Yay me! I've completed this quarter's calculations for paying my French taxes. My process is really very simple and straight-forward, but back in the day, it was quite another story. And I mean way back in the day.
Boys and girls, put your thinking caps on and everyone find your seat. Today's lesson is about French taxes. Eyes in front people. I like the way donna and Kris are paying attention! And look at that: Deborah is already taking notes. Char, Virginia...cameras aside for right now, girls. Note to self: do not let Mandy and my sister sit together in the back next time...settle down, you two! What's that I smell? Garlic? Is Keith here?! What a nice surprise. Okay...let's get started...
Our story begins in the UK in 1696. It seems King William III decided to create a tax dependent upon people's fortunes. An income tax as such met with tremendous opposition from the people as they (get this) were against government intrusion into their private matters and saw it as a threat to their liberty. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. But I digress...
Our good King William, clever boy that he was, introduced the window tax based on his conclusion that the larger, grander mansions had more windows. People that were able to build such grand homes were clearly wealthier and so it was decided that taxes would be levied dependent upon the number of windows in one's home. The tax calculations went something like this: Each house paid a flat-rate tax of 2 shillings per house (£11.12 as of 2011), and a variable tax for the number of windows above ten windows.
France adopted a similar tax in 1798 that lasted until 1926 called, aptly enough, the Doors And Windows Tax. Note: never wanting to be outdone by the British, in France doors were added to the mix.
Since opposition always seems to lead to a search for loopholes, an entirely new type of architecture developed: that of creating false windows. Using the art form of trompe l'oeil (to trick the eye), actual windows were bricked up and or plastered over and a false window painted on the outside wall. The result: the look of more windows and thus higher social status but, voilà! lower taxes.
Of course, one can imagine that stifled air and dim light might have accompanied the positive gains, but there's a give and take in everything, non? Unfortunately, the consequences for the poor were quite dramatic. In poorer neighborhoods, more and more building owners began to seal up the windows of their tenants, depriving them of daylight and air. In many cases, the health consequences were fatal. But someone was saving money somewhere.
Victor Hugo addresses the problem in Les Miserables:
« Mes très chers frères, mes bons amis, il y a en France treize cent vingt mille maisons de paysans qui n'ont que trois ouvertures, dix-huit cent dix-sept mille qui ont deux ouvertures, la porte et une fenêtre, et enfin trois cent quarante-six mille cabanes qui n'ont qu'une ouverture, la porte. Et cela, à cause d'une chose qu'on appelle l'impôt des portes et fenêtres. Mettez-moi de pauvres familles, des vieilles femmes, des petits enfants, dans ces logis-là, et voyez les fièvres et les maladies. Hélas ! Dieu donne l'air aux hommes, la loi le leur vend. »
"My dear brothers, good friends, there are in France 130,020 houses of peasants who have only three openings, 180,017 with two openings, door and window, and finally 346,000 huts with the only opening being the door. And this because of something called the tax on doors and windows. Just put poor families, old women, little children, in those buildings, and behold the fevers and diseases. Alas! God gives air to the men, the law sells it to them. " (Please note: this is an old-style way of expressing numbers and I'm baffled to know the exact translation. If you discover that I'm way off base here, please let us know the correct numbers.)
If you keep a look out for them, you'll see remnants of the trompe l'oeil practice even today. Here are a few from my little 'hood:
Art imitating life...or is it?...
Wanna see that one up close and personal?
Nice job, boys and girls. You made it all the way through. Now chop chop! Get those tax forms in the mail!
Well, at least for those of you in the US. For the rest of you...