Monday, April 18, 2011

À propos de... season.  Are yours filed? 

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...

...class dismissed.



laura said...

I've been wondering about that! There are lots of false bricked up windows here and I had no clue why they didn't keep them as regular windows!

donna said...

You my dear are a breath of fresh air on a rather sobering day here in the think that i went to years of art history classes without the mere mention that trompe l'oeil window were truly for a purpose others than aesthetics....yes that's me in the front row (i'm highly distractible, and a bit chatty)......i never would have even imagined a window tax!!!!......

Emily said...

A fascinating look at French taxes, Leslie.

la fourchette said...

laura, wonder no more, m'dear! There you have it. Tax Truth and Consequences...never're entirely too young to remember that reference...always happy to see you!

donna, why thank you, m'dear. Yes, I thought that was you in the front...ever the eager student! Really?! Nothing in your art history? C'est bizarre, non? Come to think of it, the French friend who tipped me off to this little practice explained it in hushed tones...perhaps there's some sort of code of ethics around this...ya know...after that little revolution and all...maybe it's still a little tender for our 'liberté, fraternité, egalité' friends.

Emily, thanks. I thought so when I first learned it as well. Of course, it does rather zap the romance from those lovely trompe l'oeil scenes now, doesn't it? The art of tax dodging!

Stop back in tomorrow for the Mardi Meteo and let us know what's happening in the atmosphere chez vous.


Anonymous said...

Well, now that is interesting! I would have never connected the number of windows in a home to a tax (plus doors in France LOL).

I certainly agree with Victor Hugo's interpretation. ( I love Les Miserables, the unabridged version and cried at the end) It seems the poor, old and children are still paying a price in this day and age by being taxed more than the rich. What ever happened to Robin Hood taking from the rich and giving to the poor? So sad!

I would have never thought that trompe l'oeil was used to hide the fact you had windows to avoid paying a tax. Pretty smart thinking. HA

Teacher, I hope you found all of your students paying attention to the school lesson of the day. HA


Boho Farm and Home said...

Oh my!! What an painful glimpse into the selfishness of human nature...Really interesting history, thank you for sharing! I am now going to happily pay my taxes. :)

la fourchette said...

Kris, yeah! Whatever happened to Robin Hood?! {Are you letting your political petticoats show?! ;}

Caroline, ah yes...that 'glimpse' got painted right on the wall, too, as a constant reminder. ouch! Good girl to be paying your taxes 'happily'! Just part of living in a civil society, non?

Thanks to all for pulling a chair up to the table for that little lesson...and yes, I'm an old teacher...wait. Perhaps I should refer to myself as a 'former' teacher at this point in time!


Deborah said...

Excellent! (Luckily - or maybe unluckily, we're still British tax payers.) The French tax that really messes with my head is the annual wealth tax on foreigners, which sounds scarier than it actually is, unless you're a billionaire in Cannes. It's more a "squeeze-a-bit-more-out-of-the foreign-house-owners" tax that requires a room full of papers, calculators, bills, other taxes paid, I could go on...

la fourchette said...

Deborah, "...that requires a room full of papers, calculators, bills, other taxes paid, I could go on..."

This so mirrors my experience for *everything* here...rooms full of papers in triplicate and years and years worth of receipts - also in triplicate! And since I'm not a billionaire in Cannes, the rooms I fill with documents are limited to just a few...and only two windows - so I'm good to go in any system!


Char said...

oh yes, mine is done

la fourchette said...

Char, yay you, too!


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