2014, promoted by the then housing minister Cecile Duflot.

Many are based on the regulations concerning unfurnished properties but offer a briefer period of tenure - 12 months renewable, reduced to 9 months in the case of a term-time student lettings - with the option to renew the tenancy and the right of the tenant to leave the property at any time at 4 weels notice.

On signing the tenancy agreement, the owner can ask for a security deposit of two months' rent (note that the maximum for unfurnished tenancies is just one month) and other provisions using a standard contract which will include an inventory of the contents. In order for a property to be classified as 'furnished' certain basic items must be provided by the owner, including means of eating, sleeping, heating etc and listed on a standard form which will become part of the lease and agreed between the parties.

If the owner wishes to give notice to the tenant, he can justify this only on restricted grounds,such as non-payment of rent or serious misuse, or his intention to occupy the property for his own use or in order to sell it.

How much to charge? It is possible for anyone with disposable capital to buy a property which has a tenant already in place (either furnished or unfurnished) so the rent will be known. The short-term furnished market is fairly competitive, offering a wide range of choice for a prospective tenant who will normally be well informed about going rates in the locality - from agency websites and informally from friends and colleagues. In some areas, including Paris, rents can be controlled by the local authority under new regulations (2016, 2017) designed to prevent price inflation where there is a known shortgage of available properties. Universities and other institutions may also have their own rules should a property owner wish to have his property added to their housing list.

Short term renters, according to the experts*, often have a different profile from long-termers and owner/occupiers, They may be younger, prepared to live in a small space (say, 20 square metres) on higher floors with no lift, and in cental/mixed areas that might not attract long stayers but which offer quick access to public transport, local shopping and other basic amenities, And if the property is well furnished and decorated and offers something a bit special renters may be prepared to pay an above-average rent.

Furnished lets by their nature mean a higher turnover of occupants than with unfurnished properties, and will need to be constantly refreshed and furniture  replaced. It may be possible to let them on a very short basis as holiday lets (such as through AirBnb) in popular tourist areas. In the case of 9-month student let, a two to three month summer rental might be possible - if the property is large enought for at least two people. If not, you could try attracting a seasonal worker. All these options require hands-on management in order to succeed.

* "Comment je suis devenue rentière" by Elise Franck describes in detail how she became the owner of several short-term rental properties, with numerous tips, illustrations and cost breakdowns. Essential reading, along with her website which cotains a lot of useful advice including before and after illustrations and examples of successful renovations.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Nearly 3000 new enterprises in my small French home town.........

'2 792 new enterprises in ten years' says the headline in my local newspaper L'Indépendant - surely good news for any small town of just over 100 000 people (200 000 if you include the outlying suburbs and villages.

Analysing the accompanying report however, there are a number of anomales which make interesting reading. Anyone who visits the area cannot fail to miss the large number of 'wind farms' which generate electricity as huge windmills are driven by the prevailing Tramontane gales blowing in from the north-west. What few people know is that every one of these - together with solar panels taking advantage of the 300 days per year of sunshine -  has to be registered at the local chamber of commerce as a 'business', adding considerably to the list of new 'enterprises' created - comprising around 300 to 400 'éoliennes' (windmills) implanted in the reagion.

The other major contributors are those registering as 'auto-entrepreneurs' following the creation of this self-employment regime in 2008 designed to encourage small, individual business start-ups. Of these some 75% are listed as 'personal srvices' - from hairdressing to all types of care provision addressed largely at the region's growing elderly population. The area is one of the most popular in France for retirement - remarkably cheap housing, wide range of medical services from major hospitals and clincis to thermal spas.

Plus the sunshine already mentioned and the proximity of the Mediterranean coast and the border with Spain (Barcelona is only two hours drive away) which make Pyrénées-Orientales one of the most attractive areas of France.

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Friday, March 10, 2017

Property sales rise 5% during 2016 in Pyrénées-Orientales

Sales of property during 2016 - excluding new-builds - rose by a healthy 5% in Pyrénées-Orientales over previous years - and surpassing the levels of the boom years 2000-2007following the switch to the euro and the price inflation that followed; together with a slowdown in sales - including by British and other non-French purchasers during the years prior to 2000  when prices were ridiculously low compared with Britain - a two room apartment on the beach for less than the equivalent of £20 000 was not uncommon.

The region is a now recognised first-choice for retirees from the post-war boom generation who benefited from full employment and increases in living standards during the 'thirty glorious' years up to 1980 and the shock of the first oil price rises. The typical French buyer from that period owns a house in or near Paris which can be sold for a high price that offers a comfortable budget with which to buy an apartment or house in the rural or coastal south, an area where the average price per square metre can be as low 1200 euros.......

An article in the current Logic-immo journal speaks of the attraction of the numerous small villages surrounding Perpignan, within easy reach of the Mediterranean coast (where prices are higher - for example around 4000 per square metre in Argelès-sur-mer) and the mountains inland, together with the proximity of the Spanish border for low-cost shopping; and Barcelona reached by car in two hours or fast TGV rail services (under 1 hour from Perpignan).

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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Brexit uncertainties already affecting EU residents in Britain

According to research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) a high percentage of EU citizens resident and working in Britain are reviewing their situation in the event of a potential Brexit.

The sectors most likely to be affected are education and healthcare where up to 50% of  'foreign' staff have indicated that they 'might leave' due to the uncertainties surrounding Brexit, the CIPD reports. The situation is most serious for these sectors where wages are traditionally low and employers are obliged to 'fill the gaps' by recruiting teachers and nurses from outside Britain.

Other sectors that could be similarly affected, the CIPD notes, are hotels, catering and retail,  sectors where qualifications may be low and (foreign) workers comparatively cheap.

