France vs Spain: Vive la France
Thousands of British homebuyers head to both countries but where is the best place to buy property? Homes own resident experts, our French Mistress, Helena Frith Powell, and Spanish Property Doctor, Mark Stucklin, slug it out
The welcome you get from the locals
Everybody knows the reputation: snooty, arrogant, unfriendly. And that’s just the poodles. The people are thought to be worse, but that’s propaganda, or something exclusive to Paris. Here in the south — where they hate Parisians — we have had an almost universal welcome. The locals have endured us mangling their language and invited us to their parties. The local hunters even showed their appreciation of us by leaving us the leg of a dead pig on the kitchen table last week, bless them.
There’s no denying that French is one of the world’s most difficult languages to master. So tricky, in fact, that many French people don’t learn it properly. However, most of us learn French at school, which gives us some kind of start. Make an effort, and you will discover that the locals are willing to help. Of course, there’s no need to speak Spanish in Spain, because everyone you meet will come from Essex and be trying to sell you a half-built apartment in Malaga. Their English might be hard to understand, though.
Quality of life
This is the main reason people move to France from Britain. There is no doubt it beats Spain in every respect. I mean, who wants to wait until three o’clock for lunch and ten o’clock for dinner? Here in France we eat at midday, like civilised human beings, and we like to have a nap in the afternoon. There is also the question of what you eat and drink. Do you really want to live off paella and tapas? And there are only two vaguely edible cheeses in Spain — manchego and another so bland its name escapes me — compared with more than 300 in France. Spanish wine? Cava versus champagne? No contest. If quality and length of life are what you’re after, look no further than France. It has the best healthcare system in the world; there is no better place to grow to a ripe old age.
Property choice and prices
The good thing about buying in France as opposed to Spain is that once you buy a house, the authorities don’t just come and take it away from you. As for choice of property, I have always thought that Spain looks like it was half-built by a Moroccan in a hurry. In contrast, France has splendid houses and lovely villages. The only region in Spain that I might choose to visit is the Costa Brava. Which has the added advantage of being close to France.
France has everything you could want in terms of climate. If the winter is too cold in Brittany, you can pop down to St Tropez. When it gets too hot in the summer, you can head to the Alps for fresh air and a little hill-walking.
Presence of other Brits
There are lots of Brits in France, but it’s a large country and they are widely dispersed. Most people who move to the country are civilised. They have come to France because they like the way of life, unlike their counterparts in Spain, who are often on the run from the law. Most Brits make an effort to integrate with the locals and don’t hide themselves in golfing ghettos. If you really want to avoid other expats, you just have to choose the right location. Anyway, those you are likely to run into are going to be more interesting than those you will come across on the Costa del Sol.
Travel and access
There are flights back to the UK from most French cities. And they don’t just fly to London but to all over the country. If flying is not your thing, you can take the Eurostar from Lille or Paris. The rail network in France is so good you will be able to get from anywhere to Paris and then home. If you don’t like that idea, there are hovercraft and ferries poised to whizz you back to Blighty. Try getting a boat or a train from Spain, and you’ll be travelling for days.
What to do when you get there
In Spain, the choices are between opening a pub to cater for all the beer-guzzlers around you or becoming an estate agent. In France, the gîte option may no longer be as viable, but there are plenty of other choices. English people here have done everything from opening restaurants and bookshops to running riding holidays. You also have the added advantage of being able to get back to England easily (see travel above), should you need to commute for work.
If you’re stuck, France has a chronic shortage of plumbers; after a spot of retraining, you’ll be coining it. In your spare time, the possibilities are endless. If it’s skiing you’re after, France has the best mountains this side of the Rockies. Spain has second-rate resorts nobody has ever heard of, where it’s unlikely to snow more than a couple of millimetres. You also have the choice of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Okay, so Spain has both, too, but it only has the Atlantic in Galicia, where it rains all the time.
Then there is culture: the Paris opera, the Montpellier dance festival, the festivals at Aix and Avignon. What has Spain got? The public slaughter of innocent bovines, otherwise known as bullfighting.
Bureaucracy and taxes on property
France is the home of bureaucracy, but at least it works and you know where you are with it. In Spain, before you buy a property you need to apply for some horribly complicated piece of paper that proves your identity so they know who you are when they come to take the house away from you. Taxes in France are simple: there is the habitation tax and the land tax. You have to pay them both.
If you have a lot of money in France and want to hide from the taxman, you can head to the glamour of Monaco. In Spain, you have Andorra, one of the drabbest locations in the world.
Much has been made of the riots in France last year. It’s true that burning cars are not pretty. But all the action took place in the suburbs, where few, if any, British people would choose to live. Spain is so bad that half of it — Catalonia, the Basque country and possibly Galicia — would like to leave. And if they do, the army has promised to intervene. I for one don’t want to end up like that poor Chinaman with his shopping bags in Tiananmen Square.
More France Please, We’re British by Helena Frith Powell is available at The Sunday Times Books First price of £9.49, with free UK p&p, on 0870 165 8585 or www.timesonline.co.uk
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. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
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