When you buy a holiday home abroad you do it for the sunshine and the peaceful way of life. While Britain seems to be run by gangs of teenage youths, France is a haven. You expect to be able to leave your car in the street without fear of having its tyres slashed, or come back from dinner to find your idyllic home still standing, preferably with all your belongings still in it. So it’s a bit of a shock to discover that La Belle France has its own hooligan element.
We all remember the events in Brittany last year when estate agents were attacked and anti-British slogans daubed on properties. Now it seems the unrest has spread. In the Basque region one British woman came home recently to find a burning tyre stuffed with hay in her house. Another English family received a telephone call from Interpol telling them their ancient stone mill had been totally gutted by an arson attack. Bombs have been detonated at banks and estate agents. Graffiti declaring “the Basque Country is not for sale” is painted on the properties the extremists attack. It is the worst unrest since the 1980s.
Meanwhile in Brittany the attacks continue. In July a couple from Scarborough were woken up in the middle of the night by smoke and fumes and found their car on fire. It was parked outside a restaurant they run in Callac in western Brittany. They found the charred remains of a rag stuffed into the fuel cap.
But it is not just Brits and other foreigners that are being targeted. Events here are reminiscent of the protests in Wales against the English buying holiday homes there. In the Basque region during one week in August over 100 cars that didn’t carry the local 64 number had their tyres slashed. These were mainly cars belonging to French people holidaying there. Cars seem to inspire anger. I have only had two anti-Brit incidents in my seven years there, both involving an English-registered car that a friend with a holiday home lends to me when she’s not here. Admittedly both events involved parking so the reaction I caused could have had more to do with my inability to reverse than my nationality.
Anti-foreigner incidents are not limited to places beginning with B. In a village close to where I live one house remains on the market as the owner has refused point-blank to sell it to a British buyer.
The disappointed buyer is the son of a friend of mine. He was born in France (only a few miles away from the village the house is in) and is married to a Frenchwoman, but is still seen by some as too British to buy a home there. I asked him he’s going to take any action. “Yes, to find another house,” he said.
The locals are fed up with outsiders pushing up house prices. One butcher told me, meat cleaver raised, that I was the reason his children couldn’t afford to live in the region. As is the British habit when faced with rudeness, I meekly apologised, paid for my beef and walked away. “The fault is not mine,” I should have told the meat-cleaver-wielding butcher. “The fault lies with those French people who inflate the prices of their properties when they know the buyer is English.”
I don’t know why Brits in France are always apologising. If someone is rude to me in England I don’t apologise. And I don’t see the French who have colonised South Kensington acting all meek and mild. Since the smoking ban, it’s practically impossible to walk down the road there. They are all crammed onto the pavements feeding their nicotine habit. The handful that isn’t smoking is busy looking the wrong way at zebra crossings; another good way to kill yourself.
While I have always found the locals in the Languedoc where I live extremely welcoming (bar the car park and butcher incidents), I have seen them turn against others. I know some people who are trying to turn a ruined château and the surrounding vineyards into a hotel and a golf course. They are struggling to get planning permission, but as an interim measure have put up an office in the grounds. The other day this was broken into, and all the contents stolen. Unpleasant anti-British slogans were sprayed on the walls.
Worried by this I took a straw poll among my French friends to find out what they think of Brits living here.
“Marvellous,” said Jean-Claude. But then he is a wine maker.
“They don’t bother me,” said Caroline, who is about to move to South Africa.
“They only buy the houses we don’t want anyway,” said Laurent, a businessman.
Sarkozy announced after the latest incidents in the Basque region that he would crack down on the violence. He even visited the region. Let’s hope he doesn’t give the issue the same treatment as his love-handles and just air-brushes it away.
This antipathy towards outsiders does not surprise me. French rural communities are notorious for being impenetrable to anyone who has not lived there all their lives and preferably in the same house as their great-great-grandparents. Consider this quote from Irène Némirovsky’s novel Fire in the Blood about French country life. The narrator is a Frenchman who left his village in Burgundy as a young man and has since returned to a hostile reception. “They use it against anyone who isn’t from the area, or who’s left….They didn’t like me either. I’d abandoned my heritage. I’d preferred other places to where I’d been born. As a result, everything I wished to buy automatically doubled in price; everything I wanted to sell was undervalued. Even in the smallest things I was aware of a malicious intent that was extraordinarily vigilant, always ready to pounce, calculated to make my life unbearable and force me out.”
As a Russian Jew who was deported to Auschwitz in 1942, shortly after she wrote Fire in the Blood, Némirovsky knew all about being unwelcome. But sixty years on it seems the same dislike for outsiders she describes in her book prevails in some parts of France.
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. She writes a beauty blog wwwbeautyorbeast.uk.
Her third novel, The Arnolfini Marriage, based on a romance that evolves around a van Eyck masterpiece came out in 2016. As well as writing regularly for newspapers and magazines, Helena is also working on a thriller called Welcome to Sweden that will be published in spring 2018. Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles is out in hardback and will be out in paperback in January 2018.
Helena was educated at Durham University and lived in the Languedoc region of France for eight years, where the family still have a home. She lives in London 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 January 2018
Welcome to Sweden; Gibson Square spring 2018