British prime minister Theresa May has stressed all along that she wishes to guarantee the position of EU citizens already living and working in Britain, in return for a similar deal covering British citizens living in other EU member states. And the British House of Lords are pressing for guarantees now, ahead of any formal agreement with the rest of the EU.

For their part, some EU member countries have already made encouraging noises about the position of British subjects already resident in France, Spain and Italy among others, but are awaiting the official start to negotiations which will last at least two years. However, any words of comfort pronounced now are subject to uncertainties, such as the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in France this spring.

Use of the word 'bargaining' in place of 'negotiating' is a worrying sign of uncertain times ahead for individuals who have decided to settle outside their country of origin and relied on the sovereign principles of the Europen Union of 'freedom of movement of people, goods, services and capital'.

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Monday, March 6, 2017

Unemployment benefits for the self-employed?

Among one of the more interesting proposals put forward by one of the French presidential contenders - Emmanuel Macron - is a scheme to protect the self-employed enabling them to access unemployment and sickness benefits in much the same way as an unempoyed person who has lost his/her job.

If you are employed in France on a fixed-term conract (CDD) or an open-ended 'permanent' job contract (CDI) both employer and employee pay a social contribution among many others, which covers the cost of unemployment benefits in the event of loss of the job. Benefits are calculated on how long you have worked/contributed and the maximum period of payments is normally 24 months, during which you can/must actively seek another job.

Being employed or unemployed is generally clear-cut - you either have a job or you don't. Being self-employed generally means you have to work harder and for longer hours (I can testify to that!) but there is no routine protection against loss of work or income brought about by economic circumstances or simply the loss of a valuable client or contract, and other factors beyond your control.

While I was self-employed in Britain for many years, I found it relatively easy to find a private insurance policy that would provide cover in the case of injury that prevented me from working; but insurers would not cover sickness - on the ground that I could feign illness during hard times and claim cover. Like other elf-employed I paid insurance contributions based on a percentage of my net earnings after costs claimed, which rose as my income increased and included state pension contributions.

What Macron is proposing for France  is a payment (out of earnings) by each self-employed individual that would be less than the current (high) 6.4% paid by the self-employed, against 2.4% by empyees. He is not suggesting that the self-employed should pay the equivalent of the cuombined contributions (emplyer/employee) but a reduced personal contribution of 4.6% - the remainder coming from 'general funds'.

It is an interesting idea and would require clear-cut guidelines as to when a self-employed person is out of work or not. One of the secrets of survival if you are self-employed, but not an estabished professonal such as a doctor or a lawyer,  is to have a mix of clients and several sources of income, so that the loss of a one client does not force the collapse of your enterprise. Half the fun is the uncertainty according to a book published in 2009 by Anne and Marine Rambacj entitled 'Les nouveaux intellos précaires'  which describes the precarious lives of many in the arts and intellectual professions (writers, artists etc) in France (Editions Stock, 2009).

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Supermarket shopping in France - food sales up, non-food down....

A survey by Nielsen research published today in LeFigaro* notes that French supermarkets and hypermarkets are holding their own and even increasing their sales in virtually all sectors, particularly food, but losing sales (by 6.5 per cent) of electric and electronic goods to online suppliers and specialist retailers.

The growth in food sales is due to increases in the sale of fresh produce, emphasis on local suppliers and extension of their range of organic (bio) products. Sales of packet goods such as cornflakes are also up, together with bakery items and wines. Household necessities such as cleaning materials, toilet rolls, soaps nd shampoos, are also popular supermarket buys.

Although facing competition from online sales in several sectors, further research reported in LeFigaro shows that in over 70% of cases - an analysis of 24,000 products in over 56 supermarket chains - prices online were the same as those in the supermarkets.

Electric and electronic goods - TV, phones, fridge/freezers etc - are most popularly bought via specialist supermarkets which offer pre-selection via their online catalogue - and 'discounts'.

In the case of online shopping, one of the major drawbacks cited is the process of delivery to your home, which means waiting-in for the delivery which often does not arrive on the day or at the time agreed. The sector also suffers from high levels of returns, disputes over payments and/or product discription, and the potential for online fraud (bogus suppliers through to stolen credit cards).

In the fresh food sector, competition includes direct selling of local (organic) produce from 'farm shops', local delivery and co-operative buying.

Shopping around offers numerous alternatives for the consumer.


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Sunday, February 26, 2017

France presidential elections - update

Further to my recent post about the ups and downs of the French presidential elections, the two main contenders - François Fillon, formerly Sarkozy's prime minister, and Marine le Pen, deader of the far right Front National, are facing further problems.

François Fillon is now the subject of formal investigation on a number of counts, including the payment of salaries to his wife and two children, with the appointment of a team of senior judges from the financial court. He is however continuing his pre-election campaign until further notice. His part - Les Républicains - appear not to have a Plan-B in the event that formal charges are made against their candidate.

Marine Le Pen meanwhile is refusing to attend a police investigation when a summons was issued last week, pleading parliamentary immunity (as a member of the European Parliament) which protects deputies while in office. She is continuing with her campaign meanwhile.

Sadly the above two cases, potentially involving election to the the highest office in the land, arrive at a time when a number of police officers are under investigate for alleged rape of a (black) social worker, provoking demonstrations and riots nightly in Paris and elseshere, with prime time television coverage. The Government has also chosen this moment to launch a series of television advertisements lauding the virtures of the Republic.........

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Thursday, February 23, 2017

France still a nation of meat eaters.....

I wrote recently about about the growing organic (bio) movement in France and that there were encouraging signs that consumption of meat in France was showing a slight decline, which started several decades ago, after the end of the war and the post-war boom years up to 1980.

