A report in the Daily Express in November 2006 suggested that, while 1,500 immigrants arrive in the U.K. every day, 1,000 British citizens are leaving on a daily basis. The most popular destinations for the latter are currently Australia, Spain and France. There are no reliable figures for the number of Brits living in France but it is probably in excess of half a million. In other words, approximately 1% of the population is made up of British nationals. However, in view of the fact that the vast majority of these are rural-based, there are many communes in the French countryside where between 5% and 10% of the population is made up of Brits.
‘Enough statistics!’ you might be thinking. My point, though, is that it is unrealistic to arrive in France expecting to uncover an area of the country completely undiscovered by one’s fellow countrymen. If you have been attracted to a particular region or department then it is likely that others have fallen in love with it before you. For over a hundred years people have been crossing the Channel to settle in places as diverse as Nice, Biarritz, Bordeaux and Annecy. Nowadays, every department has some British residents, although you are obviously less likely to bump into fellow Brits in Alsace than Dordogne or Brittany.
My French colleagues do not understand why most British house hunters are anxious to avoid having UK neighbours. After all, they argue, many Brits never learn to speak anything more than basic French so surely having people to chat to freely in one’s own commune is a good thing. French sellers share this belief, happily pointing out to potential buyers where other English-speaking people are living nearby. I explain to French friends that people often arrive with the romantic notion of being adventurers exploring unknown territory. Having a neighbour who reads the Sunday Times or The Sun and can be heard loudly chatting about Tony Blair’s future in the next door garden doesn’t exactly fit into the dream. I can fully understand this and also that people do not want to buy a property in an ‘ex-pat enclave’. However, if you take our hamlet as an example, there are approximately sixty houses, with six full-time British homes. In other words, most neighbours are French but there is a smattering of fellow Brits around. The obvious solution is to make friends with the latter if they are the sort of people you would have socialized with ‘back home’. The same applies to one’s relationship with French residents, not all of whom will be your ideal dinner guests.
Unfortunately, many people refuse to tread this middle path, instead taking one of two extreme, contrasting views. There are those who avoid British people like the plague, even moving table in a restaurant when necessary. They are genuinely annoyed if they bump into anyone from the U.K. in the village street or at the local supermarket. One former client of mine would always leave the local bar if a fellow Brit came in. Then there are people who only communicate with English-speaking residents. I was invited to a Christmas party last year by clients who welcomed over a hundred guests from far and wide, none of whom was French. Another English couple – whose house I had for sale – moved into a friendly village and would hide if French neighbours knocked on the door to invite them around for an aperitif. It was simply fear of the unknown plus their own inadequate language skills, rather than not liking French people.
What do the French themselves make of it all, then? I think the common perception is that most British residents are rich which, comparatively speaking, is true of course. Those foreigners who make an effort to speak French are usually welcomed and many French neighbours are overwhelmingly kind and generous. They are naturally both curious and keen to see the renovation or restoration of neighbouring properties. For every French person who does not like to see Brits move in next door – there are surprisingly few of these – there are plenty of Brits who don’t want you moving in.
In my opinion it is time to accept that if rural France is your idea of paradise – that extra sunshine, lower crime rate, slower pace of life, quiet country roads, attractive countryside and affordable lifestyle – then it is not really much of a price to pay to share it with some other fellow immigrants. Why not simply take it as confirmation that you chose a lovely little spot to move to?