Building A House In Provence, Part III

So I married a Frenchman and I’m living in Paris. OK, so he’s not a prince and we don’t live in a castle, but we do live in a country covered with them. Everything is sunshine and roses, right? Wrong. Life can’t be perfect anywhere and as much as I love France I have found a few dark clouds here. When I married a Frenchman I never dreamed I would have to worry about the laws of France. Someone told me that I should have checked all of this out before buying any property in France. They were right, but I didn’t. I just thought it would all mostly be like buying property in the States. Napoleon dreamt up a set of laws that are now known as the Napoleonic Code. I vaguely remember reading about Napoleon and how he unified France and took thousands of different laws and made one big group of laws for the whole country to be run by. This sounds good on the surface until you, as a naive American, find out what happens when you purchase property in France. Basically, here’s what takes place: the interests of the children, parents, siblings and cousins all come before a spouse, if the other spouse should happen to die. And if you should happen to be the second wife, forget it – you are really out of luck. We made an appointment to talk with a French lawyer to see if there was any way to “get around” these laws, as we weren’t experts in the French legal system. Maybe there was something we could do so I felt better about the possibility of living in my house at the end of my years knowing it would go to Maurice’s children when I went to that Vineyard in the Sky, so to speak. I don’t mind if they get the house. I mind that I can’t decide who will get my house nor sell anything in it without their sharing in the profit. We were led to a hot, oven-like room where I spent the whole time dying to open a window for a little relief. Our lawyer turned out to be a woman. She was young and slim wearing a rather boring black business suit without the usual scarf thrown on to make it stylish. She wore no make-up but had beautiful black eyes and as she sat there talking in French that sent me into a comatose state–the French and the heat of the room were narcotic like to me–I began to think she looked like the star of Amelie, a French movie we had recently seen about a young woman whose life is spent helping others find happiness. The resemblance to Amelie ended with just the looks, however. As Maurice started translating some of the points she was making I could see that she wasn’t going to be helping me find any happiness. As I sat in front of “Amelie” and Maurice told me what she was saying it became clear that the house we were building together, financed in part with my money, would never be completely mine. Smiling benevolently, she informed me that although the house wouldn’t be completely mine if Maurice should happen to die that I would be entitled to 50 per cent and a small portion of the other 50 per cent. His children, there are two, get the rest. We are also talking about the contents of the house. This means that if Maurice, God forbid, should die before me that I wouldn’t be free to sell the house, or any of the contents of the house, without sharing the money with Maurice’s relatives. My children would also be entitled to the same percentage of Maurice’s half, but they are in America and would probably not even try to get their share. I’m sure this is not the case with any French relatives. I blew up and said to the woman lawyer, “Does France hate women?” She just looked mildly surprised and said, “It protects the children and the family.” I said, “But this is so anti-woman!” She didn’t agree. I think people in France have come to look at this code as their right. They don’t want to change it, as they might not get that house that belongs to poor Aunt Yvette or whoever. It was pointed out to me that if Maurice should die, I will have the right to live in my house as long as I wanted. Well, wow, that makes me feel better. We gripe a lot about things in America, but at least we have the option of leaving our property to our favorite charity, or our dog, if we choose to. Ah, democracy. It may have started in France, but I think America did a better job with it. Linda Mathieu, formerly from Austin, Texas, is a professional journalist and photographer. Owner of Paris Photo Tours, she delights in taking tourists around Paris, showing them her favorite views and photo ops. She is currently at work on a book of her photography with a light-hearted look at Paris.
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