Sadly - for vegetarians like me at least - latest figures show that the average consumption per head is now 86 kilograms annually and that 3 million animals per day (or 1 billion annually) are slaughtered in French abattoirs in order to keep pace with this demand.

These figures and other revelations - for example, that only 20% of abattoirs inspected by the authorities conformed to current regulations - are revealed in a French TV programme next Tuesday 28 March, if you have the stamina to watch it.

'Le Monde en Face' series, Channel 5, Tuesday 29 March 2017, 20.50, followed by a discussion at 22.00.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Who might be the new French President - a brief guide

France is in the throes of an election campaign which kicked off last autumnn and is due to last another three months until voting in May. Who will replace François Hollande after five years as President is far from clear at this time.

There have as usual been numerous opinion polls and several pre-selection processes but the picture is far from clear though there are four principal candidates in the running. They are Marine le Pen (Front National) who has an outright lead (24% currently) over the others but is under something of a cloud as a result of problems with the European Parliament - as has her father and founder of the FN - over allegedly illegal  payments for parliamentary assistants who were not resident in Brussels according to the rules. Yesterday the police raided the FN's French offices on behalf of the European Commission. Both MEPs have denied any breach of the rules.

The rest of the field is made up of a curiously mixed bunch - including François Fillon, who survived for five years as former president Sarkozy's Prime minister. He is the preferred candidate of the right wing of the the Republican party but also under a cloud regarding alleged 'salary' payments to his wife Penelope and two of his children, paid out of public funds, amid claims that their jobs as 'parliamentary assistants' were fictitious. The sums involved approach 1 million euros going back over many years and investigations are continuing, with the prospect of a prosecution not ruled out. Les Républicains are sticking by their man - for the time being, with the election just weeks away. Compared with  the other candidates he is also the one with the most experience at parliamentary and ministerial level

The two other contenders are newcomers Emanuel Macron and Benoit Hamon. Macron was a former advisor to François Hollande and worked at the Elysée Palace, before transfering to parliament as Minister of Economics, and then resigning and setting up his own party known as En marche ('on the move'). He has been campaigning for several months throughout France and accasionally abroad and is more or less on the right wing,  and popular with young and older voters alike. Having formed his own party may complicate his progress

Benoit Hamon, an ecologist and to the left of the socialist party, was (briefly) Education Minister under François Hollande and is the favourite choice of young voters. His comparative youth and lack of practical experience in government might be seen as a handicaps to being elected.

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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

France - land of the bureaucrats? Not true!

There are many myths about France and among them that the country is over-run by fonctionnaires (public officials employed by the State). However a more serious analysis of the figures shows that France falls somewhere in the middle range compared with the rest of Europe - and has roughly the same number state employees as Great Britain for much the same size population.

A simple analysis shows that some 2.4 million are employed by central government - bearing in mind they have to cope with 360 different taxes, 410,000 norms and regulations, or 103 diffrent types of social aid*. Nearly two million are employed by local authorities at regional and local level (there are nearly 37,000 communes); and just over 1 million work in hospitals and the public health sector.

What do they get in return? I wrote recently about the daily sweeping and washing down of streets in the town centre where I live and I can testify to the efficiency of health services - same-day appointments with ones GP or within days with specialist services such as a blood test, X-ray or appointment with a specialist at the local hospital.......with strict adherence to appointment times.

The system however does throw up some anomalies however, such as delays in civil and some criminal courts. Even in the case of former President Sarkozy: only now is he being prosecuted (he is appealing) for alleged offenses regarding the funding of his election campaign over a decade ago. Even more curious that his former Prime Minister François Fillon is calling for a reduction of 500,000 fonctionnaires as part of his current election campaign (somewhat tarnished by allegations about sums paid to his wife as his 'parliamentaty assistant'.........).

Although they enjoy a certain job security and comparatively generous pension arrangements, compared with Britain for example, research** shows that at the lower and middle grades, the salaries of  fonctionnaires are more or less on a par with those in the private sector; while at the senior level they tend to lag behind.

Finally Britain leads in Europe with the privatisation of many public services, which the same research admits can aid the introduction of frehs talent and new ideas but requires close supervision by (established) fonctionnaires. That said, the French had recourse to 'outside' private sources for 30% of its functions in 2015 (compared to Britain's +50 per cent).

* 'On va dans le mur'  by Agnès Verdier-Molinié, Albin Michel, 2015
** 'Alternatives Economiques'  February 2017, pp 64-72

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Monday, February 6, 2017

Aiding refugees and migrants - at your peril!

France seems to have an ambivalent attitude towards migrants and refugees who arrive in France, often after a hazardous journey from their home country, and take advantage of the free movement within the European Union thanks to the Schengen agreement on open  borders. Many as we all know know face a block when they reach the French channel ports and try to travel to Britain,

The result has been the accumulation of up to 10,000 refugees - including many young children and teenagers - in huge makeshift camps, which were finally cleared towards the end of last year and the occupants dispersed to 'reception centres' all over France. Not all them agreed with this policy and set up their own camps in central Paris and elsewhere, only to be dispersed again by the authorities. Reports indicate that many have also driffted back to Calais and there is increasing concern for large numbers of unaccopanied minors and young adults, regarded as specially at risk. There is a sad irony in all of this, as many wish to join their families already settled in Britain but face growing intransigence by officials and prejudice from many individuals, as the pro-Brexit vote shows.

Sterling work has been done by the acknowledged helpinng organisations such as the international Red Cross, buit private individuals have been prosecuted for 'aiding and abetting a person illegally living in France' despite another French law which also prosecutes for 'non-assistance to persons in danger' - such as ignoring a person injured in the street or driving away after a traffic accident.

