I went to the dentist. I go regularly and have not needed anything major done for years. How I wish I had not even had that thought to tempt the fates. As I squirmed with imagined pain in the plastic lounger chair the dentist snapped on his latex gloves, poked around and said: "You need an inlay, you need some root canal work, there's a cavity under a crown and on the tooth behind it." He drew breath and added: "We'll have to kill a nerve and you may also need a bone graft." So much for regular check-ups. He attempted a joke: "I'll have to see you a few times; perhaps you should take out membership." I tried to laugh but all that came out was a half-strangled gurgling sound. He took his fingers out of my mouth and summoned me to look at the x-rays on his computer. I slid off the clammy plastic. He waved a pointy instrument at the screen: "Look, we have problems here a cavity here and this region here is giving you pain, non?" I made another gurgling sound.
This is going to take months and be very expensive. The dentist explained the inlay has to be handmade and I may have to see a specialist about the root canal work and possible bone graft. It also involves lots of choices, which always throws me because then I have to research everything down to the smallest detail. It has been part of my job for years, now it is a reflex. The dentist says inlays are "very badly reimbursed". This means the French health service will pay very little towards the treatment. He asks if I have a "good mutuelle" (health insurance). I say I think so, but as I'm on the Frenchman's policy and it's arranged through his job I am not certain. He taps at the computer and produces two estimates; I feel like I'm haggling with the plumber again. The first, for a ceramic inlay, is for 440,00 euros (£350) of which the princely sum of 41 euros (£32) will be reimbursed by the health service. The second is for a resin inlay costing 360 euros (£284) of which precisely 0 (£0) is reimbursed. This means the mutuelle is unlikely to pay up anything either. I have no idea how much the bill is going to be for the other work; he didn't say, I didn't ask; but I suspect I am going to need a credit plan. The French health system, known colloquially as the 'Secu' reimburses 70 per cent of what it deems the "official" fee of a particular dental treatment. The problem is dentists can charge up to ten times the official fee, which they consider too low to make a living. I am told that much as the British come to France for medical treatment, the French go to Hungary or Morocco to get their teeth fixed.
I ask the Frenchman what French people do about replacement teeth if they have no health insurance; that means about a third of those on low incomes. He says: "That's the problem. They don't."