The French television and newspapers have been crammed full of statistics recently as France’s post-Millennium population growth and migration figures have been announced, offering people the first opportunity since the late 1990s to read and digest cultural and social shifts. The statistics for our region, Poitou Charentes, make interesting reading, particularly in relation to the property market and UK citizens living in the region. While I half agree with Benjamin Disraeli’s famous comment about ‘statistics, damn statistics and lies’, nevertheless, these recent findings do question or even undermine myths about rural France and the financial impact of Brits emigrating across the Channel.
Perhaps we should start with some of the statistics published in La Nouvelle Republique (17/01/2007):
• The population of the region has increased by 10,000 each year since 1999
• Most of these ‘new inhabitants’ are Parisians, retiring early
• ‘New inhabitants’ chose the region for three main reasons: sunshine, proximity to coastline, and the fast TGV link to Paris (70 minutes from Poitiers)
• The rural population is increasing slightly each year, not dwindling
• Many 20-30 year olds are leaving to work in Paris, Bordeaux or Nantes
• The region is the fifth most popular for people over thirty to migrate (or return) to
• There are 53,000 ‘immigrants’ in the region, 3.1% of the population (national average 8.1%)
• 26% of these immigrants have arrived in the last five years
• Of the UK population in the region, 30% are over sixty, another 25% in their fifties
• 10% of Brits in France live in our region
• 38% of immigrants have become French citizens, but only 5% of Brits have chosen French nationality
Some of these facts are hardly a shock. As in the UK, young people are leaving the countryside to find work (and a more lively social life) in the big cities. However, it is perhaps both surprising and reassuring to know that rather than the popularly held belief that the rural population has been decimated, it is actually increasing. While many small businesses and commerce have disappeared, the villages and hamlets are not becoming miniature ghost towns. In fact, for the first ever time, many French people are now willing to commute, leaving urban conurbations and installing their young families in rural areas, possibly in a bid to escape some of the tensions of modern urban life.
It is a popularly held belief among both French and Brits that it is the latter that were wholly responsible for the explosion of property prices in the past few years. The survey suggests that this is not the case. It is Parisians retiring both to the countryside and regional towns who have had the biggest impact on the house market.
Read in isolation, the fact that 10% of Brits living in France are resident in our region gives the impression that Poitou Charentes is over-run with ex-pats, many of whom have arrived in the last few years. However, when you place that next to the fact that only 3.1% of the population comes from overseas, many of whom are Portuguese people working in Poitiers, Niort, La Rochelle or Angouleme, you realise that we are merely ‘a drop in the ocean’ over here. Unlike the large Portuguese population which resides in France for work purposes, most Brits are here to retire – often early – in order to profit from the region’s sunshine and slower pace of life. While we do impact financially in terms of restaurants, shops etc., there is little influence on the economy in terms of the workplace, i.e. contributing to the system. Perhaps it is partly because of this that so few Brits feel a strong enough bond to wish to change nationality.
In summary, we are not as important as some journalists have suggested in relation to the French economy, nor do we dictate property prices. If we tend to pick up on English-speakers in public spaces it is simply because our ears are tuned for them and most Brits living here have the leisure time to visit markets, restaurants and shopping centres, a luxury many others cannot afford, either time-wise or financially. As Trisha Mason observed in her recent FPN article on the Limousin, it is important that we don’t impact too much on traditional, rural French life, spoiling the almost idyllic life we arrived to seek out and enjoy. The recent statistics suggest we haven’t ruined paradise, and that many French people are seeking out the same Gallic delights as us. I have visited lots of beautiful old houses painstakingly and imaginatively restored by French owners who have migrated here from all over L’Hexagone. They are rightly proud of both their achievements and their adopted region. Long may that continue.