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BREXIT

Brexit stories: ‘We have both had cancer, no French health insurance will cover us now’

Elderly Britons in France diagnosed with serious and life-threatening illness like cancer and Parkinson's are suffering from Brexit uncertainty more than most. The Local's editor Emma Pearson hears some of their heartbreaking accounts.

Brexit stories: 'We have both had cancer, no French health insurance will cover us now'
Illustration photo: AFP
Brenda Henderson first came to France as a student in 1968 – the year the country took to the barricades to protest at injustice. Now in her 70s and seriously ill with Parkinson's, she has retained that fighting spirit and is now engaged in the battle for citizens rights for British people in France after Brexit.
 
From her home in Dordogne, she runs regular coffee mornings for other British people to help them navigate the complex systems for residency and healthcare.
 
She said. “I have heard some heartbreaking stories – the man who spent two years waiting and worrying about his residency and whose wife died suddenly before they got it, a friend who is British but was born in South Africa, another woman who tried to go back to the UK but couldn't get a place at any nursing homes for the care she needs, it's so sad.
 
 
“I suffer from Parkinson's  so I get very tired but I still feel I need to help people. Some don't have very good French so find accessing the system hard, others are put off by the bureaucracy and find the questions very personal and intrusive and of course people are proud and don't want to feel that they're taking handouts from the state.
 
“Ultimately I think it will be financial problems that drive a lot of people back to the UK. Pensioners have already lost a lot because of the fall in the value of the pound and I think we all know people who are barely making ends meet, who don't go out any more. I'm quite proud of how I can budget but it does get exhausting after a while and a lot of people end up very isolated because they can't do things like go out for dinner or go down to the bar for a drink.
 
“I have my citizenship interview next week, so hopefully my residency is sorted, I've been revising a lot of French history and trying to remember the words of the Marseillaise.”
 
Brenda was one of dozens of British people who shared their concerns at an outreach meeting in Dordogne organised by the British Embassy.
 
As the current Brexit date approaches, and with little sign of a deal being made, many who have lives in France for decades are increasingly worried about how they will stay in the country and – a major concern for many – whether their healthcare will continue to be paid for.

Although healthcare is obviously a concern for everyone, it is a particular worry for people who are suffer from serious illnessses – worried that life-saving medication and treatment  could be suddenly halted or become unaffordable, and knowing that with pre-extisting conditions private health insurance is not an option for them.

Francis Towers, also in his 70s and originally from Yorkshire, said: “I have cancer so I need ongoing treatment plus scans and colonoscopies – all expensive stuff.

“My wife Kathleen and I have both had cancer while we've been here so no private health insurance would cover us now.
 
“We got this horrible letter from the NHS, really quite nasty, telling us that we would only have cover for 6 months in the case of a no-deal Brexit although we feel reassured by what we were told at the meeting. We've lived here for half our married lives so we don't want to go back to the UK but we were fearing that we would have to.
 
“We do have a carte de sejour though, we got one a long time ago, well before Brexit. In those days they said you didn't need one, but it was when Kathleen had cancer so we wanted a bit of reassurance about our status and we got one, although we had to go through all sorts of battles and get the French state mediator involved. But thank goodness we did.”
 
In terms of residency, the Towers are among the lucky ones. Time and again people spoke of trying for months to get an appointment for a residency application at their local prefecture, only to be find they were all full.
 
Barbara and Neville Davies said: “We don't have a carte de séjour because we've not been able to get an appointment at the préfecture, for months now it has just been saying that there are no available appointments. Its so frustrating because we have friends in other parts of France who have got their appointments and got their cards without any trouble.
 
“We're both pensioners on the S1 and very worried about healthcare as we both have health conditions,  Neville has cancer that he will need treatment for over the next five years.
 
“We're especially worried because we have been through something similar before when retirees were told they didn't have the right to a carte vitale. We looked into private health insurance then but no-one would cover us because of our pre existing conditions. So although we are reassured by the embassy telling us we will be covered for two years, we know how suddenly these things can be taken away and if you're reliant on ongoing treatment it is very worrying.”
 
The NHS has written to all S1 holders in France telling them that they will only be covered for six months. At the Perigeux meeting, Embassy minister Matthew Lodge said that pensioners in France would have their costs covered for two years as laid down in France's no-deal law, while the British and French authorities try to come to a bilateral agreement.
 
But in a no-deal exit British pensioners will likely have to sign up to the PUMa health scheme which could see them having to shell out contributions, known as social charges from their pensions. Many may not be able to afford them.
 
Gill Sander said: “Although we were reassured by the two year promise – what happens after that? Really it's just more waiting, we've been in limbo for the last three and a half years and now we're just told to wait another two years and hope that things will be worked out after that.
 