Some of the individuals accused of  aiding and abetting refugees found themselves prosecuted for simple gestures such as charging mobile phones or providing temporary accomodation or food. Fortunately, such help can be provided by joining one of the recognised charity organisations but many individuals have continued to 'do their own thing' and face the verdict of the French courts and organisatons (established or hastily formed) have found themselves in difficulty. A group of jurists and some 250 voluntary organisations have banded together with two old established French campaigning organisations Gisti and Cimade and to press for changes in the law.

Web addresses:;

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France - at last! - has long distance coach service, sort-of..................

It may surprise you to learn that it is just over one year ago that France introduced long-distance coach services between cities, similar to the old established National Express network in Britain.

The idea was the brainchild of Emmanuel Macron, former socialist minister of economics (briefly) now leader of his own party in a bid to become the next president of France in next May's elections.

The only mystery is why it took so long when the figures for the 12 month period to September 2016 show that 5.2 million passengers took to the coaches against TGV rail (an estimated 1.3 million travellers), car sharing or driving their own vehicle.

Principal attraction is the low cost compared to alternatives but the network suffers from a lack of city centre bus stations and general publicity about the network, services and tarifs. In my local town I have no idea where or how to find a long-distance coach service.......

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Sunday, February 5, 2017

A trade union for freelancers?

Freelancers are probably best known for being non-joiners, valuing their freedom to experiment and make mistakes, perhaps at the cost of their financial survival. As a freelancer all my working life, I know the feeling.

That said, two French associations have recently appeared in France - the first a company called WeMind founded by two individuals (not a lot about them on their website) and based on the principle of bulk buying of goods and services such as public liability insurance and (additional) medical cover. As of Janiary 2017 they talk of 'over 10 000 members' and joining fees have been waived unil the end of Februay.

The second is an offsoot of a trade union (the CFDT) and called F3C  which is shorthand for 'the federation (of) communication, counseil (= consulting) and culture' to distinguish it from small business associations, such as the FSB in Britain, and concentrate on 'the intellectual professions'. Among the services proposed are the usual insurance packages and importantly advisory services for members experiencing problems with the tax authorities or social security office (in my experience, much needed). Membership costs 1% of the member's annual income.

Source: Alternatives Econoloiques February 2017, p. 59. Author Céline Mouzon.

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Friday, February 3, 2017

Brexit - the triumph of misinformation?

The slow and still uncertain progress of the United Kingdom towards a final severance from the rest of Europe seems to me little more than a victory for misinformation - or, more charitably, widepress ignorance about how the European Community actually operates.

When I read stories of 'Brussels bureaucrats' dictating what British citizens should or should not do, it is clear that the writer/speaker is either disguising the truth or is woefully ignorant of the process of decisions that eventually become European law. There is in fact a complex procedue of negotiation at many different levels, including summit meetings of Heads of Government (presidents or prime ministers of Member States), government ministers (say, defense or finance), European commissioners (nominated by Member States), the European Parliament of MEPs democratically elected by each Member State, the ESC (Economic and Social Committee, a group of specialists elected by Member States), the Committee of theRegions - and finally the European Commission itself, a body of bureaucrats drawn from the Member States, and responsible for initiating legislation and finally working out the details for implementation in each Member State (once debated and finally adopted by that State).

One can even add the role of lobbyists in all this - yes, there are hundreds of them representing every shade shade of opinion, from bankers to charities, and registered and published in a directory accessible to all.

There is no excuse for reputable journalists to not know how the process works. For the 'general public' they tend to believe what they read, even when they are being misinformed.

Which brings us to the question of Britain's trade with the rest of the world and the exciting new future promised by PM Theresa May. Currently Britain exports some 44% of its goods and services to other European Members - worth about £220 billion (out of a total £510 billion exports) - and it is this huge market that she seems to think Britain can throw away - and find exciting new markets elsewhere - such as Turkey! The top supplier to this progressive country of 80 million citizens  is the USA with a modest $11.88 billion........Britain does even appear among the top ten suppliers.

I shall end with a quote from the French monthly journal Alternatives Economiques* :
'Europe is already very open-minded about trade with the rest of the world and discussions about commerical agreements with the United States (Tafta) and Canada (Ceta) have already shown that the gains in trade are small. And who can believe that the British on their own can negotiate a better deal with China than the European Union acting together? '

* Christian Chavgneux, p35, February 2017.

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Friday, January 27, 2017

Barcelona trying to control tourist numbers

According to a report in today's Guardian* newspaper, my near neighbour Barcelona, just over the border from where I live, is suffering from a massive influx of tourists - 32 millions annually compared with a resident population of just 1.2 citizens.

Many are classed as day-trippers but for those staying longer (some 8 million estimated) the city offers 75,000 hotel beds, some 50,000 registered holiday apartments and an estimated 50,000 ones.

Action is needed according to a newly-formed group SOS Barcelona, a combination of some 40 resident and community associations, who are protesting about increasing property prices for (would-be) residents and poor wages paid for thouse working in the tourist sector.

They are opposed by the hoteliers association who argue that more temporary accommodation is in fact needed for longer stay visitors who contribute substantially more to the local economy than the day-trippers. Their views seem to coincide with popular public opinion which in a survey last year conclude that Barcelona's biggest problem was unemployment and not the effects of tourism.

* My acknowledgements to Stephen Burgen, The Guardian, Friday 27 January 2017.

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Paris 'chambres de bonne' to be converted into apartments

There are over a hundred thousand chambres de bonne - small attic rooms on the top floors of residential apartments, and traditionally used to house maids working for the owners below. As the employment of maids has decline over the years, owners tended to hold onto these tiny spaces, too small to legally rent (about 15% were let where they conformed to minimal size regulations) while the rest were left empty or used for storage. Their value however continue to rise with property price inflation, and was estimaed to have risen by over 80% since 1990. 

