Man from the Ministry


The Men from the Ministry


This story might be slightly apocryphal, but it is mainly true.

If you live in a rural community in Aquitaine and you hear the drone of a low flying aircraft or a helicopter, you look up and take notice with some apprehension.

No the Channel Islands are not launching an invasion; your suspicions are that it might be the men from the Ministry. The French Government are known to use ‘eye in the sky’ observation to spy on their citizens and residents; not voyeurism you understand, just good clean tax.

I have a friend who lives in a very remote farm and grows herbs and a few animals on a small scale. He is legally a resident farmer. His smallholding is in an obscure valley far from any highway. It is located at the very end of a convoluted access of about a mile, consisting of the odd boulder, large potholes, a broken bridge, overhanging trees and rickety barbed wire gates. I have an aged Mercedes and I am reluctant to approach this eyrie in the old girl, usually I go in my equally elderly, but more robust Van. So you know that if some persons appear in a shiny new car and alight, wearing city suits and porting briefcases, something is afoot. They are certainly not paying for their own tyres.

Accosting the bemused owner they ask if he is the patron of the establishment. He reluctantly agrees that he is, seeing no other alternative, considering that no one else lives within two miles. The Men from the Ministry acquaint him with the fact that they wish to discuss his tax returns; there is a frisson in the air that something fiscal is amiss.

They seat themselves in his dishevelled porch amid the detritus of a working farm, looking somewhat incongruous in their city slicker attire. Briefcases are ominously placed on the rude farm table. There is an air of menace in those brief cases.

“You seem to have failed to declare your herd of cows” the senior investigator opines.

“Well” says the patron “That is because I don’t have any”. The senior investigator nodded to his companion, who unlatched and slowly opened his briefcase. The companion withdrew a shiny A4 photograph; it was an aerial view of one of the patron’s fields.  It was like being caught ‘in fragrant delictoi’ by a private eye with a telephoto lens, but as a result of far less pleasure. There plain, for all to see were 4 cows munching happily in the patron’s meadow.

The unhappy English owner argued that they were his neighbour’s cows which had broken down his fence and strayed on to his land, gobbling up valuable pasture. He was more sinned against that sinning. The stony hearts of the fiscal inquisitors however were barely scratched. They had heard that one before.

However having reached an impasse and seeing no prospect of an immediate confession, they muttered darkly about interrogating the neighbour. Visions of racks, branding irons and hot coals passed through the imagination of our hapless patron. They would be back to this subject, with more evidence! But in the meantime ‘Why had he not declared his herd of sheep’

“I don’t have a herd of sheep” he wailed. Again, the same nod, the menacing briefcase once again opened and another spy satellite image appeared. This time of three sheep on another of the Patron’s fields.

He had to agree that they were his animals. Why then had he culpably failed to report them to the authorities as part of his farming activities? “They are not farming activities, they are pets”.

If the explanation concerning the cows had provoked stoic cynicism, this story engendered a level of professional incredulity bordering upon scarcely restrained governmental apoplexy. French functionnaires have a very brittle dignity, it is unwise to provoke it; otherwise they will unleash all of the powers that an unwise state has placed in their hands.

An icy silence developed, despite the barmy airs in the valley. Fingers drummed on the table and the stares suggested that the ‘Men in Black’ were under the impression that our friendly patron was undertaking the Gallic equivalent of ‘Taking the Mick’.

Realising that he was rapidly loosing the situation, our friendly proprietor got up from his chair, walked across to the edge of the farm veranda, put two fingers in his mouth and gave out a piecing whistle. For a few minutes nothing happened.

Then came a clatter of hooves from down the hill path. Three sheep rushed up to the Veranda, past the startled functionnaires and into the farmhouse kitchen where they settled themselves in front of the AGA. “Pets” he said.

The functionnaires were last seen with their city suit trousers rolled up, in the Polly Tunnels, carefully counting 10,000 plants and checking them against ‘Market receipts’, sure that there was a fiddle here somewhere.

Other neighbours have received augmented tax demands when the swimming pool cunningly hidden behind the barn, was revealed by an unmanned drone or helicopter. Many Expats have received TV licence demands when their Sky antenna has featured in overpass photos. Though, that is no longer a problem as the TV licence fee has been tacked on to the Community charge; apparently the Government does not believe that you can exist in France without a TV.

The sale of camouflage nets and stripy paint has rocketed all over the Dordogne. The Expat Home Guard has inaugurated a community warning system. At the first sound of a droning light aircraft, cell phones across Aquitaine start to ring. Dust sheets are quickly draped over unregistered (and untaxed) English Cars. Grass coloured pool covers are quickly deployed and pseudo pigeon boxes dropped over satellite dishes. The population then hunkers down until the aerial incursion has passed.

The Aquitaine Expat Home Guard and the Dordogne Community Watch have amalgamated their defensive capabilities. They meet every 5th Sunday of the month at Tortonis Café in Eymet, to discuss further protective strategies with a Pernod or two.

(c) John Hulbert 2007

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