A step-by-step guide to becoming a freelancer

Hands typing on laptop

Despite the French government embracing digital technology to reduce the form-filling burden, paperwork is a way of life for those of us residing in this country. Any brush with officialdom still seems to require no end of justificatives, attestations, and lu et approuvé. Even though form filling has moved online, it still has the potential to strike the fear of God into you – especially when your level of French might not be the best and your comprehension of legislation and legalese is non-existent. It is for this reason, and I am not referring to just expats here, that many households across the country hire accountants and lawyers to fill in forms for them. Ignorance, after all, is bliss.

This was one of the things that motivated me to write Freelance in France 2015: to demystify the basics and give the reader a global view of the way the Republic functions, in respect of freelancing, so as to avoid the unnecessary step of paying someone to explain it all to you in simple English. Of course, the difference between knowing how to do something and actually doing it yourself can be vast, according to your level of confidence and experience. Nothing beats having someone there to tell you if you’re doing it right.

A few weeks back I was contacted by a recently-arrived New-Yorkeuse who, on a two-year work visa, wanted to set up in business as a freelance wedding photographer. She had done all the necessary reading and red tape in advance of her arrival but, was stuck at the last hurdle: form filling. With only a rudimentary grasp of French and its legislative vocabulary, she didn’t feel confident enough to get started. Would I be able to help?

Looking past the fact that the last time I’d actually filled in a business declaration form was over ten years ago, I felt the opportunity too good to pass-up, to see behind the log-in screen of France’s business-creation portal www.guichet-entreprises.fr. So it was that we sat down in front of a computer screen and began our journey into the unexplored realms of French digital bureaucracy circa 2016. Along the way we encountered many things that no user-manual could ever prepare you for, nor logically explain; quirks of a system designed to be all things to all people. You have to think of it in much the same as getting used to a new software program – sure, you can read the manual before you even boot it up, but it’ll make more sense, and you’ll learn a lot more and a lot faster by opening it and playing with it until it does what you want it to.

The whole process of setting up her micro-entreprise took approximately half an hour, though this was only because we were well prepared and had all the necessary documents at hand (I’d suggested she bring every single official document in her possession just in case). Without this organisation, the process could have taken days – if not weeks!

So, dear Reporter readers, I am now able to divulge what we learned about how to set up your business in a step-by-step guide; not just here in black and white but also with the help of a video shortly to be made available on www.freelanceinfrance.fr.

Step 1: Do it in French

If you’ve ever copy-pasted any lengthy piece of French into an online translation tool, you’ll already know that the results of machine translation can be far from satisfactory. Although I occasionally use Google Translate to help me understand words or short phrases, I would never use it to make sense of large blocks of legal French text – and neither should you. Why? Because there is no such thing as a true or perfect translation. Google Translate can confuse subjects for objects, ignore objects completely, translate “pas” as “step” (instead of “not”), and translate verbs and nouns verbatim regardless of their context.

So, although you may be tempted to select “English” from that drop-down list at the top of the www.guichet-entreprises.fr screen – don’t do it! Otherwise, you’ll be trying to make sense of some gobbledygook that’s far worse than French legalese.

For example, here’s the very first stage translated according to Google Translate: “To create your business, follow the steps step and incorporate your business creation record.” I think I’ve made my point.

Step 2: Create an account

Click on “Créer mon espace personnel” in the top right hand corner to create an account on the site. You can do this in advance of your actual business creation as it bears no relation to the process – it’s just so you have a secure account area in which to complete the process. Fill out all the fields marked with an asterisk to create your account. Name, address, password etc. and then click “Valider”. Note your password has to have at least one number, one capital, one lower case letter and one symbol in order to be accepted – this is the first annoyance of many! You will need to activate your account by clicking on the email you receive shortly afterwards.

Step 3: Type and location

You’re ready to embark upon the creation of your business, which, according to the site, is a six-stage process. Stage one begins now with you entering the essentials about the business you want to set up. To get started - click on “Créer mon enterprise”. The first screen asks you to specify your type of business and where you intend to do it.

It’s here that you have your one and only opportunity to sign up for the once named “auto-entrepreneur” statute created in 2009 by the Sarkozy government. Be sure to tick the checkbox under “Votre Activité” to benefit from this status. If you don’t check the box you’ll be creating an Entreprise Individuelle, which might end up putting you in an immediate negative cash flow situation – depending upon your trade.

If you check the box you’ll be asked if you want to register under the EIRL statute (Entreprise Individuelle Responsabilité Limitée) which is basically asking if you want to limit your liabilities, however, I have yet to meet anyone who has opted for this relatively new variant of the enterprise individuelle statute. Created in 2012, it was designed to tackle the problem of the personal ruin often experienced as a direct result of business failure. Should your business collapse spectacularly, not losing your home is certainly a major benefit; although, it is widely believed that the rigidity and complexity of the legislation governing EIRL outweigh the benefits – which is why take-up, thus far, has been lacklustre.

Crucially, under EIRL, you are still regarded as a personne physique (a person) – meaning your liability remains unlimited unless there is a clear demarcation between your personal and professional assets and affairs. Under the EURL and SASU statutes, however, you can be considered a personne morale (a professional entity) – meaning you have no personal liability unless you use personal assets as a guarantee.

My advice – don’t bother (check “non”).

Step 4: Define your activity

This is where things get a little difficult. For the purposes of statistics, vested interests and national protectionism, you need to specify your business within the confines of a pre-programmed structure. This is all very well if you intend to pursue a single, easily defined, activity – such as pig farming – but a real pain if your business is less well defined. The screen offers three levels of granularity: domain, sector and activity. The choice you make in one drop-down menu will define what options are available in the next. Once upon a time, this section on the paper form required you to specify a simple five-figure NAF code that corresponded to your chosen activity – which, if you ask me, was actually slightly easier. We had to go through the menus several times to find the best fit, eventually opting for “Capture digital” (which, as it turns out, doesn’t mean digital photography).

Guichet Entreprise activite

Besides statistical usefulness, your choice indicates to INSEE (the national office of statistics) which institutions need to be notified of your activities when you register. Once registered, the appropriate Pension, Social Security and Health Care will contact you to acknowledge your registration and, if relevant, the appropriate trade body or regulator will also get in touch.

Once registered with INSEE, your name and address will be added to a national listing of companies and businesses that can be consulted by any member of the public. Unfortunately, this means you become an immediate target for junk mailing, sales calls and local teenagers looking for work experience.

It cannot be stressed enough, then, that if you choose the wrong or an inappropriate activity, it could make life a little difficult. When I last checked there were some 732 activities to choose from. So choose wisely!

Look out for the next instalment of this step-by-step guide.

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

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