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France’s Pull Factors

When people decide to emigrate there are usually a number of interconnecting reasons dictating the planned move. Recent research suggests that these can be simplistically split into ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. The push factors are the reasons for wanting to leave a country; the pull factors are those that attract you to a specific country, almost like a magnet. Personally, I think it is highly debatable whether you can neatly divide the factors in this way. If, for example, the weather (wet and windy) in the U.K. is a push factor then it is also surely the case that the (sunny) weather in Southern France is a pull factor?

Nevertheless, it is not hard to see what the common factors are which push people away from Britain. Clients arriving at Papillon Properties’s head office near Civray in early 2005 have offered me the following reasons for wanting to quit the U.K.
• Cold, damp climate
• Traffic congestion
• Poor public transport
• Failing schools
• Failing health service
• Lack of sense of community
• Exorbitant house prices
• High cost of living
• Overpopulation
• Government’s desire to align itself with USA, rather than Europe
• Materialistic society
• Lack of time for ‘family life’

Quite a diverse range of reasons, then! It’s well worth analysing France’s ability to satisfy some of these grumbles; in other words, can a rural area – such as Poitou Charentes where we are based – provide the pull factors to counteract the social and cultural problems which have made people want to leave the U.K.?

Climate: The U.K. is officially the windiest place in Europe. If a warmer, milder, drier climate is what you are looking for then it makes little sense searching for a new life/home in Northern France. Regions such as Normandy and Brittany have similar climates to Britain and, while summer temperatures may be a couple of degrees higher, Brittany receives more rainfall than many parts of the U.K. Drawing a line at the Loire valley and looking exclusively south of this is a good starting point, always bearing in mind that the central core of a large land mass such as France will suffer from colder weather.
It actually rains just as much in Provence as it does in Paris or London, but the rainfall arrives in dramatic bursts and, as anyone who watches the Météo weather forecasts will tell you, the extreme South East of France and Corsica are usually the hottest regions. 300 plus days a year of sunshine is normal on the Cote d’Azur. The Poitou Charentes region is officially France’s second sunniest and while we certainly do experience cold snaps, the spring arrives early and the autumnal sunshine lingers longer than in Britain. Even on a cold January day, the skies are often azure blue.

Traffic: It would be unfair and meaningless to compare Urban Britain with Rural France when it comes to road traffic. However, even rural areas in South East Britain are now clogged up with traffic and one of the first things visitors notice in la France Profonde is the lack of cars on the road and the sense of open space. People rediscover the pleasures of driving along country roads and if this feeling of having ‘room to breathe’ is a key factor then it is worth noting down which French regions are the least populated. Auvergne, Bourgogne, Champagne-Ardenne, Limousin, Midi-Pyrénées and Poitou Charentes all have less than 65 people per km2, a figure unheard of in England.
Public Transport: the train network in Britain – since privatisation – has been a disgrace, we all know that. In contrast, the French high speed TGV network is superb. It is fast, efficient and can take you from Poitiers, in the north of our region, to Paris in less than 80 minutes. However, if you are going to live in a small market town or village, there will probably be no public transport whatsoever. Mobile shops will deliver to your door but it is vital to appreciate the absolute necessity of owning a car.

Education: The public education system in Britain doesn’t work, independent research has told us that, time after time. However, private education in Britain is so expensive that it is simply not an option for most people. In France, private schools are not expensive but they sometimes cater for children who have not fitted in, for a variety of reasons, to mainstream education. Non-private schools in France, particularly at primary level, are far more academic and concentrate on a narrower range of subjects. One factor to bear in mind is that some smaller rural schools are beginning to shut or merge and it fairly safe to assume that the sort of single class school portrayed in the popular documentary film Etre et Avoir will probably cease to exist in the near future. (These closures are based on concerns for quality of education and health and safety issues, not financial problems.)

