An insider's guide to being a Brit in France
The Brits love France. One way or another, whether on holiday, or as permanent ex-pats, there are a lot of us Brits here these days. France has long been a popular holiday destination for the British, with resorts such as St Tropez (Saint Tropez Property Guide) attracting the rich and famous as far back as the 1950s. The sheer natural diversity of the country means that it attracts many different types of sports people (Sport in France), from skiers to surfers, from walkers (Finding property in the best walking areas of France) to motorcyclists (Cycling and motorcycling in France)... and the sunny climate and excellent way of life attracts those who may have little interest in sport, but just want to enjoy the good things in life! Then there is the culture and history that oozes from every pore, and the treasure trove of art and culture that is Paris (Paris Property Guide), perhaps the most romantic city in the world. Who wouldn't want a piece of all this? It's hardly surprising that the Brits love France.
Yes... no... well, to be honest, it's a sort of love-hate thing really. For the most part the French are very accepting and even welcoming, amazingly so when you consider the sheer numbers in which we have come into and sometimes almost taken over their villages, bought up their chateaux, and, to a lesser degree, inflicted our language and culture upon theirs (there are British food sections available in many French supermarkets now, and even fish and chip shops in some parts of France!). It's all OK, as long as we don't beat them at rugby!
Seriously, though, do the French have a problem with the Brits? We haven't come across much of it, hardly any in fact, although I think there are some areas where there is a particularly heavy British presence that has caused a little resentment. Most of the French realise that the influx of Brits is a double edged sword. On the downside, we push up the prices of properties and land (Land for Sale in France), making it impossible in some cases for their young people to purchase property in the way that they might have before the British invasion.
There is a benefit too, however, as a lot of French people prefer to live in the towns and cities, rather than the countryside and the remote villages, with the result that villages were becoming abandoned or sparsely populated, and country properties falling into disrepair. Enter the Brits, who, albeit with a little help from other nations who have a similar predilection for old French properties and lifestyles, and suddenly there is a new life in the French countryside, with sympathetic renovation of the properties (something the Brits are remarkably good at, in most cases!) and an enthusiasm for local wines and produce that buoys up the local economy (House Renovations in France, French properties with vineyards). Our neighbour jokes that France has been invaded twice, once by the Germans and once by the Brits... but it is said in good part. She also feels that the British have qualities that are good for France, and is always telling us how much more neighbourly the English are than the French!
One thing that does upset them however, is those Brits (or anyone else!) who come into France and set up working without declaring their incomes to the authorities. This is because the French pay large social charges and taxes (Tax in France) in order to enjoy the excellent healthcare (Health care in France), pensions and other benefits of the French system. Not only is it galling to see those Brits who "work on the black" benefit from a system into which they make no contribution, but it also means that these illegal workers take many jobs away from those who are registered, as they are able to undercut prices and offer cheaper quotes (Jobs in France).
How long is a piece of string? There are all sorts of Brits here, from all walks of life and with budgets that vary from just off the breadline to the super rich. There are retired people (Retirement in France, Retirement in Perpignan), young families, people who work, people who are looking for work and people who don't want (or need) to work. Most of us, though, are here through choice. That gives us something in common, and it is true to say that we find we really do like the majority of ex-pats that we meet here. We all chose to come to France, as opposed to Spain, Greece, America or Australia. That probably says something about us as people, although I hesitate to speculate exactly what!
To generalise, (although given the diversity of the different regions of France, this is an almost impossible task), what sort of person chooses to live in France? I think we are people who appreciate old values over new, perhaps. We want a more tranquil existence (although for those who choose to live in the centre of Paris this may not apply!) and we want to bring up our children in a society that is a little safer than Britain is fast becoming. France is not a Utopia, but there seems to be less violent crime, particularly away from the cities. We want our children to grow up to appreciate a good wine, but not to take to the streets every weekend to get drunk and disorderly. We are seeking an education where, to quote David Cameron's recent speech at the Tory party conference, the head teacher of every school knows the name of every child (French Education System - Schools in France, French School - experiences of a 14-year-old, .Starting School in France). These things are not yet extinct in Britain, but they are an endangered species.
On a lighter note, we want good wine... and good properties at great prices (Cheap French Property)! Even though the price of property in France is rising fast, it is still cheaper than in the UK by a good margin, and this as a prime factor for choosing to live in or to own holiday property in France. In most cases, even those Brits who move to the north are hoping to find a little more sunshine... a lot more in the case of those Brits who move to the south (Weather in France). Some of us hope to find more snow (Ski Chalets for Sale in France)... some people want to climb mountains, some want to dip their toes in the Med every morning. There are as many reasons as there are people, but I think it is probably fair to say that there is an indefinable common bond.
Given that you accept that there is a common bond of sorts, between Brits who move to live in France, do we all stick together once we get here? I'd love to say no, we are fully integrated into French society and considered as honorary French by the locals, but I would, I am afraid, be lying. This admission, despite the fact that when we made the decision to come here, this was indeed out stated intention. We would not, we vowed, hang out with an ex-pat pack, we would embrace all things French. To some extent we are at last (three years on!) becoming an accepted part of the community, but the steps are small and progress much slower than we had envisaged.
