Avoiding The Pitfalls
Recently there has been increased publicity about people returning to the U.K., having failed to settle into full-time life in France. One article suggested that as many as 60% of the people who had relocated across the Channel in the last decade have either gone back to Great Britain, or are seriously contemplating returning. I’m never entirely convinced that these statistics are accurate, although they do make both dramatic headlines for newspaper reporters and shadenfreude-inducing television documentaries! However, a number of reasons have been given for this alleged about-turn, including:
1) problems of integration, including inability to learn French
2) family ties back in the UK, e.g. ageing parents
3) lack of employment possibilities in France
4) failed business, e.g. b & b or gîte complex
6) partner unsettled
7) financial difficulties resulting from property renovations
8) health issues
This list is far from exhaustive, of course, and some of the above may be interconnected. For example, the gîte business may have failed (4) because renovation costs spiraled out of control (7). One’s partner may be unsettled (6) because of a seriously ill relative back in the U.K. (2).
Careful planning and painstaking research can never be full proof; no one can accurately predict when a health problem will rear up its ugly head, for example. However, a lot of the problems which arise with British residents in France can be avoided. When people first contemplate making a permanent move it is vital that everyone in the group feels positive about the idea. This sounds obvious but it never ceases to amaze me how many couples arrive in France because one partner has steamrolled the other into emigrating. It needs to be a joint decision, even if the seed of the idea originated from one partner. Like preparing for an examination or job interview, emigrating requires extensive research. Honesty between everyone about expectations, hopes and fears is the best starting point.
Integration is a complicated subject. Taking French lessons prior to arriving in France is obviously a good idea, if not an essential one. Less reliable are the books or articles offering a stream of stereotypes about rural French people. You cannot categorise French people anymore than British. For example, our two sets of neighbours have contrasting etiquettes when they invite us around. The one family expects us to stay for an aperitif and then depart within the hour. The others are happy for us to remain in situ drinking pastis until standing up itself has become problematic! Treat people as you find them, but assume that you may have to speak exclusively in French.
Don’t expect French companies to be keen to employ you. Unemployment is about 10% and, understandably, most companies would prefer to employ native French speakers. If you need to work in order to survive in France then retraining, for skilled professions, will often be necessary. Setting up your own business may be a viable option but employing people is extremely expensive. Can you offer something which fills a current gap in the market?
This last point applies to gîtes and bed and breakfast establishments. Both markets are now highly competitive and the successful ones offer both good value for money and above average facilities. France was the most popular tourist destination in the world last year with 77 million visitors. They all needed somewhere to sleep but can you offer them a memorable stay? If you can, then you may well be successful; you will certainly have worked hard for your money. As a generalization, b & b businesses involve more red tape (licenses etc) but may be more profitable if you offer quality meals. Gîtes are a more realistic option for couples retiring early, rather than young families. They won’t make you rich, even if some interesting guests may enrich your social life!
If you are worried that you will miss some aspects of life in the U.K. then try to find a viable alternative in France. I knew that I would miss watching live football so immediately tracked down the local league club – Niort – bought a season ticket (30 euros for a year of professional football!) and spread the word among football-loving clients of mine. Two years ago I was the only foreigner ticket holder at the club; now, around twenty ex-pats go to the home games on a regular basis, integrating, enjoying a thoroughly French experience, while filling a social void at the same time.
Many of the UK-owned properties in France which reappear on our books are the result of what I call the ‘super size me’ syndrome. People arrive, are understandably excited by the enormous barns, plots of land etc. for sale for a fraction of the price back home. They chase the dream and if it is a bottomless pit then there is often an unhappy ending. There is no point in coming over the Channel unless you are excited, of course, and there is nothing wrong with buying something completely different from that semi in Pinner or Preston. That’s half the fun, isn’t it? However, half-renovated properties are the hardest to sell, in my experience, so a good dose of reality and common sense will hopefully help your recipe for the good, Gallic life turn into your just desserts: paradise, not pitfalls.