Like so many other people who moved to France from the UK, Elaine Douglas arrived full of plans for a different kind of life. A psychologist in her ‘middle years’ she had worked extremely hard for many years and felt exhausted and burned out. With her husband she bought a converted farmhouse in a sleepy little hamlet in the Dordogne and looked forward to a more relaxed style of life.
For the first year she was blissfully happy but then her feelings about her new life began to change. ‘My husband settled in really easily and loved it,’ she explained. ‘He started working on properties and doing anything he could turn his hand to. For me, though, it was more difficult. I couldn’t find enough to keep my brain charged. I wasn’t able to work part-time as my British qualifications weren’t recognised in France and although I could speak French it wasn’t good enough to become qualified. I starting wondering what I was going to do for the rest of my days.’
Two years after she left the UK Elaine returned to Yorkshire – alone. ‘My husband was happy in France so he stayed.’
Elaine is not the only expat to have found that the promised life in France did not live up to expectations. When it comes to emigration to France there has always beens the churn factor with people going back and forth across the Channel but it appears that today more and more expats are finding it tough.
‘I have never seen this before,’ says Carole Bayliss from Mortgage-France who deals with expats as well as local estate agents and banks. ‘There are so many people disillusioned with their life in France. They are frightened, worried about whether they can live here.’
Figures are hard to come by. One recent survey found that one-fifth of people who emigrate to France are unhappy with their new life and FrenchEntrée’s Life in France survey reported similar findings. It is also been reported that two out of three Brits who come to France eventually return to the UK.
The subject is a highly controversial one. Those who return to the UK often feel angry with France for not delivering the life they hoped for. Those that remain find it hard to accept that France is not perfect for everyone, and those planning to emigrate resent any inkling that life across the Channel is not one of unadulterated bliss.
Of course, there is another side to the immigrant story. There are many thousands of people who come to France and love it, finding a level of satisfaction and happiness that they have never had before – more time for themselves and their family, more space to breathe, the chance to live the kind of life they have always dreamed of.
So how do you make sure your French life falls into the latter category? By having an idea what to expect and being prepared for it. These days, with the proliferation of television programs and magazines selling the idyllic French dream, it can appear easy to cross the Channel to a whole new life. But moving countries and cultures is a big deal. It needs careful thinking and planning if it is to work.
To help you figure out what is best for you, we’ve taken a look at the common problems cited by those choosing to return to the UK with advice on how to avoid the pitfalls.
Before we go any further….
Don’t let your move to France be solely dictated by property. This is a tricky one but for a fulfilling life in France you need more than a gorgeous house. If you need employment opportunities, schools, hospitals, shops to browse around, restaurants, nightlife, then before you put down your money make sure these work for you too.
Thanks to low-cost airlines many undiscovered parts of France are now being populated by expats excited by the low property prices. These are likely to be rural and deeply traditional parts of France but be aware that some people can, after the initial elation of the move has worn off, find it too quiet.
This was one of the problems Elaine Douglas faced, and in the course of her counselling work has discovered that it is not an isolated issue. ‘I find that often problems stem from people choosing the wrong place to live,’ she explains. ‘They find it hard to deal with the lack of amenities or cultural things to do. It is especially hard in winter when it is very cold and a lot of the countryside shuts down.’
Carole Bayliss reiterates this point. ‘Don’t get taken in by cheap prices. Decide what is important to you and then choose an area that meets your criteria. There are many different regions in France so you shouldn’t have a problem finding one that is good for you.’
** MONEY PROBLEMS
For those who have become unstuck in France, money is often the root cause. As FrenchEntrée’s Life in France survey found, those who are retired tend to be happier than those who need to work as they do not have the stress of earning a living. However, as one retiree has commented, living on a fixed income can be worrying when the value of a pension stabilises or falls and prices rise.
On a pension? You need to make sure that there is slack in the system so that when circumstances change, a loss of some income does not leave you in trouble. It is worth speaking to a financial advisor – see FrenchEntrée Tax Zone – so your income and investments will work hard for you.
Work: unemployment in France is at 7.5% and although it has fallen recently, this is due to an increase in low paid and temporary jobs. It is still extremely difficult – some will say impossible – to get a job if you cannot speak the language. If being an employee is the basis of you earning an income that allows you to live in France, relocating without a job offer could be a risk.
Self-employment: many people come to France and successfully run their own business enjoying, possibly for the first time, being their own boss. Read We work harder than we’ve ever done before – but we still love it in France.
However, it can be a challenge and we cannot stress enough that you must do your research before you take the plunge.
Do read everything you can on the subject, including what is on FrenchEntrée’s Income Zone. Everyone who works in France finds social charges or cotisations – compulsory payments for health, pension and social security – a shock. Unlike in the UK, they begin at a low income threshold and are at least a quarter of what you earn (income tax is on top)
This may sound manageable – except that the payments kick-in as soon as you register so you must have sufficient funds to start paying immediately. Will you be able to fund a bill of €1,000 within a few weeks, then another a few months later, and then another before the end of your first year?
