First, it’s a legal requirement that accounting records be in French. The principles also specify not only the names, but also the method of numbering for business accounts. Although this can be a nuisance, it simplifies many of the tax reporting requirements, as the instructions refer to the number of a particular account, making it easy to identify. The initial digit of an account number indicates the type of account, as follows:
1. Capital accounts (shareholder equity);
2. Fixed assets (property, plant and equipment);
3. Stock, including raw materials, work in progress and finished goods;
4 ‘Third party accounts’ ( comptes tiers), which include all outside parties;
5. Bank and other treasury accounts.
7. Sales and other income.
There are three legally required journals: the general journal ( le livre-journal), the inventory journal ( le livre d’inventaire) and the general ledger ( le grand livre).
Businesses qualifying as micro-entreprises are required only to keep a daily listing of receipts (sources and amounts) and expenditures. They aren’t required to maintain a full set of books nor to categorise or summarise transactions by account. At the end of the year, micro-entreprises only need to summarise their revenues and provide a listing of their fixed assets and depreciation for the year. Those businesses with more than € 18,294 in revenue must summarise their revenues, expenditures, debts, property and stocks (inventory) at the year end, but don’t need to prepare formal financial statements.
Registered companies, such as SARLs, EURLs and SASs, must usually file their financial statements with the CCI within 30 days of their annual meeting, which must be held within six months of the close of the fiscal year. The main purpose of the annual meeting is to allow the shareholders to approve the financial results for the year.
Financial statements (referred to collectively as the bilan, although bilan is also the term for a balance sheet) consist of the balance sheet ( bilan), income statement ( comptes de résultat) and accompanying notes ( annexe). The filing for the CCI must also include a report from management, discussing the year’s results and the coming year’s prospects, and extracts from the minutes of the annual meetings, detailing all matters subjected to a vote and documenting the approval of the financial results as presented.
French standards for financial statements vary somewhat from those in English-speaking countries, mostly in the order in which the various components are presented. For example, some French companies present their expenses before their sales figures, and on the balance sheet, capital accounts appear before liabilities. Certain types of company, e.g. SA, SAS and SCA, must appoint an auditor; other types must do so when they reach a certain size (in terms of turnover, assets or number of employees).
There are a number of French accounting programmes, any one of which will produce acceptable financial statements and the supporting journals and ledgers. The advantage of using a package program is that they all come with the standard accounts already set up. Most accounting packages consist of a number of modules, which transfer information and journal entries to the main accounting module.
The most common modules are those for accounting ( comptabilité – usually shortened to compta), payroll ( paye or paie), commercial administration ( gestion commercial or gescom) – a combination of sales, inventory, purchasing and order processing – and fixed assets ( immobiliers). Many software distributors offer bespoke versions for associations, professions libérales or specialised types of businesses, such as those dealing with property rental.
The most popular software packages for small businesses are EBP, Ciel and Sage (in order of increasing cost and complexity). All three of these can usually be found in computer shops and even in the software section of most hypermarkets. Other software packages are available through specialised consultants and system vendors. An online accounting service for small and medium-size companies is provided at www.comptanoo.com.
French accountants ( experts comptable) vary greatly in their expertise, helpfulness and cost. Like notaires, they tend to view their profession as one designed to enforce the letter of the law, rather than to assist their clients. For example, there are very few (if any) accountants in private practice who do ‘write-up’ work for clients. In France, you risk being charged by the invoice if you ask your accountant to do this sort of bookkeeping work for you!
You shouldn’t expect much in the way of tax saving or tax planning assistance from an expert comptable. This is due, in part, to the fact that changes are often made to the current year’s tax law as late as October or November in the year, which makes advance tax planning almost impossible. Bear in mind also that, if your accountant makes a mistake, e.g. in calculating your tax, you must pay the correct amount and he’s under no obligation to compensate you for his error.
Many small businessmen complain bitterly about how expensive their accountants are, and especially how much they charge for miscellaneous tasks, such as determining which account an invoice should be charged to. The chances are an accountant won’t save you money on a day-to-day basis, but they can save you hassle with the tax authorities – if only by having the forms correctly filled out. It can also be an advantage to have accountant-prepared financial statements if you need to obtain a bank loan or credit of any kind.
If you’re producing only financial statements for filing with the CCI, you may not need an accountant, provided you’re capable of producing them yourself. The statements filed aren’t closely reviewed, and minor errors in presentation won’t keep your statements from being registered and filed. In fact, many small businesses don’t bother to file at all, and only run into difficulty when they need to dissolve the business or make some other major change that highlights the fact they have no annual statements on file. (When dissolving a company, the judge can refuse to allow you to shut down until past filings are done. He can also assess a fine, but this rarely happens.) Some vendors review your filed statements when making credit decisions, but if you have a good record of paying bills, that’s far more important than what your balance sheet shows.
Nevertheless, if your financial affairs are anything but simplistic (which is rarely the case – especially in France), you need an accountant – and a good one is worth his weight in gold, so you should seek recommendations (French accountants aren’t allowed to advertise) before ‘signing up’ with a particularly expert.
The usual way to work with an accountant is to maintain your own financial records, preferably using some form of approved financial software. (Spouses are often enlisted to do this sort of thing, and stagiaires or apprentices in commercial studies are also popular and economic ways to get the bookkeeping done.) At year-end, the accounts files are sent or transmitted (most software packages are set up to facilitate this) to the accountant, who transforms the files into financial statements and may or may not complete the various tax declarations ( impôt sur le revenue/la société, taxe professionnelle, TVA, etc.).
French accountants are an excellent source of information on the technicalities of the law, especially tax and accounting law. They may be more knowledgeable than many lawyers when it comes to knowing the various forms of business that are possible, and can advise you about the various social security regimes. Another useful resource is the ‘Club Comptable’ website (www.club-comptable.com), which is designed to enable accountants and businesspeople to exchange information.
This article is an extract from Making a living in France.
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