Taxing Times

This post, Taxing Times, by Catherine Higginson caught my attention today. On this site dedicated to helping foreigners in France (like me) adjust to life here, she compare the benefits of high taxation in France to her home country.

She’s British, I’m American, so our comparisons are different, but she makes some excellent points regarding the benefits France offers with regard to healthcare and education in relation to higher taxation.

I don’t agree with all aspects of France’s social system, but my brief reply was to agree with Catherine: France may tax its citizens higher than some countries, including my own native home, but France’s citizens also have the comfort of knowing they will be taken care of health-wise and their children will receive free education (or a less expensive private education). This, I champion.

As an US resident, I was opposed to a social system; and while I don’t say I’m completely in favor of it now, living in France has opened my eyes to some of the issues, and some real benefits.

As of yet, I have not had opportunity to take advantage of free healthcare or education. I pay full price for my healthcare here in France and my son is in private school. But I can tell you that even at full price, I pay 1/4 for both healthcare and private education here in France compared to what I paid in the US. My point, even as a person who is not completely benefitting from the social system and yet paying higher taxes, I still feel I’m getting a benefit. If I were still living in the States, I would be paying taxes, plus insurance premiums, plus private education expenses. In France, I’m paying higher taxes, but paying much, much less for healthcare and private education. And I’m not paying medical insurance premiums.

So, maybe it’s a wash, at least for me.

Here are a few examples:

In the States it may cost (generally) $120 a month for health insurance (my portion, employer paying half or more). With insurance, it would cost me $20-$30 dollars to see a doctor and $60/month for some regular medications I take. In France, I have no insurance premium to pay, and I pay €23 (about $30 US) to see a doctor, and €16/month (about $20 US) for medication. Wow. That’s a big savings.

In the States, my son’s private school cost almost $10,000/year. In France, he’s attending an excellent private school for €1,100/year (about $1,400 US). And if he were in public school, it would be free.

Ok, taxes are significantly higher in France. Without doing all the math, at best I’m coming out ahead. At worst, it’s a wash.

What about quality? My experience so far has been that France’s healthcare providers are very knowledgable. In fact, I’ve been impressed. I’ve learned some things about my own conditions that were never told to me by a US doctor. I’ve taken some over-the-counter meds that worked far better than anything I had tried in the US. And I’ve never waited more than 15 minutes to see a doctor or get an x-ray (and the results of the x-ray were ready next day). I should also mention that going to a pharmacy here is almost like going to a doctor. Pharmacies here (unlike grocery stores) are well-staffed and the personnel are very knowledgable and helpful. Tell them your symptoms and they’ll offer you relief, as long as it doesn’t require a prescription, of course.

As far as the private school my son is attending, well, I can’t say enough about the high quality and the progressive and proactive philosophy of the school. Every student is required to have an iPad. Teachers send them notes to their iPad to reference in class and some of the textbooks are on iPad rather than hardcopy. I love it, and so does he. The students take notes on their iPads and then can share their class notes easily. Teachers encourage this. It helps them all have a better understanding of the material.

My purpose is not to say that one country offers better than another. They’re different. Our choices are different. Our experiences are different.

And our differences are what make us interesting.

Thanks to Catherine for that great post. See Catherine’s blog.



Moving A Child to France 2: School

I made the first inquiry in March about how to get my son enrolled in high school in France. They told me to call back the end of August.

They weren’t kidding. August 30 is when everything opened back up after the summer holidays, and school started just a few days later. So I thought a visit to the school, a few papers, and within a few days he’s ready to go to French school.

No, I didn’t really think that. This is Southern France.

During August the entire country (I exaggerate only slightly) is on holiday and nearly everything that resembles administration of any kind is closed. With school only a few weeks away, I was surprised and frustrated that I could not find one person available to answer questions about where to start–until Aug. 30. And then there was an exam to be taken to determine his level. The exam was scheduled for Sept. 14. School started Sept. 5.

Yep. Thats about how it goes here. I mean why should I expect that he would start school on the first day? much less in the first week? Because after the exam, then they have to find a school. Oh, yes. It’s not as simple as going to the local high school.

On the day he took the exam, the examiner told me to local high school was full. We’d have to find another in a town somewhere close, hopefully. This was from the man who runs CASNAV, and organization with the goal of helping children newly arrived in France get adjusted, settled and enrolled in school.

You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. But I was ahead of the game. While waiting for the exam, I had been working to get him into a private school.

I’m happy to report that he was accepted to an excellent school, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Education in France is free, including universities; of course, private schools are not. Because France has this mentality of education for all, even private schools here, or at least the one’s I’ve seen, are relatively inexpensive compared to private education in the States. 110€ per month for tuition, and another 93€ per month for him to eat everyday in the canteen. I don’t think I could feed him at home for the cost of tuition and lunch at the school.

I’m not sure if the public school would have required different paperwork, but I think this is standard: vaccinations, proof of residence in France, and liability insurance.

All students in France need liability insurance in case something happens to another student as a result of some action, like another kid trips in the aisle over your kid’s foot. Bizarre, I know. But it was only 13€ for a year, so I didn’t even groan.

