The Brits and the French have been sparring intermittently for the past 1,000 years. So far no one has managed to land the killer blow. In fact in recent years there has been a dangerous outbreak of entente cordiale, at least off the rugby pitch.
Hostilities have now been resumed in the Aude, the only twist being that this time it is between two British camps. John and Faith Dyson bought a retirement home in a small village near Toulouse in 2004. They had only eight months to enjoy their French idyll before the house next door was bought by a couple of Brits. The new neighbours, the Dunlops, announced their arrival by immediately objecting to the fact that the Dyson’s overlooked them. In addition, that they had access through their driveway to their front door.
You’d think they might have thought about that before they signed the compromis de vente, but they didn’t. The two couples have been fighting about it ever since, if not a hundred year war at least a decade long one. It started with the Dunlops putting a sign up saying ‘You have no right to look’. Look at what I wonder? It rather reminds me of sitting next to someone at a dinner party who tells me they are terrified of speaking to me incase it ends up in the papers. ‘As if anything you would say could possibly be of any interest to anyone,’ I am always tempted to respond.
Then the Dunlops parked their van in front of the Dyson’s door, thus forcing them to use a side entrance. The denouement came when the Dunlops built a wall across the front of the Dyson’s house, plunging it into darkness. In a particular French twist to the tale, the villagers have now got involved in the dispute.
Unlike rural England where everyone would hide behind their net curtains, around 100 of the 258 villagers marched on the house and tore down a barricade that had been erected by the Dunlops to obscure the Dyson’s view. Although I guess the other 158 are still sitting on what is left of the fence?
On the whole British expats moving to France don’t run into these sorts of disputes. France is such a big country (more than twice the size of the UK but with the same population) that people tend to be a little more relaxed about a square foot of land that may or may not be a right of way or an oleander twig touching your car.
We moved to rural France in 2000 and so far things have worked out well, although we do live in the middle of nowhere. Even so, I can’t say we have been left totally alone. For example just a few months ago the post office informed us they would no longer deliver letters to us unless we installed a letterbox at the bottom of the drive, which sent us into a slight panic. But these are minor irritations compared with what might have transpired living as we did between a pub and car park in Sussex. Every day there seems to be some hideous story about someone plotting to murder their neighbour or at least chop down his Leylandii.
In France, however, the Dysons are in a minority. I haven’t come across another saga like it, which is why it is in the papers I suppose. First of all you are unlikely to have the misfortune of another Brit moving in next door. Secondly, you would hope to leave these sorts of petty arguments behind you when you cross the channel.
You can of course run into dreadful people wherever you live, but the sorts of dangers though that lurk in France are more to do with the powerful system of government than individually pesky neighbours.
I know of one couple who moved to their dream house in the Languedoc region of France only to find the council had the right to take away more than a quarter of their garden and build a housing estate on it and the adjoining field. They have now sold up and are back in the UK. This kind of thing is terrifying enough in a country where you’re familiar with the laws and the language. Try dealing with a land dispute in rural France where the local town or village council is all-powerful and everyone speaks incredibly quickly, often with thick local accents. I do, however, blame the people who sold my friends their house. This issue was mooted at the time and they swore blind that the council would never use its right to build. They were not canny French peasants as one might expect, but another foreign couple whom my friends trusted implicitly, in part because there is a kind of camaraderie between expats there. Clearly up to a point.
The fight between the Dunlops and the Dysons is an anomaly. This is not what usually happens when you move to rural France to get away from it all. Most of the time you really do end up living the dream. Obviously you can get unlucky, but you could get unlucky anywhere. I still marvel at the walks around us, the starlit nights and the cicadas drowning out the sound of the children arguing.
Chances are you will be fine in France. Unless of course you happen to end up next door to another Brit. In which case you might think about selling up immediately.