The city of Paris has recently inaugurated a policy of buying-up these attic spaces, and joining two or more together to create larger, saleable apartments.  Under this scheme an average of four chambres are linked together to create an apartment of 40 up to 130 sqare metres. When completed, they are sold in the smarter districts at between 11,500 and 12,500 euros per square metres. 

The first experiment has already resulted in a total sell-out - mainly to French buyers, who find these attic lofts attractive, particularly where the package includes improve access, such as widening the 'back stairs' or installing or extending a lift. 

These efforts alone wil not solve the capital's perenial housing problem but with over 100,000 empty chambres de bonne to working with, some thirty to forty thousand new homes could be created. 

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Monday, January 23, 2017

Video shows inner city regeneration can be achieved

Having written recently about the decline of city centres - including my home town - and how it affects people's income, jobs and lives, I am specially happy to recomment a vido by American film-maker Kirsten Dirksen, which you can watch via Youtube or on her blog.*

The 30 minutes-plus film traces the history of a citizens' revival plan of the main street in a small urban community in Water Valley, Mississippi, where over a couple of decades some 18 retail stores and businesses had closed, creating a lifeless, ugly Hight Street.

It was largely a private initiative to start with which gathered in numbers and strength to create a local business association, which succeeded in renovating 29 solid brick-built buildings and opening a variety of small businesses - among them a restaurant, drugstore, art galley, a boutqie hotel, apartments,  and a 10,000 squate feet 'alternative' supermarket selling fresh, locally produced foods and fighting off a challenge from Walmart.

Local jobs have been created and as one observer notes Saturday nights see the whole area crowded with people - many of them students at the local State University.

The video offers a tour of several of the buildings before, during and after renovation and is a heartening reminder of what can be done when determined local people get together to bring about change.

* Kirsten's blog is: Select under 'Categories' 'videos' - it is the latest currently posted on her site. Commentary is in English.

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Friday, January 20, 2017

Clean streets and empty rubbish bins....

Reading the British newspapers about the propsoals by some local councils to empty domestic rubbish bins every four weeks only, I am happy to describe the situation in France - where bins are emptied DAILY in most areas and streets in city centres washed down every morning - sometimes more than once per day!

Where I live is a bit of a tourist town with a historic centre and in the summer months when I sleep with the windows open, my morning 'alarm clock' is the sound the mechanical sweeper/washer passing along the alleyway where I live, usually at 6.00 o'clock in the morning. The many cafés and restaurants that line the streets and have tables and chairs outside on the pavement and know the drill: everything is stacked and moved indoors to allow the sweeper to do its job. The result is immaculate pavements and clean alleyways (mine is pedestrians only) all year round.

Much the same with the bins. Emptied if you need to put them out every days or as I do, you can use the large public containers at the end of the alleyway which are emptied once or twice daily. There is even a special free service to arrange the collection of large objects (old furniture, mattresses etc) which are put out the night before and picked up early morning, by appointment. The homeless charity Emmaus will also pick up anything that can be salvaged or re-cycled.

My domestic rates are not exorbitant, in fact much lower than I was used to paying in central London.

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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Working in retirement - numbers up in Britain and France

The number of people electing to continue working after they have reached the 'official' rtirement age is on the increase in both France and Britain.

In France in 2016, some 450,000 retired people were recorded as working - twice the numbers ten years ago, but bearing in mind that the retirement age is lower than most other countries, at 60 or 62.

Latest reports in Britain also show a doubling of the figures for over 70s and still working - 485,000 today (compared with 271,000 five years ago) and a remarkable 42,000 still working after reaching the age of 80 (compared with 21,000 five years ago).

Looking ahead five years, France's active population has been predicted as reaching 1.2 million more people today, together with an increasingly elderly population living longer. There is also a discernible population shift to the south. Unskilled work will generally be harder to find, with increasing 'professionalism' required for most jobs. More jobs will be created in the 'care' sector looking after the elderly and more public money spent on education and training.

Compared with Britain, when continuing to work in retirement is a relatively simple process - you don't have to notify anyone and simply add your earnings to your pension and other sources of income - the French have managed to create another bureaucratic nightmare, involving declarations, investigations and restrictions too complicated to explain in this post! I may return to the subject later after more research.

Suffice it to say that France operates 37 different retirement 'régimes', largely depending on your jobs, and there are increasing reports from some areas of France where one year or more after giving up work and entering retirement, some people are still waiting for their first pension payment and/or at least what they are entitled to. If you have changes jobs during your working life, the first difficulty is assembling and verifying that contributions have been paid, iften going back decades. It is a nightmare for the bureaucrats let alone the pensioners concerned.

The organisation CIPAV has been singled out by the government - and is the appropriate régime for many self-employed - for providing no or incorrect information to its members and ordered to apologise and pay compensation.  

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Friday, January 13, 2017

The art of becoming self-employed - start a 'side hustle'

When I was 30 years old I had set up my first business - and promptly wrote a book about it. Scanning the internet many years later, I am pleased to see that a lot of the advice offered is very much like what I told myself (and wrote about) - the American even coining their own word for it - a 'side hustle' or 'side venture' which describes something which you can start with little or no capital and while continuring to work in your current job (if you have one).

I recall my golden rules from all those years ago and they are still valid today if I was starting out all over again - which is fact something you continue to do as I found that the nature of you business can change over time, due to the vagaries of the market or simply your own wish to try something new. Here are my personal golden rules:

- Ask yourself what you want or are qualified to do. If you are a skilled plumber or born fashion designer, then you already have something you can offere the market. In my own case, the only skill could offer was writing and passing on knowledge (I was good at school, passed my exams etc but totally hopeless at sports or manual skills).

