In our new Life After Brexit series, we look at how British expats in France are facing life post-Brexit. What are the personal and professional changes and challenges that lie ahead for small businesses, homeowners, and retirees? In our fourth installment, Charlotte Visser chats with expat Ros Hicks, whose business French Hiccups helps other expats with issues relating to French administration and residency.
‘Il y a toujours une solution,’ the French like to say, ‘there is always a solution’. A small consolation, when faced with an impossible problem or circular requirement generated by French officialdom, incomprehensible even to its own long-suffering employees. For example, if you need a utility bill to be able to open a bank account and a bank account to open a utility contract, how do you get started? In a beautiful, but mysterious foreign language? Fortunately, Ros Hicks thrives on solving just such problems. If only I had known about Ros and her business French Hiccups when I arrived a year ago, my hair might not now be streaked with grey.
Ros receives me in her homely office in the centre of Excideuil. Her manner is warm, friendly, and reassuring. At once, it is evident to me that she loves helping people. She is a general practitioner of French bureaucracy. Ros will help you with all aspects of your new life in France, from obtaining healthcare to buying a new kitchen.
What inspired you to set up French Hiccups?
French systems are notoriously difficult and wordy; health, schooling, employment, finances, insurance, driving in France – they all require patience and expertise. Currently, there is more help available for English speakers than when I arrived in 1990 with my children, when no French teacher, doctor, insurance agent or government employee knew how to deal with a British national. Nowadays there are banks, utility companies and government agencies with English-speaking customer services. In this sense, you could say that French Hiccups was born from personal struggle.
Having mastered various qualifications in book-keeping and business studies in French, I found myself guiding friends through the various administrative processes. I had been turning my hand to all sorts of jobs; painting and decorating, managing gîtes and serving in restaurants. When an American friend asked me for my help with setting up a café and all the administration that project entailed, French Hiccups got its first break. He became my first client.
How has Covid changed your professional life?
Covid has caused delays to many administrative processes, which has been a worry to those trying to get established in France before Brexit. The pandemic has forced the digitalisation of many official channels to proceed at an unprecedented pace. I find that most of my time is now spent at the computer. It has been harder to meet my clients in person, which I find regrettable as that is a part of my job I very much enjoy.
How has Brexit affected you and your business?
In 2020, I have been busier than ever with a rush of people arriving from Britain, determined to settle here before the end of the transition period on 31st December. Some of them are retirees who have owned second homes for years and now wish to turn them into permanent ones. I have also had Brits arriving looking to set up new businesses or simply wanting a better life for themselves and their families.
My existing clients who are still in the process of getting established are now having to adapt to the new legislation introduced since 1st January 2021. I am processing a number of residency applications and many of my clients have yet to exchange their British driving licences and number plates. I have been able to help a number of clients find a way forward for their business during the pandemic.
Since the beginning of this year, we find ourselves in uncharted territory. There are many uncertainties about the rules and regulations applying to British expats and these are different for those who arrived before 31st December 2020 and those who have arrived since. This can be very confusing and worrying for those who have made the commitment to settle in France during 2020, but now find themselves in a position where their administration has to be dealt with in 2021. For example, carte de séjour applications and business creations will be assessed on the applicant’s ability to demonstrate that he or she became resident during the course of 2020. In my experience, and to be fair to the French authorities, it would seem that they do not wish to create any obstacles to families who arrived here prior to Brexit.
The exchange of driving licences has been an undecided issue for some time. The position for now is that if your British licence is valid, you are permitted to drive in France until January 2022, as long as you arrived during 2020. Those arriving in 2021, will have a full year from the date of arrival to exchange their licences.
Have any of your clients returned home?
I have had one couple who were in the process of setting up a campsite. They had been struggling with their employment and social security status and when COVID hit, they decided to up sticks. But, overwhelmingly, the flow of British has been directed the other way, towards France.
What would you say to Brits hoping to settle in France?
Go for it! Don’t let Brexit quash your dreams! This is a beautiful country. The French are welcoming and generous, particularly if you make an effort to learn their language. I love their sense of community. Settling in France will be more complicated than before Brexit, but not impossible. Remember that there is always a solution!
There’s no doubt in my mind that Ros will find it. And that she will enjoy the challenge.
If you’re a British expat in France and want to share your story of how Brexit has affected you, please get in touch.
About the Author
In January 2020, Charlotte Visser, a decorative artist from Worcestershire, embarked on her journey south to the Dordogne in a 1969 Morris Minor. ‘Je suis en panne,’ was her first phrase in French. Now she is also an expert in the terminology of leaking roofs and septic tanks, and the grateful owner of a brilliant green Carte Vitale with an unflattering photo.