George Bernard Shaw once said that “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”. In France he doesn’t even need to open his mouth. Forget the French demonstrating in Brittany. The coldest welcome when you move to France will be from the Englishman next door, who will hate you on sight.
“Some Englishwoman has just moved into our street,” a friend of mine told me recently. “She came to introduce herself and say hello. Of course I immediately loathed her.” Another family I know complained that their new neighbours are from Sunderland. “Why on earth would we want to live next door to people from Sunderland?” they asked me. “Because you can understand what they’re saying,” I was tempted to reply.
I find this the strangest thing about our life in France. The Brits that are here don’t want any more Brits to join them. This despite the fact that most of them, according to the French I talk to, make no efforts to socialise with the locals. “I would say that 90% of them don’t speak French and don’t integrate,” says a policeman I met in the Dordogne.
This antipathy towards other Brits has haunted me since we moved here. If I had a pound for every time someone has said to me: “Oooh, I hope you’re not going to do a Peter Mayle on us and bring lots of Brits to the region,” I’d be as rich as he is. After I wrote a column which described the region I live in I had hate mail from a woman living here saying she had been here for 10 years but had the good sense to keep the place secret. Hello? The South of France a secret? I don’t think so.
Anything that is seen to encourage the Brits to move to France is frowned upon by other Brits. In fact anything remotely British is despised. There is to be an English grocery store in our local town. “We think it’s terrible,” says one Brit living here. “A totally retrograde step. We didn’t come here to eat baked beans.”
Maybe not, but this total denial of one’s culture seems a bit forced to me. Rather like a Londoner moving to Cornwall, picking up the local accent and refusing to speak to his townie friends. I have an inexplicable addiction to most things English, so am delighted at the news of the grocery store. No longer will I have to harass visitors to bring stocks of oatcakes and Horlicks with them. In fact, I can now stop inviting people to stay.
Another thing that you will find if you move here is that if you go to a restaurant and there are other English people there, they will continue their lunch in hushed whispers once they’ve realised you also come from Blighty. I asked a friend of mine why this is. “I didn’t move to France to be surrounded by English people,” she said. “Another table of English ruins my lunch.” If avoiding Brits was your reason for moving to France then you picked the wrong country. Go to eastern Germany. There are no Brits there. In fact I’m not sure there are even many Germans there.
I think the fundamental cause for this antipathy is that when people move to France they can reinvent themselves. Here they can be whoever they want to be, because the French have no idea how to pinpoint their background and education from the way they speak. They don’t want to be pigeonholed. Back to George Bernard Shaw.
But this Utopian dream of a little French paradise where you are totally removed from the outside world is no longer achievable, unless you go way into la France Profonde. And why is it so desirable? Would you really want to spend the rest of your days eating nothing but French food and trying to crack jokes with French neighbours who find your accent and sense of humour incomprehensible?
The good news is that despite press reports of anti-Brit feeling, the French still seem to like us. “I love the English coming here,” says Guy de Saint Victor, a wine marketing executive based in the Languedoc. “They revitalise our villages, do up all our old houses and buy lots of Languedoc wine.” Another local resident agrees. “We French are far too insular,” he says. “I think it’s good all these foreigners are coming, they make us more open minded and receptive to change. And now that there is an English grocery store opening, it will be possible to have a decent cup of tea this side of the Channel.”
The key to a successful life in France is, as I have often said, learning the language. An unforeseen bonus to speaking French is that when your new English neighbours turn up on your doorstep, you can pretend to be from Brittany.
French tax haven?
There is a simple savings structure in France called Assurance Vie which entitles you to leave your money, tax free, to whomever you wish. This means you can not only save huge amounts of tax but also avoid the stringent inheritance laws here. “This is particularly useful for foreigners who have retired here,” says Stephen Langton, Montpellier Partner of Blevins Franks International. “If you name the beneficiaries of the Assurance Vie, then in the event of your death, each of them will be entitled to €152,000 free of French inheritance tax. However, if you set up the Assurance Vie before becoming a French resident there is no limit to the amount beneficiaries can inherit tax free.”
Under the proposals contained in the latest France/UK Double Tax Treaty, if a British national sets up the Assurance Vie outside France, in Luxembourg for example, then the assets invested within it will be free of French wealth tax for five years.
Blevins Franks, firstname.lastname@example.org , Tel: 020 7336 1116.
“Everyone I ask seems to have a different answer,” writes a reader from Brighton. “How much should I budget for the notaire’s fees when buying a house in France?” You should expect to pay around 6.5% in notaire’s fees on properties over five years old which will include taxes. Out of the 6.5% the notaire’s fee is actually only 0.825%, the rest is taxes and land search fees. If the property is less than five years old then the French VAT of 19.6% is payable and the notaire’s fees are reduced. If your property is less than €16,700 then the percentage of notaire’s fees will be higher.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019