17 Years in France: What’s Changed Since 1997?

Early summer
Early summer

Well, I’m 17 years older. And I don’t want to think about how old I will be in 17 years’ time. So let’s look back instead and think about what’s changed here since 1997. Yesterday was the anniversary of the day we moved into our house and the SF and I celebrated with a glass (or two) and mused on our time here.

Of course, there have been wide-ranging changes at a national level since 1997. For example: the decline of the far left and the rise of the far right; the changing face of and regard for the role of the President; and the recognition that France can’t continue to support such an eye-watering national debt. But I’ll focus on those changes that have impinged most directly on us.

When you live here permanently, some of the changes are imperceptible until you think about it. It’s like looking in the mirror and then at an earlier photo (not recommended).

  1. Expats

Most noteworthy is the number of non-French who now live in this region. When we first moved here there were far fewer. La vie française down here has a lot to recommend it. It’s a beautiful area; you can get a much nicer house for your money than in most of the UK; and, although the climate is not as good as some estate agents would have you believe, it’s generally better than further north.

You hear a few grumbles from the French. But, to be fair to them, they are mostly welcoming and helpful, to the point that the signs in the local Leclerc supermarket are in English as well as French.

I don’t intend to spark off a debate about whether this is a good thing or not. We are bound to have changed things, both for better and for worse.

  1. Traffic

This has definitely got worse over 17 years. However, compared to car-bound southern England, driving in our area is still a dream.

The opening of the A20 motorway is partly responsible. While it’s slashed journey times to Paris, it has also increased traffic on the feeder roads. Our local village has a trunk road slicing through the middle, which has become noticeably busier with lorries. And you take your life in your hands when crossing the road. Mostly, though, French drivers have become more prudent and there are far fewer road deaths.

Parking in some towns and villages, which were not designed for cars, has become a nightmare, especially in the summer when the local population swells. Formerly free car parks are now payant. But one thing hasn’t changed: during the 12pm-2pm lunch break, parking is usually free.

  1. Opening hours

At first, we were constantly caught out by shop and office opening hours. The two-hour lunch break was still sacrosanct. We would arrive at ten to twelve at the supermarket only to realise that we wouldn’t get round in time.

In a lot of ways this was more healthy than the 24/7 culture. But it began to change after a couple of years. First, France Telecom in Montauban stayed open over lunchtime. Then the supermarkets and some other shops stayed open. La crise has led more of them to stay open, in the hope of attracting lunchtime custom.

  1. Currency 

When we moved here, the currency was the franc. Luckily, during the process of buying the house, sterling strengthened by 33% against the franc. And conversion was easy because you just multiplied the pounds by 10 to get the francs.

Along came the euro on 1st January 2002 and things started to get a bit more complicated. To get back to francs required a calculator, since the exchange rate was 1 euro = 6.55957 francs.

It was bad enough for us but even worse for our elderly neighbours, who have never really come to terms with the new currency. In fact, they had never come to terms with the value of the “new” franc, either, which was introduced in 1960 and was worth 100 of the “old” franc. They still spoke in millions of francs, which puzzled us for a while until we worked out why.

Going into the euro at the exchange rate they did may not have been the best thing for the French economy. But don’t get me started on that.

  1. Social change 

As the older generation disappears, a way of life that persisted for centuries is going with them. They remember the days when ploughing was still done with oxen, haymaking had yet to be fully mechanised and people rarely strayed more than a few kilometres from home.

Some colourful local characters who were still alive when we arrived are no more. I wrote about them in earlier posts, A Dying Breed and A Local Eccentric. They lived simply, sometimes in conditions we would describe as basic, and did without modern conveniences such as televisions and computers – and sometimes bathrooms. Mains water was not installed in our area until the 1960s.

While I don’t want to romanticise past times, the changes have accelerated in the past two decades, due to globalisation and the development of the internet and electronic communications.

Nonetheless, French people are very attached to their roots. They might spend their professional lives in a big city but they tend to come back to retire. How long even that continues remains to be seen.

There are bound to be other changes, but these are the ones that sprang to mind. And, for a future post, perhaps I should look at what hasn’t changed.

If you live in France, what’s changed since you moved here?

You might also like:

French country life a century ago
How to drive like the French
Why living in France is like marriage
A French Country Upbringing

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  1. Interesting post, as I arrived in France back in 1997 too… A whole lot has changed… and too quickly, it seems… 🙂


    • Mmm. I suppose one can’t expect things to stay the same forever. But perhaps one of the appealing things about rural France for we Brits is that it is – or was, anyway – a bit like the UK 40 or 50 years back. That has definitely changed.


      • I’m in semi rural France about 45km south of Paris, not an awful lot has changed aside from a 5th lotissement being built as I write.


          • Yes I know. 🙂 My FIL is originally from the Dordogne and has a house there. Seems strange to hear and see so many Brits there, when there are hardly any in the region where I live up here.


  2. Oh wow, even stores remaining open during lunchtime? When I was in Toulouse in 2009, a lot of places shut down between 12 and 2 as well. I’m wondering if that’s still the case.
    I prefer the Euro only because the value is closer to the dollar. With the franc, it was so confusing to me to know 1 dollar = 6 or 7 francs depending on the conversion rate. I can’t speak to its effect on France’s economy (you’d know better than me!) but it’s less of a hassle to calculate the conversion rate!

    It’s interesting to see how places change over time. I grew up in the same town my mother did and the town I know is not the same town that she grew up in at all.


    • A lot of shops still do close down at lunchtime in France, but it’s changed hugely since we first moved here.

      The jury is still out about the Euro but I’m not convinced it was a good thing for France to go into it. And francs were far easier to convert to the £ sterling!

      Nothing remains the same for long. Non-French people like to come to rural France because the way it is has a nostalgic resonance with them. Not so long ago, it was a bit like Britain in the 1950s, but that’s changed, too.


  3. Perhaps a bit off topic, but I’ve heard since the Tour de France in Yorkshire a lot of French have changed their view of Britain. Surprised by the natural beauty and stunning views in the Yorkshire Dales I imagine!


    • I’m sure a lot of them didn’t imagine the British Isles could look like that. On a different note, I read somewhere that people who live along the route hoped their house might increase in value as a result, but that doesn’t seem to have occurred.


  4. French women have got taller and their feet are bigger so I can now find clothes and shoes to fit! As expats we used to be a curiosity, now we’re just ‘foreign’ – on par with a French person from ‘elsewhere’. To some that will always be undesirable, but not all.


    • Yes, that side of things has improved. Nonetheless, I still feel like a giantess compared with the women in SW France – and I’m not especially tall, about 5’8″. When I go into clothes shops the shop assistants look at me as if I had come from another planet. They are especially petite here.


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