The English invasion of France continues, but where we once wanted holiday homes, now we seek work. It does not make us popular with the nativesby Tim King / January 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
As tourists in France we are welcome, as housebuyers we are accepted, but as competitors for work we are seen by the French as a threat‚ and if they think we are taking hospital beds or scrounging their social security benefits, we become a pest. With more and more English people buying properties in France, the French attitude towards English residents is changing—for the worse.
There have always been isolated complaints: on radio phone-ins, notorious ranting-grounds, or “Brits Out” daubed on estate agents’ walls. But the new invasion is now a regular subject of French dinner-party conversation, and my presence at the table doesn’t inhibit frank comments. When close friends angrily complain that they can’t get into any of their favourite restaurants, turned away by the babble of my fellow countrymen, clearly something serious is happening. In fact, two things are changing, and both are about the kind of English person now moving into France.
Previous waves of housebuyers were fuelled by people either retiring or withdrawing—perhaps to write or to achieve some inexpensive self-sufficiency. The English buying now are younger, with families, and they need to work. In a country of high unemployment, this is not appreciated. The second difference is that many new arrivals have little interest in the French or French ways and are criticised for their unwillingness to integrate. At school their children don’t mix, their parents run local shops, stocking them with Marmite and mint sauce, and worst of all, many speak no French. Indeed, some are becoming intolerant of their hosts: my French uncle, professor of English literature and lifelong lover of Glyndebourne and the Chelsea flower show, recently announced in tones of deepest despair that he may be blackballed from his local gardening club: an expat cabal has proposed it should be for English members only, no natives allowed.
People arriving with an English mindset inevitably come into conflict with the French, especially over work. Strolling through a sun-dappled French market, you might assume it’s an amiable world where anyone can set up a stall and sell vegetables. You’d be wrong. To take money from the French you have to be registered with the revenue and social security. My brother-in-law, a contrôleur du travail, tells of an English woman who saw a lucrative niche selling antiques from her home. Neighbours alerted the police, who informed her she must register as a trader. To have an income, she was going to have to sit a bookkeeping course (in French) and pay self-employment charges and VAT in advance.
He also tells of an Englishman who recently bought a lake well stocked with carp. He installed some caravans and rents them out to anglers. It is, of course, open to all, but advertises in Britain and charges British prices. His neighbours grumble that this bit of France is now Brits-only. Most of the time the resentment remains passive, but the events in a Breton hamlet show what can happen when things turn sour: in 2004 a South African woman moved into the hamlet with two children and two ponies. Ignoring the traditional local fêtes, she twice set up her own gymkhanas. On the morning of the first she discovered one of her ponies had been killed with a slaughterhouse stunning tool. When she tried again, her second pony was slit open from throat to tail. No one has been charged with the killings, which some claim were linked with protests against a project by British residents for a luxury residential golf club. Libération says “she is considered an emmerdeuse,” implying it was partly her own fault. An extreme, untypical example certainly, but Libération feels it represents something.
It is unfortunate that this new wave of English buyers should arrive at a time when some French—particularly those who voted “no” in May’s European referendum—feel threatened by outsiders. This might matter less if France and Britain were on the same side of the economic fence. But they are not, and as the French lose their edge in Europe, they feel increasingly at daggers drawn with Blair’s Britain. For the French look across the channel not with envy but rancour. Unemployment? Budget deficit? Nothing to do with the French social model not working, quite the reverse: it’s the English system, with its callous disregard for the less able, which has failed. The proof? There are now “whole families of English,” according to Le Monde de l’Education, “socialement fragilisé in their own country,” coming to France “to find a roof and a more favourable system of social and medical protection… They arrive with enough cash to keep going for a year or two, then very quickly the problem of getting a job arises. More and more are signing on for unemployment and other bottom-rung benefits.” Thus the more English flee sinking Albion, the more the French feel justified in clinging to their eternal values—farm subsidies, statism and unsackable workers. If the English want France to reform, they should stay in England.