France - The Tax Collector
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
IN a certain sense an Englishman's home is a caravanserai, whilst a Frenchman's is a closely fortified castle, tradition here being completely at fault. This reflection has often crossed my mind when spending week after week in French country houses. Under an English roof the visitor would be one of an uninterrupted succession, not only every spare bedchamber being occupied during the holiday season, but daily luncheons, garden parties, picnics, and other social entertainments making time and money fly !
Partly because our neighbours object to unnecessary outlay, partly because they object still more to anything in the way of household disorganization or interference with routine, an average country house over the water is a veritable fortress, drawbridge and portcullis only yielding to the " open sesame " of blood relationship.
By virtue of propinquity, however, two or three individuals are permitted within the charmed circle ; the first is the village priest, the second is the juge de paix, the third is the percepteur, or collector of revenue, or, as we should say, the tax gatherer.
Before sketching my old acquaintance, M. le Percepteur R, let me say a few words about his office.
The collector of revenue thus called was created by Napoleon when first consul. Fiscal resources had not been successfully administered during the successive régimes of the two assemblies, the Convention and the Directoire. So thoroughly had the legislators of the Revolution reformed abuses that, as Mignet tells us, the national resources quadrupled within a few years. But what with European and civil wars, internal administration suffered neglect. In many regions taxes had remained in arrears for consider-able periods. The municipal authorities superseding the hated Intendants of the ancien régime, charged also with the levying of troops, were unable satisfactorily to carry out both duties. Herein, in a great measure, writes M. Rambaud (" Civilization Française "), is to be discerned the genesis of the Terror. The law as it stood could not legally punish negligent or hostile functionaries. The représentants en mission, or legislative emissaries, named by the Convention in order to remedy such a state of things, were veritable dictators, sending recalcitrants to the guillotine with short shrift. That charming story-teller Charles Nodier, in his " Souvenirs de la Revolution," describes from personal recollection an emissary of this kind, the terrible St. Just.
Napoleon's scheme was somewhat modified, and the existing arrangement is as follows : to each canton or group of communes a percepteur is named by the Minister of Finance, the nominee being obliged to produce a certain sum of money as guarantee. The Percepteur collects what are called contributions directes, the assessing of such taxes being in the hands of contrôleurs, or inspectors, by whom assessments are lodged with the local mayors, the mayors in their turn passing them on to the percepteurs each January. All moneys are paid to the Receveur, or paymaster of the arrondissement, an administrative division ; the Receveur again hands on the amount to the Tresorier, or treasurer of the department. Finally, the year's revenue finds its way into the State coffers. Contributions directes, i.e. direct taxation, comprise land tax and house duty, taxes on property and on patentes, or licences. Contributions indirectes, i.e. indirect taxation, comprise stamp duties, excise, duties on tobacco, matches, traffic, etc. Octroi, or duties on produce, are levied by municipalities.
The poor-law is non-existent in France. Ratepayers are not mulcted a sou for the maintenance of the sick and aged poor, or the indigent generally.
The first-named charges, or contributions directes, fall upon all rents above £20 in Paris and £8 in the provinces. Windows are still taxed, but in 1831 the rate was lowered in order that workmen at home and in factories should not suffer from want of light and air.
The relative proportion of State and municipal taxation is gathered from the following figures supplied by a friend. Of 119 francs paid in all, 64 and a fraction go to the budget, and 54 and a fraction to the town. Up till the year 1877 a much-hated official called garnissaire, or bailiff, could instal himself in the house of a defaulting taxpayer and there claim bed and board till all arrears were forth-coming. With the general increase of well-being and instruction, the function became a sinecure. Nowadays taxes are rapidly and easily collected from one end of France to the other.
As the Percepteur's emoluments depend upon his venue, the post is often extremely lucrative, in large centres representing a thousand a year. The tax gatherer of a canton, on the other hand, will perhaps receive no more than £8o annually. It certainly seems somewhat inconsistent that the dispensation of justice should be less remunerated than the collection of revenue, the juge de paix, as I have before shown, never enjoying but the most modest stipend.
Farm-houses and rural dwellings often lie wide apart. The Percepteur's domicile cannot lie within easy reach of all his creditors ; like Mahomet, he will be obliged to go to the mountain. In other words, the tax gatherer, as was the case with his hated predecessor of the anacien régime, from time to time makes a round, and is apparently ever welcome as the flowers in May.
I always knew when M. le Percepteur R----. was expected by Burgundian friends with whom I formerly used to spend autumn holidays. Bustle is never a word suited to French methods. Among our sensible neighbours it is never a question of The devil catch the hind-most." Folks daily rest on their oars. But if " a man of wealth is dubbed a man of worth," may not be a dictum universally accepted, the handling of national money-bags ever imparts unusual dignity. The worthy Percepteur was fêted as if, like Sully, he was followed by wheelbarrows piled high with gold.
All day long my hostess and her old cook would be up to their ears in business. Forest, field, and stream were laid under contribution in his honour. Oysters and other delicacies were ordered from the neighbouring town. Choicest wines and liqueurs were brought from the cellar. And, of course, the incomparable, ineffable dish before mentioned---
" Beast of chase or fowl or game In pasty built,"
crowned the feast.
Portly, jovial, middle-aged, and a bachelor, M. le Percepteur was excellent company. In French phrase, he bore the cost of conversation. Fiscalities and rural affairs formed the staple of talk, subjects of never-waning interest to the wine-growers and notaries present, and not without instruction for outsiders.
Montaigne, who ever wrote like a nonagenarian, some-where dwells in his delightfully jog-trot, ambling way on the profit to be gained from men no matter their calling, if you listen to them on that calling. And if during the past twenty-five "ears I have attained some knowledge of French life and character, it is not from books at all, but from following Montaigne's rule, from listening to French-men and Frenchwomen on their own avocations.
M. le Percepteur, after the manner of bachelors, coddled himself a bit, and before his departure begged a favour of me. He was in the habit of taking tea for the furtherance of digestion, and good tea in country places was unattainable. Would I be so amiable as to procure him some really first-rate Souchong ?
Of course I was only too delighted to fulfil the commission, a poor return for indebtedness of other kind.