- Research the market? Not always possible and you may have to work in a sector that is already crowded or is difficult to investigate.

- No capital? No problem. There is no logical reason why banks, let alone your family and friends should 'invest' in your business, particularly if you have no capital yourself. You are asking them to take a risk which you are not sharing - though they may pursue you should you fail. Your only option is to start something that needs no or minimal capital.

- Already working? Many jobs are more secure today (due to employment legislation and the protection of a trade union) but if you are hankering for a change, best think of a venture that can be started part-time. Or put the other way round, run your venture fulltime but continue to work in a part-time job or one offering shifts, weekends, evening or night work (call centres, night receptionist, restaurant or bar work etc).

- No office, premises etc? No problem. Start something you can run from home (disceetly if necessary). As a consultant/expert in whatever sphere you choose, you can workd from home and meet clients at their offices or over a coffee or lunch. If you need a meeting room, display area etc these can be hired by hour or day as required. If you are selling by mail order or via the internet, stock can be kept in your garage or storage space rented as and when necessary.

- No money to buy special equipment? My first ventures involved my trusty portable typewriter and my parents' telephone. Not a lot has changed today, as we moved to fax machine, telephone answering machine, voicemail, internet, computer, smart phone etc

- Portfolio working - a description invented by Professor Charles Handy, to describe working in a mix of roles - full or part-time exployment, short/long term contracts, changing roles or even your profession several times over a working lifetime.

- Be prepared to change - I have stayed more or less in the role of consultant, writer, university professor; but a friend and colleague gave up his role as a university lecturer in London and California to open a small organic BandB hotel in the south of France, and writing about wine, and advising on wine marketing for local producers.

- Working in retirement - entirely possible in many professions (consultants in almost any sector, writers, artists, photographers etc) that do not involve heavy manual skills that may become difficult with age.

- Contiue to expand your skills base through study (part time, online), attending seminars and conferences, part-time degree courses etc.

- Make your business portable - By offering your professional skills described above, in theory you can enjoy working from anywhere, from your home or country cottage, or any beach in in the world from Corfu to California.'Have laptop, can travel' should be your motto.

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

The 'sharing economy' can mean savings as well as making you feel good

According to research in France by finance group Confidis, average saving of 495 euros per year can be made - over 600 euros if you are in the age 20 group to 34 and use more services.

Over 90% of the population have used at least one service over a period of 12 months - such as travelling in a shared vehicle, selling something on-line or booking an apartment through AirBnB.

Some 87% of of those interviewed said their main motivation was saving money, 76% wanted to earn money and 41% admitted 'they felt good'.

There are now nearly 300 platforms offering shared services on the internet and a report by PriceWaterhouse predicts that the market will triple by 2018.

France is second only to America in the numbers already accessing the 'sharing economy' - l'économie collaborative. 

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Taking your home with you when you move

This post is inspired by an an Amercian TV series currently being shown on French television* about buying, transporting and renovating timber based affordable homes which can be sited wherever you want.

Much of the action shown takes place around Forth Worth (Texas) and features a series of entrepreneurs - a young couple husband and wife team, two sisters of a certain age, and a fearsome grandfather working solo - who buy up decrepit wooden homes sold at auction (sight unseen, buyers were not allowed inside until after purchase) and rarely costing $200 and often much less.

The secret is that the properties are large enough to include one or two bedrooms - but are transportable using a wide-load trailer and benefiting from the areas major highways. The journeys are generally around 50 miles, with an obligatory police escort, and in only one case it was found necessary to saw the building in two (it was T-shaped) and transport it in two loads. Average cost of transport including a police escort was around $5,000.

Back at base the entrepreneur(s) then proceed to convert and renovate the wooden structure, paying particularly attention to the floor and foundations, the ceilings and roof, plumbing and electrics etc - but rarely spending more than $10,000 to transform the property into a desirable small home.

On completion the wooden home is then sold agan at auction, for prices averaging around $20,000 and occasionally reaching $30,000 or more for a particularly large or attractive model. Buyers than were faced with the cost of further transporting the property to their own site and placing it onto the necessary concrete foundations, and connecting to the main services. As a result they ended up owning a desirable new property for a fraction of the normal costs of a bricks-and-mortar version on an estate.

A colleague who spoke to me about this type of housing solution said it was common in some parts of Australia for owners of this type of property to transport it by wide-loader to where they wished to move , enabling them to continue living in their existing home in which they had already invested.

It should go without saying that politicians and planners should be bold enough to permit alternatives such as those shown in the American programme. Note finally that the average $30,000 to $45,000 cost is about one-tenth of the prices being quoted for the British 'garden villages' recently announced by the Conservative government.

* French channel 6ter (22) Sundays from 11.00am 'Rénovation impossible'

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French national and local press in decline

Like many other countries France too is witnessing a decline in circulation of both its national and regional newspapers - for many of the same reasons and some that are special to France.

One of the peculiarities of the French press is that there is no single, dominant national newspaper - even the best known Le Figaro and Le Monde plus the daily sports paper L'Equipe above 300,000, and Libération trails behind with just over 100,000 copies daily.

Another anomaly is that some of the major regional dailies have large circulations - La Voix de Nord (Nord, Pas de Calais); Sud-Ouest (Charentes, Dordogne etc) - for example have circulations over 1 million. In my own region L'Indépendant (Aude, P;O.) has a typically average circulation of less than 250,000.

These regional dailies have managed to hang on thanks to an elderly, conservative readership, and/or by championing local causes such as the shutdown of an important factory or industry.