What went wrong? Several things actually. The first, and biggest hurdle to achieving Frenchness, is the language (Learning French, Learning to speak French - Misadventures in a Foreign Tongue). If you have studied it to degree level, are under sixteen or are married to a French person, you will probably be OK. For the rest of us it is an ongoing struggle. It is so difficult, so stressful, to try to speak a language in which you are neither confident nor competent for a prolonged period, that when we have a chance to communicate easily in our native tongue we tend to take it with relief. Thus friendships with other Brits begin, and our efforts to learn French are sabotaged by the ability to slip back into speaking English.
So first there is language, and then there is the common bond of the past. We have probably grown up with similar points of reference in our memories and the chat soon encompasses Marks and Spencer's undies, Yorkshire puddings and school uniforms. These things assume a national identity, something that the French would never understand (nor wish to!) in a million years. The friendships deepen, accelerated by this sense of shared experience. It is a proven fact, I believe, that in a room of 100 strangers, if only two have blonde hair and all the others have dark hair, the two blondes will gravitate towards each other, seeking commonality. Thus it is with Brits who are ex-pats.
There is definitely a community spirit among ex-pats in France, and this can be a comfort at those times when you feel inexplicably a little lost in a strange land, which can happen from time to time even in the midst of an idyllic new life. There are events organised that celebrate our Britishness, and it can be fun to remember our birth heritage, and to share these things with our children who may have little recollection of them There is a restaurant not far from here that hosts British themed evenings from time to time. The restaurant owners are actually Welsh, but to date there has been a Burns night party complete with piper and haggis, a fish and chip supper, an Irish folk music and dance night and a Welsh culinary evening... anyone for Rarebit? We, I have to admit, hold a bonfire party at our home every November the fifth, and almost every Brit we know in the area attends with enthusiasm, donating fireworks, bringing potatoes for baking in the embers of the fire and making treacle toffee. All of this is great fun, and brings us together harmlessly. It can be good to remember the best things about the UK.
At times, though, this can go too far. We are in danger, occasionally, of forgetting why we moved to France in the first place. In our efforts to keep up certain familiar ways, we can find ourselves standing accused of trying to make France like Britain. If we wanted a simpler, less commercialised way of life, why should we complain when the shops are closed on Sundays? If we want our children to grow up in a society that doesn't encourage drunkenness and the pub crawling lifestyle, why do we bemoan the lack of English style pubs in France? If we celebrate France's wonderful culinary heritage and insistence on fresh, locally grown seasonal produce (Buying and cooking French food), why oh why do we try to open English shops to buy ready made meals and sauces, the like of which we eschewed when we actually lived there? Does absence make the heart grow sillier?
Whereabouts, then, in France, do you find this strange species, these British ex-pats? Are they concentrated into a small corner of this vast country we call France, or are they scattered all over and hidden away from view? There are definitely pockets of British ex-pats, most notably, perhaps, in the Dordogne area (Dordogne Property Guide) of the south-west of France (South-west France Property), whose natural beauty and picture book villages have attracted foreign buyers for many years. There are also large ex-patriot communities in the Riviera (French Riviera Property - an insider's guide) and Provençal regions, which hold an obvious attraction for anyone with the money and time to enjoy the enviable climate and lifestyles offered there.
Other popular areas include Brittany (Property for sale in Brittany, Brittany Property Guide), which is both beautiful and accessible from the UK, being situated in the north-west of France, and Poitou-Charentes (Poitou-Charentes Property Guide), which lies slightly to the south-west of central France and suits many who are seeking the rural idyll. The Languedoc (Languedoc-Roussillon Property - an insider's guide, Languedoc Property - Top 10) is also sought out by many Brits who hope (among other things!) to find a much sunnier and warmer climate than they may have endured in the UK! You will also find British ex-pats in the Alps (Rhône-Alpes Property Guide), for obvious reasons, and, of course, in Paris (Paris Arrondissements Property Guide). Burgundy (Burgundy Property Guide) is beloved by many comfortably off retired Brits, and both Burgundy and Bordeaux (Bordeaux Property Guide) are popular with anyone involved in the wine trade.
Aside from these pockets where we tend to congregate, it seems there is hardly a corner of France that has remained completely undiscovered by the Brits. Some regions that in the past have not been considered when searching for property are now gaining in popularity, and these include the Limousin (Limousin Property Guide), where prices are still very reasonable, Normandy (Upper-Normandy Property Guide, Lower-Normandy Property Guide), the Alsace (Alsace Property Guide), and the Midi-Pyrénées (Midi-Pyrénées Property Guide).
I hesitate to offer advice, as I am as guilty as the next ex-pat of making mistakes, of failing to learn the language effectively, of spending too much time speaking English with other ex-pats. If there is advice to be had, however, based on our experiences over the last three years and those of the people we meet, both French and ex-pat, it would probably be first and foremost, to try to learn French. Spend as much time as possible speaking to French people, but don't forget you do need your British friends too. One thing I have learned is that I love this French life, and I am very happy that I made the decision to live here. There is so much that is wonderful about the country, about the way of life, and about the people. I also know, however, that I will always be English under the skin, even on those days when I want to feel French, and I have come to accept this and even to embrace it. I will still be cheering on England when they play France at rugby... although I will cheer for France if they are playing anyone else!
Additional articles which may be of interest:
Sarkozy and French property owners
Life in France
Living in France
Joanna Simm moved to the Languedoc area of south-west France in October 2004 having found her property through French Property Links.
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Bungalow stone Villeneuve / Lot
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