And so, he boards the bus every morning at 7 and gets off the bus every evening at 7. Schools in France have longer days than American schools, but more and longer holidays. School usually starts around 8 am and end around 5 pm, except on Wednesdays, when most schools close at noon. There are lots of breaks in the day because classes seem to work more like an American university with regards to their schedules. On Thursday mornings he has a 2-hour break, so that’s when he takes private French lessons.

He had one year of basic French in the States. Not enough, but at least it was an introduction. If we hadn’t worked out a certain type of arrangement with the school, he probably would have had to start back a year or two, at least until he picked up the language. He’s doing ok in physics and math, but the philosophy may as well be taught in Greek. He doesn’t understand a word. But then again, he says the French students in the class don’t understand a word of it either. English is, of course, is easiest subject, and I think they like having an American in the class. It enhances the other kids’ English studies.

So in the end it worked out better than expected. And Friday night he spent his first night out with his new friends. They threw him a birthday party.


Moving a child to France 1: No Visa

It’s been three months (at least) since I posted on the saga of trying to get my teenaged son to France. It’s been a busy three months, but I wanted to continue to share this “interesting” process of bringing a minor into the country to live with HIS MOTHER!

To recap, the French Consulate in Washington DC would not give him a Visa because I, his mother, live in France. If I did not live here, he could get a student Visa to come live with a stranger and go to school. OFII offered Family Regroupment, but I’m not yet eligible until December to apply and then it could take a year for an answer. They told me to get the student Visa (back to DC). In short, we spent months going in circles. An international lawyer from Marseille advised us to bring him over on his passport. She said they can’t expel him from France because he is a minor.

So that’s what we did. Finding no proper paperwork solution available, we bought him a ticket and he arrived this summer.

First, I would like to say that once he arrived, all of the frustrations disappeared, for the most part. He is here, and that’s all that matters now. I’ve seen my son three times in the past year. He was living with his father in the U.S. and planning to finish high school there. But circumstances caused a change in that plan and he’s going to finish school here in France, and live with me.

Second, I would like to break from the saga (I’ll continue in the next post) of getting him here, and write about what it’s like to leave a child behind in another country. I’ve avoided this topic, because it’s too painful.

I married a Frenchman, and without going into details now about the reasons why, besides the obvious, I moved here. My kids, both teens and at a stage when they were rarely around, urged me to move to France. They thought it would be good for me after some very difficult years. And of course, they knew I was in love with this charming Frenchman and they saw that he absolutely adored me. For a long time I resisted, for many reasons, but in January 2011, my kids both looked at me one night and said, “Mom, just go.” To be honest, I was miserable, and I think I was making them miserable, as much as I was trying to make a good life as a single mom for the first time in 20 years. I was divorced.

And so, I quit my wonderful job as a faculty member at the university, and I headed to France. I was married in May 2011. The kids came for six weeks that summer and then went back to the States to finish school. I went to the U.S. for a few weeks in January 2012, my son came to France for a few weeks in March, and my daughter spent an entire month in France this last May, 2012. So, I’ve seen them fairly frequently, and they’ve had the wonderful opportunity to spend a good deal of time in France.

But if you’re a mother, you can imagine what it’s like not to see them on a daily basis. We Skype, thanks to the magic of the Internet. But it’s not the same. As happy as I was to be with my new husband and as much as I love France, my heart breaks everyday that I am not with my kids.

My daughter graduated from high school. She’s living and working in D.C. and plans to start school there soon. This is a normal breaking process, I’m aware. And so, with her, it’s different. I’m experiencing the usual “empty nest” emotions. Things could have very well been the opposite: she could have moved to France to study and I may have seen her less in the past year than I have.

But with my son, who is now 17, it’s different. He still needs his mom. And no, I’m not being sappy. He’s admitted the same. He’s missed me. There are still many reasons why a 16-year-old boy needs a mom around.

This is a very difficult post for me to write, because there’s a great deal of guilt associated with my decision to move to France. Did I do the right thing? I still don’t know the answer, but I’ve stopped asking the question. Life throws curves, and we deal with them the best we can. Maybe in years to come, when I look back on these years, I’ll know the answer. I’m hoping that we’ll find these were difficult years, but worth it.

And so, we’ve had a wonderful summer together. He loves France, too. He says it’s like living in a post card everyday. He appreciates the beauty of Camargue. And he’s staying. He’s decided to finish school here.

He started school in France last week. His start date was a few weeks behind everyone else because of the school saga (next post), but he’s installed and loving it!

I don’t usually write such personal posts, but as one of the topics in my blog is moving and living in France, it seemed only right that I should share this part of my experience. I’ve met many people in person and online who are strangers here, like me. We all have different stories and circumstances. But I’ve learned that behind the joys of living abroad, there are often some sacrifices and hardships that we endure.

So, what’s next? I’m still not sure what comes next. I still don’t know what I need to do as far as paperwork goes. I’ll probably have to work with that international lawyer to keep my son here. But he’s here. And I’m one very happy mom.

I’m having this good sensation that it’s all going to work out and be worth it.