Also, in France it is difficult to have a portfolio of different types jobs. In the UK you can have as many jobs as you like as your income and national insurance is determined by your total profit declared. In France different types of jobs are overseen by different regimes – organisations that collect your cotisations – and each will determine the level of cotisations needed to be paid to them, which means you can end up paying out a very large sums of money for no extra benefits.
Read the real life story Mixing different types of business is financially tough.
A lot of Brits work on the black to avoid paying their state dues. This is illegal and if you are caught the French state will come down hard on you. You will also be resented by those who work legally – both expat and French.
Cost of living: an argument rages over this. Some people are adamant the cost of living is higher in France, others argue that it is not. – see Is life in France really cheaper than in the UK? for one point of view.
The best way to resolve the issue for you is to figure out what you will need to buy/pay out in France and how much it costs.
Remember, if you are going from being employee to someone who is retired or works from home, you will have to cover utility bills for the whole day not just a few hours at the beginning and end of the day plus weekends. If you are buying a larger house, again the costs will be higher. Plus, will you be using your car more?
Be realistic. Don’t underestimate a cost to make your move to France appear more viable. You need to know you can cover your costs.
Equity release: starting a business or need some cash and hope to re-mortgage your French home? Re-financing in France is far far tougher than in the UK where a mortgage is determined by the value of the property. In France it is decided on the financial stability of the person applying for the mortgage.
‘You will need to show two years worth of accounts and that means tax returns so if you don’t have those you will find it difficult,’ explains Carole Bayliss. ‘And you will not get a mortgage if you have loans totalling more than 30% of your income – including the cost of your mortgage.’
An unhappy child in France is can make life here miserable for everyone and the older a child more difficult the relocation but there are ways of making the move easier – see What’s it like for children moving to France?
Those returning to the UK because of problems with French education cite not just the inability of a child to settle but also bullying and bad teaching. However, there are also those who believe French schools are fantastic and won’t hear a word against them. At the end of the day, there is no right and wrong, just personal experience.
It is true, however, that France is definitely behind the UK when it comes to children who fall outside the educational norm whether this be dyslexia or any kind of handicap, therefore if you have a child who needs extra help you need to be prepared for this.
To remove as much of the unknown as possible, check out a school before you commit. What are the pupils like? What subjects do they offer? Is it welcoming to foreign children or do they consider them a problem? Do they offer extra classes or tuition to help your English-speaking child learn the language more easily? Speak to expat parents – how do they find the school?
There are no league tables in France but you can check out out your local lycée here
Having to change schools when they’ve already had the upheaval of coming to France will make the move even more difficult for a child. It is much better to get it right the first time.
The good news for parents is that moving with children means you are more likely to integrate into French life, learning and being involved in the culture through them and their friends.
The emotional pull of family and friends back ‘home’ in the can be strong. ‘It’s especially tough for women,’ says Elaine Douglas. ‘It’s not that men are not feeling creatures but they deal much better with the separation. They immerse themselves in DIY, watch happily watch Sky tv… Women on the other hand are more attuned to doing things with children, grand-children and parents and they miss not being able to jump in the car to see them.’
Read the real life story We love France but we’re returning to the UK.
How can you help alleviate this? Use technology. Instead of just a phone, for close family think about webcam where you can see someone’s face. Exchange photos often so you can share in each other’s lives.
When choosing a home, pick a location that is close to a ferry route or airport with direct flights to a UK airport. It will make is easier to see people and have them visit you often if the journey is easier and faster.
But family is not the only reason for loneliness. Losing what what was familiar and replacing it with day-to-day life that is quite different can be a shock. ‘Some people find that they have lost their sense of identity and self-esteem,’ says Elaine. ‘Give yourself a goal that you can achieved, and if you can choose something that you can do with your partner.’
Long, cold winters can be difficult too, especially as in rural France the countryside largely shuts down and people stay indoors. Is there a solution? ‘I know people who return to the UK just for the winter because they can go see and do things that they can’t in France,’ says Elaine.
Is there a less drastic answer? ‘If you can afford it, go away on holiday sometime in January and February during the worst of the weather,’ she says. ‘And have something to look forward to so the days don’t stretch on forever. Having landmarks makes the time go faster.’
Choosing a village near a large town or city will also help as it will give you a place to do and see things.
** FOREVER AN OUTSIDER
‘I am tried of living in a country where I don’t feel I belong.’ For those who want to integrate and become part of the local population, the inability to do so can be tough.
Learning a foreign language, especially when you are older is tough. If you are still in the planning stages of coming to France then start learning the language now. It makes a huge difference to how much you will enjoy your life here.
Regardless of your language skills, do invite your French neighbours over and find out about their lives. Get involved with local events – it will help you feel that you belong. Charity work is another good way of meeting French people and at the same time doing something worthwhile.
•With thanks to Rachel Loos