Competition of course has come from the usual sources - radio (40+ radio stations), television (100+ channels plus cable and satellite services. And more recently online internet versions - perfectly adequate for a rapid overview, followed by the new generation of smartphones which can be read on the way to or from work on the Metro or the London Underground, where any photo will show nine out of ten computers glued to their smartphones.......

The print media had lost much of their advertising revenue to TV and online services, where advertising can be created that is noisier, flashier and subject to rapid change. There may be a glimmer of rejection as the younger generations grow up and start to question the relevance of a consumerist society in favour of a gentler, more caring model.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Home-working and its contribution to the environment...

Two recent events have highlighted - and it is to be hoped changed the minds of governments and citizens - about the need to encourage more homeworking as a part- or full-time option. The two events are of course the serious air pollution in Paris and some other French cities, and disruption of the London Underground and commuter rail networks.

In Paris and other French cities, the levels of air pollution have led to bans on inner city driving (alternative days for odd and even numbered vehicles), speed restrictions and other controls such as banning older vehicles (already operated in Paris) and on diesel powered vehicles. Meanwhile there is a serious 'flu epidemic with hospitals reporting crisis conditions and the concelling of many scheduled operations.

The sight of literally millions of commuters trying to reach their jobs in Central London was sad to behold - mile long traffic jams, near riot conditions to get on to a bus or the occasional comuuter train or Underground service, and literally hours spent getting from into and from work.

Much of the pain could be alleviated and many lives improved if more people were allowed/prepared to work from home, fulfilling remotely the tasks performed on a comuter that could be done at home and do not require daily travel to the office. In an earlier post (see below) I looked at the rise in (temporary) office sharing and concluded from the evidence that daily physical contact with one co-workers was not necessary.

Nor is it the case that home-working necessarily means retiring to the countryside and 'dropping out' of society (as we said in the 1960s). I have worked at/from home all my life, long before the invention of the computer,  as a writer/consultant/visting lecturer in both Paris and Central London . My clients were generally local (walking distance from home) or involved a journey out of town - travelling in the opposite direction to the commuters pouring into the capital. I gave up my car in Central London due to high parking fees and the hours wasted trying to find a designated residents' parking space. My salvation was the opening of a national car rental company in the basement garage of where I lived and the luxury of a new, clean car whenever I needed one. Over a twelve month period the costs were much lower than owning.

Two other life-changers were the opening of Euruostar service to Bussels (from Waterloo, walking distance from my home), after years of uncertain ferries, hovercrraft and airline trips; and the arrival of the mobile phone which became my travelling office, together with any hotel lobby near to the Berlaymont Building, home of the European Commission.

Central Paris is a more manageable size, with most meetings within walking distance of my home or using the efficient Metro/RER services and French Rail for out-of-town visits using the TGV services which are much lower priced than in Britain - even in first class. Comparatively few Central Paris dwellers own a car, which tended to be use only at weekends to drive to the (usully inherited) country cottage/second home. Now there are organised car pools and journey-sharing websites and - suprisingly late compare with Britain - a growing networdk of long-distance bus services.

Finally, communication and the internet have revolutionised the way we work. Even in the seventies and eighties the only 'on-line' information service I used was Dialog, based in Palo-Alto  (California) which required a keyboard send/receive terminal connected to a special phone line, which put me in touch with a library of citations. Search results  had then to be ordered and sent in printed form by post from the USA!

Given the enormous advances in online commications, which are continuing, and the availability of sources such as Wikipedia, there is no reasonswhy many more of us should not be working from home!

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Driving in France - where to fill up?

Curiously, although the number of cars on the road in France has doubled, the number of filling stations to serve them has dropped from 14,700 in 1975 to 11,270 in 2016 - and reducing as more independant garages are forced to close due to low margins on petrol and diesel sales, and - I suspect - the rise in lease/purchase deals on new cars offered by the manufactueres which include service and maintenance.

Particularly hard hit are car owners searching for a filling station in town - try filling-up in central Paris or any other large/medium sized city? - and remote villages where the local garage has closed due to lack of business or retirement of its owner.

Some small communes have started offering a solution by establishing and operating a 'community filling station' including provision for hybrid/electric vehicles, which is owned by the mairie. Car owners in some cases have had to drive 20 kms or further just to fill-up and make sure they always had a full tank.

Filling stations are owned either by the petrol companies or retail chains, more or less in esual proportion. While charging points for hybrid/electric vehicles are owned by a range of opeators including EDF and other operators. Sme are attached to existing filling stations, others are independant, though total numbers are difficult to estimate but some put the figure as high as 10,000 (outlets? individual charging points?), but what is clear is that this market is growing - rapidly.

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Friday, January 6, 2017

Boom in temporary work-space rentals for small business start-ups

Start-up business from solo operators to small groups of partners are often faced with the dilemma of where they can work together during the all important  try-out period without eating into scarce funds needed to launch the new enterprise.

One solution may be to rent temporary offices or a workspace - from a single desk and chair through to meeting rooms, conference facilities, showroom, and catering services - now widely available through a network of operators and offered for a period of a single day upwards.

Among the largest operators in Europe are OfficeRiders (short term renters are known in France as 'riders') offering a wide selection of sites from Paris to Montpellier in the south. Another operator - Spaceshop London - is also expanding into Europe, along with (the largest?) American group Heywork USA.

Work-spaces can be hired from an average 15 to 20 euros per person per day and even solo operators may find they enjoy the opportunity of working and sharing ideas with other small business start-ups.

If you own a suitable property and have some spare space you might wish to consider contacting one of the operators who take care of marketing, taking bookings and collecting payments, and doubtless a commission.

An article about the Swedish model 'Hoffice' and links to a number of operators appears today on the website.

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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

French shopping centres still popular - but for how much longer?