“It means we can't plan, we don't know what will happen about family visiting and we have no voice, no one to speak for us.”
 
Her husband Graham added: “For me the biggest sadness is just leaving the EU – to know that the next generation will not have the opportunities that we have had to work, to travel, to study and to make our homes where we want. It's a great sadness.”

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READER QUESTIONS

Why some Brits in France are facing bigger tax bills since Brexit

Over the summer people living in France have received their tax bills, and some Brits who are residents here will have noticed that their bill is larger than usual - here's why.

Why some Brits in France are facing bigger tax bills since Brexit

Brits who live in France and make a tax declaration here, but have income from the UK, may have noticed that their tax bill has increased this year – here’s why and whether you can challenge the increase. 

Brexit

Yes, this is Brexit related and it refers to social charges on non-French income. The standard rate for these charges are 7.5 percent for income from an EU country and 17.2 percent for income from a non-EU country.

The tax bills received over the summer relate to the annual French tax declaration filed in April 2022, covering the 2021 tax year. In other words, the first year after the end of the Brexit transition period.

Social charges

Social charges are levies with a social purpose introduced in France in the 1990s to finance the country’s complex social security system.

If you have a French payslip you will already be familiar with them, and they actually make up the bulk of deductions from salaries, significantly more than income tax.

READ ALSO How to understand your French payslip

One of the big questions is whether France’s social charges are actually a ‘tax’ – the government repeatedly insists they’re not, for all that they look like a tax and are paid like a tax. 

The position on French social charges has changed several times in recent years, sometimes in response to court action all centred on whether this money that government deducts from your income can be called a ‘tax’ or not.

Katey Murray, at The Spectrum IFA Group, explained: “Article 29 of the amended Finance law of 2012 extended social charges to rental income from French properties and capital gains on properties for people who are not French tax resident.

“In 2015, a Dutch national challenged the fact that he was paying social charges in France and social security contributions in the Netherlands. The case went before the ECJ, which ruled these levies were similar to social security contributions and therefore contrary to European law.”

France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil d’Etat, confirmed the ECJ’s ruling. “French tax offices then, if a claim was made to them, reimbursed undue social charges,” Murray said.

“However, the French Government stated that these claims could only be made by someone covered for their healthcare by the system of another European country (EU, EEA or Switzerland) and not someone covered by a non-European health system. 

“This was confirmed by the ECJ for a French national living in China in a case in January 2018.”

Foreigners in France

And it’s this ‘healthcare system’ distinction that has become the key detail for Brits in France, clarified by a court ruling from March 2022 on the details of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. 

Social charges are currently set at 7.5 percent for income from an EU country, or 17.2 percent for income from a non-EU country. So income from the UK jumped to the higher rate at the end of the Brexit transition period.

However the ECJ ruling on healthcare cover is the key bit – essentially if you are already contributing to another European country’s social security system, you benefit from the lower rate.

This mainly affects two groups – Brits living in the UK (and therefore covered by the NHS) who have income in France, and Brits who are living in France and who have an S1, which states that their healthcare costs are covered by the NHS.

S1 holders are mainly British pensioners living in France, but the scheme can also apply to other groups including students and posted workers. 

Brits who are living in France and are covered by the French health system pay the higher rate on income from the UK. 

Technically the 7.5 percent rate is a ‘social levy’ rather than the prélèvements sociaux.

The ‘social levy’ is not charged on pensions, so if you are an S1 holder who receives a British pension, you will not have to pay any social charges at all, while certain types of property income may also be exempt from social charges.

Tax

As we stated above, social charges are not a tax (although they are deducted from your income by the tax office).

Taxes on income from the UK is covered by the bilateral dual-taxation treaty between France and the UK, which states that you don’t have to pay tax in France on income that you have already paid tax on in the UK. 

So the first thing to check on your tax bill is whether deductions relate to impôt (tax) or prélèvements sociaux (social charges).

Challenge your tax bill

So what to do if you think you have been incorrectly charged on income from the UK?

If you are an S1 holder, it’s a case of telling the tax office that you benefit from the lower 7.5 percent social levy, rather than the 17.2 percent social charge.

Murray said: “You can state that you are not subject to social charges by ticking boxes 8SH/8SI on your tax form (2042 form) or, if you have been charged at the higher rate, you can claim them back on your personal page on the impots.gouv.fr website.”

If the over-charge relates to a different issue – for example you have been charged both tax and the social charge or charged on exempt income – your first step is talking to the tax office, either in person or over the phone.

READ ALSO How to challenge your French tax bill

This article is a general overview of the tax rules and is not intended as a substitute for financial advice, if your financial affairs are complicated you are always better off getting professional help from an accountant who specialises in international taxation.

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