Health: The French public health system has been heralded as the best in the world by the World Health Organisation but parts of rural France are a long way from hospitals, particularly those with accident and emergency departments. Some older house hunters, in particular, may want to investigate the distances involved before choosing the location/s of their search.

Community: There are lots of myths about French rural communities. One extreme has argued that all house buyers from the U.K. will be greeted by every local with open arms, while another suggests that French people tend to be ‘distant’ and suspicious of outsiders. It is best to avoid generalisations, of course, but it is certainly the case that one’s chances of becoming part of a vibrant, welcoming community will depend largely on your willingness to integrate, particularly through an ability to speak reasonable French. Most locals do not speak English – why should they? – and you will need to develop, at the very least, a basic level of linguistic understanding if you want to avoid living exclusively in an ex-pat ‘community’.
In my experience, most local French people welcome a good chat and collective moan over a few drinks, putting the world to rights. I find it far more fun than discussing the latest DIY projects with people who you may have nothing in common with apart from shared nationality. Having a mixture of French and British friends strikes a healthy balance.

House Prices: these have risen steadily throughout rural France with annual increases of between 12 and 18% typical in many regions. Of course you still get far better value for money over here and land is relatively cheap if you wish, for example, to build your own property. However, outdated relocation programmes give people unrealistic expectations; there are very few fully renovated houses in our region for less than 150,000 euros and I, personally, would argue that cheaper house prices should be seen as a very welcome bonus, not as the prime reason for moving to France.

Politics & Employment: Political leaders are rarely popular. Chirac, like Blair, receives plenty of negative press and it is important to note – if you will be actively searching for work – that unemployment in France is relatively high, double that of the U.K. Nor will it be easy to find a job within a French company. They would far rather employ a native speaker, unsurprisingly. It is, generally speaking, easier to set up your own business than work for a French company.

Cost of Living: it is a mistake to expect the cost of living to be dramatically lower in France. The equivalent of council tax is much lower, whereas taxation on salary can be far higher. The cost of day-to-day living is fairly similar in terms of supermarket food prices, unleaded petrol, cleaning products etc. Restaurants and wine are, mercifully, much cheaper. Most people in rural France are not interested in ‘keeping up with the Jones’. You will discover a far less materialistic society.

Europe: one of the first things you realise when you live here – particularly if you watch French television – is how European France now is. It isn’t simply the Euro factor. The music on the radio, the news coverage, the shared terrestrial television channel (Arte is both French and German) etc., all help to make France seem very European and Britain, conversely, like a culturally isolated island. There is a strong anti-American feeling or undercurrent among older people despite – ironically – the ever-growing interest in US films, pop music and fast food amongst the young. Whereas Britain shares a language with America, you sense that the French consider their own language to be an important cultural barrier separating them from the US.

Time: there are many cultural differences between Britain and (rural) France, but perhaps none is bigger than the ‘time factor’. The image of an apple tart being methodically yet artistically wrapped for a customer in the boulangerie, while a long queue forms behind, is a cliché but is also a truism, a reflection of the slower pace of life. No one appears to be in a hurry, people stop to chat in the street, crowded market place or even in their vehicles on the country roads. Many shops and smaller supermarkets have long lunch breaks and erratic opening hours. Some British people find this mañana culture initially irritating but to me it is part of the charm of rural France. Life in general, and food in particular, is to be savoured not hurried.

It is certainly true that French rural life is changing and evolving, but it still offers an attractive antidote to the rushed madness of modern urban living: virtually empty country roads, unspoilt countryside, sleepy stone-built villages, stunning Romanesque architecture, a summer backdrop of sunflower fields, atmospheric open-air markets, excellent fresh regional cuisine and wonderful wine…

We all understand the ‘push’ factors of overcrowded Britain. Is rural France the answer? Well, only you can answer that. If the ‘pull’ factors of France attract you then come over and re/discover la vie tranquille.

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Rodney Marshall
October 2005
www.papillon-properties.com

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