What’s the French for entrepreneur?
If you need to fund your move to France, you might try starting your own business. Helena Frith Powell of The Sunday Times meets Brits who have survived the red tape involved in the simplest start-ups
When Olivier Lesault went to the Béziers Chamber of Commerce to register his new air-conditioning business, he was amazed to find the common language was English.
“Every artisan there was British,” he says. “There were plumbers, welders, builders and carpenters. I couldn’t believe it.” Not one of them spoke good enough French to deal with the forms, so Lesault, who is married to an Irish woman, acted as translator. “In the end the woman at the chamber asked me if I was paid to do this job. ‘No’, I told her, ‘I just want to register my business.’ ”
Unless you are moving to France to retire or have a private income, the first thing you need once you’ve bought the house is a job. And for many Brits, having left the corporate rat race behind, a popular option is to set up a business of your own.
An English restaurant in France might seem an unlikely business plan but Louise Burnell and her partner Muriel Quinquis have made it work. Auntie Lou’s opened for business in Montpellier in November 2003. “We chose Montpellier because we like the city, we like the sun and there are three successful Irish pubs here,” says Burnell, who trained as a chef and worked in the hospitality trade for 20 years before leaving England.
Originally from Yorkshire, Burnell had the idea of opening a restaurant serving traditional British food. “Muriel is French, which made things easier, but setting up the business was tough,” she says. “It was a totally different experience from back home.”
They found that quotes given by workmen varied enormously. “If you’re a foreigner, they try to rip you off,” says Quinquis. “When we compared the quotes we had from several workmen they were way out. Either they were trying to take us for a ride or they didn’t want the work.”
The authorities were no easier to deal with. They didn’t have mains gas in the restaurant and despite paying a deposit to Gaz de France in August and sending letters by registered post, as well as calling them, they still weren’t connected the day before they were due to open on November 14. Finally Quinquis called them and pretended to be a single mother with a six-month-old baby. They got connected. “The French administration is undoubtedly the toughest aspect of setting up a business here,” says Quinquis. “There is no service culture and they do not try to be helpful.”
Another difficulty has been sourcing ingredients. “We can get baked beans here, but they’re very expensive,” says Burnell. “Things like marrowfat peas, to make mushy peas from, I have to get friends to bring over.”
The customers at Auntie Lou’s are 70% French and 30% English. The Brits come from miles outside the city to sample bangers and mash or fish and chips. The restaurant has 30 covers and when they opened they were serving on average 10 people at lunchtime. That figure has now doubled. They initially invested £42,000 in the property, moving to France and renovation work. During their first year, their turnover was £55,000. “We want to double that next year,” says Quinquis. “And then we’ll start paying ourselves a salary. At the moment we’re ploughing everything back into the business.”
When they started Auntie Lou’s, Quinquis’s French friends thought she was mad, as did the locals. “They would walk past the restaurant when we were doing it up and ask what we were up to,” says Burnell. “When we told them we were opening a British restaurant, they literally collapsed in heaps of laughter in the street.” Quinquis says the prejudice that anything from Britain must taste terrible persists: “People see the flag and ask what’s going on. When I tell them it’s a British restaurant they say, ‘Oh God, that must be awful’. I smile and ask them when the last time they actually tried British food was.”
Burnell advises anybody considering setting up a business in France to think about it very carefully. “I knew it was going to be tough,” she says. “I didn’t expect it to be as tough as it was. But we have no regrets. It’s been fabulous and can only get better now we’re making a name for ourselves. Who knows, maybe we’ll franchise it eventually. I can see Auntie Lou’s popping up all over France.”
Ceri McGuire opened Le Bookshop in Béziers six months ago. A bookshop wasn’t part of the plan when she moved to France with her husband, Alex, and three children in April 2002. “In 2003, we went on holiday to Nice,” she says. “I found the best part of it was browsing in all the English bookshops. It occurred to me that for the hundreds of Brits that live around Béziers, the only options are Amazon or Montpellier. I have always been a big reader and love books so decided to go for it.”
The first thing McGuire did was to get the business structure in place. “I knew what a bureaucratic nightmare it would be, so I decided to get professional help.” She hired an accountant to do everything for her, from registering the business to setting up the books. “That’s my top tip for anybody thinking of doing business here: get an accountant to do the business side of things.
“I get hundreds of bits of paper through the post and I just pass them all on to her. I don’t even have to read them,” she says.
The next step was finding the premises. The first shop McGuire found fell through on the day she was due to move in. “The place I eventually found is on the tourist route from the town to the cathedral and right in the middle of things — it’s perfect,” she says.
For two months Alex, who works as a mathematician during the day, spent his evenings and weekends doing up the premises. “It was an underwear shop before we moved in,” says Ceri, “so there were all kinds of strange structures that had to be taken off the walls.”
Ceri bought about 2,000 books to stock the shop, an investment of £15,000. She says the most difficult thing was choosing which titles to buy. She was given a list of the top 5,000 sellers by her wholesaler. “Some of them were things like maps of Humberside, hardly relevant to readers in Béziers,” she says. “I chose about 80% from the list and then I just went round my house picking out my favourite books.”
Ceri sells between 200 and 300 books a month on average and 50% of her clients are French. “They love their P D James and Agatha Christie,” she says. “And they think it’s really cool that Béziers has an English bookshop. The Brits buy lots of chick-lit and children’s books, as well as anything to do with living in France.”
Ceri sells a book that retails in the UK for £9.99 for €15.99 (£11.16). Included in that price are transportation costs and 5.5% Vat, which you have to pay on books in France. She predicts “minimal” profits for her first year. “But the fact that I’ve made any profit at all is great, and it can only get better,” she says.
In France, the Brits are not so much a nation of shopkeepers as a nation of estate agents. It seems every other person moving across the Channel is thinking of setting up as one. Mike and Sally Monkman set up Languedoc Houses, an estate agency in the Languedoc, when they moved out three years with their three children then aged 13, nine and five. “The hardest thing about the whole move and setting up the office was the language barrier,” says Mike. “Sally was the only fluent French speaker among us so for two years she was the mouth and ears for the whole family. The language factor should not be taken lightly for anyone planning a move to France.”
Mike and Sally concede it is a tough business to be in. “The system here is so different,” he says. “Many agents have the same properties so competition is fierce. Even if you run around with a client for two or three days there is no guarantee they will buy from you, you have to go that bit extra for them.”
The couple work with local agents and receive a percentage of their commission, which can be anything between 5% and 10%. “You can make a good living,” says Mike, “but you have to remember that taxes and social costs are high in France. Once we have paid the TVA (Vat) of 19.6% on any sale, we then need to fork out another 47% in social costs, so you certainly have to keep moving those properties.”
Auntie Lou’s, 00 33 467 608 685; Ceri McGuire, 00 33 467 366 782, www.lebookshop.fr; Languedoc Houses, 00 33 467 940 325, www.languedochouses.com
More France Please, We’re British by Helena Frith Powell is available at The Sunday Times Books First price of £8.49 plus 99p p&p (RRP £9.99) on 0870 165 8585 or visit www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy
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