I last wrote in March 2015 about shopping centres - known as centres commerciaux - which are still flourishing in France, against trends reported in America. The contrast is remarkable but they say that where America leads the rest of the world follows - eventually. At the moment the two countries present a diametrically opposed oicture as the following statistics show.

Taking the USA first, there are an esimated 1 500 'shopping malls' and of these some experts estimate that 15 to 20 per cent, perhaps even one-third, are threatened with closure within ten years or less. The reasons given include online shopping - now accounting for 6% of retail sales and growing at some 8% per year - while Amazon alone has surged ahead with a 28% spurt......

America's giant retailers - J C Penney (1000 stores), Macy's (700) and Sears (600) - have been the stalwart pioneers of the American mall but are among the first to feel the impact of new ways of shopping. And when they decide to pull out of a shopping mall, some 200+ retail outlets can be affected as visitor numbers decline.

American commentators recount how the early shopping malls of the 1950s and 60s fulfilled a social role where you got to together with family and friends, wanted to see and be seen, joined others for coffee or meal, and enjoyed some of the adjacent attractions such as a cinema. It was normal to spend a whole day out.

Not surpisingly France and other European countries caught up with the trend and today - after Russia !) - Franc has the largest number of out-of-town shopping centres, currently numbering 1 200 sites. Leading the Top Ten is the Les Quatre Temps centre near Paris, with 228 shops and 46 million visitors annually, down to number twenty O'Parinord (83) with 210 shops and 12 million visitors.

The development of shopping centres was initially controlled by the loi Roger of 1973 which originally included a number of conditions - environmental, aiding job losses in town centres - which were gradually watered down and currently a further 2 million square mettres are added each year.

The spread continues and even in smallish towns such as my own (Perpignan) where there are centres commerciaux to the north, south and east of the town, with more planned, and dominated by huge retailers such as LeClerc and Auchan. A recent spectacular failure however has been the Centre dell mon built around the new TGV station with 15 shops (all closed) and two large hotels. There is talk of creating more offices or  using it to expand part of the local university. Reasons for the failure included lack of parking spaces, difficult access by a one-way street and the fact that rail passengers simply did not shop in the middle of their journey (many were going south to Barcelona or north to Paris!).

Figures for UK retailing show that Britain has some 46,000 shops lying empty (about 13% of the total), one third of them for longer than 3 years. Numbers of town centre shoppers (known as 'footfall') were 4% down according to recent figures, and out-of-town by 1.6% - both trends blamed on the rise of on-line shopping which now accounts for over 13% of all retail sales.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

'Garden villages' 2

Following my post below about the British government's decision to 'help the housing crisis' by creating a series of 'garden villages' and the various comments in the Guardian and other newspapers - mostly critical - and my story about moveable/transportable wooden houses in America.

A colleague contacted me about a similar situation in Australia where it was quite common for owners wanting to move to another area to buy a plot of land and take with them their existing wooden home, using a transporter. The whole idea is to keep down prices and continue to enjoy the home they have invested with a lot of time and effort, and money.

And going back to the American example shown on a French TV series, just to reiterate that the re-sale prices of refurbished homes are often less than $30 000: even with the cost of further transport to the owner's new site and preparation of the necessary foundations, connection to electricity, water, sewage etc, The price of the entire operation can still be under $45 000 - in marked contrast to the 'average prices' being quoted for the British 'garden villages' which have been estimated at between £250 000 to £450 000!

Among the many adverse comments on the British proposals by those fearing that England, particularly the south-east, could become a giant garden suburb, a contributor writing from Spain notes that his country have managed to get the balance about right. Inner cities are highly developed, with apartments occupied above ground floor shops etc, leaving the countryside free of urban sprawl. He notes that to reach a housing density equivalent to that of Britain, Spain would have to increase its population from 47 million to 200 million.

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Monday, January 2, 2017

'Garden villages' as a housing solution?

This post is prompted by an article in the Guardian about the government's plan to create 14 new 'garden villages' in different areas of England from Cornwall to the north-west (though excluding Scotland and Wales) and build a total of 48,000 new homes. Many of the proposed developments will be on green field sites and away from existing towns and villages.

Among the 800 readers' comments already registered - mostly not in favour of the proposals - many complain about the lack of infrastructure in the plans, and the need for new roads, railway lines, stations, shopping and other facilities, as would-be residents would need to commute to work, shop and enjoy their leisure in the nearest town. 

Writing from France, it is interesting to contrast this proposal with concerns about the decline of many French small towns and villages, as many younger people leave to find work in Paris, Lyon, Toulouse and the other major conurbations, and farmers are leaving the land. As a result many surviving villages are left without shops and other basic facilities and are populated by older people and owners of second homes during the high season. 

What many of the Guardian commentators also suggest is that more emphasis should be placed on protecting and preserving town centres, where many properties above offices and shops lie empty, former factories and warehouses could be re-develeoped for housing, and older properties renovated instead of being demolished - offering homes nearer to where the jobs are, and reducing the need for daily commuting from outside town and creating additional problems of traffic congestion (on roads and rail in London) and pollution (Paris).  

The neglect of town centres leads in turn to unoccupied shops and the shift of commerce to the huge out-of-town shopping centres that continue to appear in both Britain and France, even though their decline is well documented in America. 

And talking of the USA reminds me of a very interesting programme on French TV (Channel 22 'Renovation impossible') which documents how  it is possible to purchase for less than  $1000 a rundown wooden house, which is then transported by road for around a further $5000 to the desired site and renovated for an average $15,000 and is ready for re-occupation - a new home for under $30,000. Most of the properties shown are large enough to provide a living area with open-plan kitchen, one to two bedrooms, and a bathroom/WC. Sold at auction they attract mainly young married couples just starting out or elderly couples looking to downsize in retirement.

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