Bookkeeping, accounting and generally knowing your numbers are a fairly important part of working for yourself, be it in France or elsewhere. However, when you move to foreign climbs you have to grant the experts around you a certain degree of flexibility and trust, as you acclimatise yourself to the way they do things.
For me, this is not an easy step to take; I’ve often been accused of cynicism when it comes to certain professions – like private dentistry, for instance. I’m always asking myself: why on earth would a dentist say that your teeth are in perfect health when a filling or extraction would earn him three times as much as a regular check-up?
I had to trust my French insurance broker as he was the expert, but experience has taught me to be sceptical of people selling insurance, with catchy little phrases like “you might get hit by a bus tomorrow”, “your home could get repossessed” or “you may never be able to work again”.
What little trust I had in my insurance dealer started to decline when I realised that, after only two years into our assurance d’habitation policy, our premiums had doubled. I suspected he wasn’t being entirely honest, but not completely understanding the policy’s small print or knowing how to say in French “I think you’re ripping me off”, I let it slide.
My unquestioning malleability is probably why this particular insurance man felt it was worth trying to steal €600 from me, an escapade in which he actually succeeded … for a time. Had I been a confrontational, argumentative type, he would have given it a second thought.
His little scheme was based upon “a simple misunderstanding” in the way I wrote the number one (1) on the cheque I filled out as annual payment. If I’d been brought up in the French education system, I’d have known to compose the capital letter A without its cross-piece – the accepted way of writing the number “1” in France.
To scrawl a “1” with a short downward top serif (as it appears in most typefaces) can be construed by the French as a seven, especially when cashing a cheque is concerned.
It would seem that the increase in my household insurance premium was voluntary, due to the ambiguous way I scribble the number “1”.
Logically, the reason you write out in words the amount that corresponds to the figure you are making the cheque out for is to ensure people don’t try to commit fraud.
I guess the bank where my broker cashed the cheque didn’t get that memo.
I’ve seen the number “1” written in various ways in France and so the capital A is not wholly universal. There is no doubt in my mind that my insurance guy simply saw an opportunity, knowing that if he was caught could plead innocence using this “A” argument.
While I may be cynical, I’m not the vindictive type. When I finally discovered his dishonesty, some six months later, I took a threatening posture until my cash was returned and then I let it laisse tomber. I’m still kicking myself because I let him get away with attempted fraud. I suspect, though, that I’m not the only expat to have been held victim to a French chancer, and simply put it down to cultural differences.
The moral of the story: trust no one when it comes to money matters. Learn French as quickly as you can and don’t let your good manners stand in the way of a confrontation – the French don’t hesitate to talk to you this way, nor do they take it personally. Let it be known you’re not a pushover, otherwise you’ll be easy pickings and out of pocket.
Barth Hulley lives in Strasbourg. His recent book, Freelance in France 2015, offers practical advice on working for yourself in France. See www.freelanceinfrance.fr