The Pros and Cons of Brits in France

Peter Mayle’s trio of books about life in Provence

Peter Mayle, the doyen of writers about the good life in France, died recently at the age of 78. His book, A Year in Provence (1989), describes how he restored an 18th-century farmhouse near Ménerbes in the Luberon with the erratic help of local artisans, while enjoying the cuisine, wine and culture of Provence. The book became an unexpected bestseller and spawned many imitations.

A Year in Provence was followed by Toujours Provence and Encore Provence, which regaled readers with additional anecdotes of his life in France. Peter Mayle worked for some time in the advertising business and it’s fair to say that he could sell refrigeration to Inuits. How much easier it was, then, to peddle Provence to a market that was already accustomed to the recipes of Elizabeth David and holidays in the sun.

Peter Mayle became a victim of his own success. A Year in Provence was made into an embarrassingly bad TV serialisation starring a miscast John Thaw. Trespassers and paparazzi were sometimes found snooping around Peter Mayle’s house and garden. And he was blamed for the increase in Provençal house prices when people felt they’d also like a share of the good life he so successfully sold. He actually left France for a time to live in the U.S. before returning to a more secluded spot in Provence.

The Brits arrive

Villefranche market - market stalls
Villefranche-de-Rouergue market, a quintessentially French market

In the three decades since A Year in Provence was published, the number of Brits living in France has greatly increased, attracted by the comparatively cheap housing, wine and restaurant meals and the more relaxed, traditional way of life. This was facilitated by the creation of the European Union in 1992, establishing the free movement of member states’ residents.

INSEE (national statistics organisation) reckons that about 173,000 Brits live in France. I presume this means “live permanently”. Their numbers are swelled by the thousands who own holiday homes.

Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, favoured by Brits

Out of a total population of France of about 67 million, 0.26% (the British contingent) may not seem particularly significant. But they are clustered in certain parts of the country: notably Normandy, Brittany, Charente and the south west. The highest number of Brits is in Paris, but they are less noticeable in the cosmopolitan mix. The demographic of these immigrants has changed in the past 30 years. To begin with, they were mainly retired people but it is noticeable that more families with children have moved in since the early 2000s and many Brits run business or work in France.

Effects on French rural society

Café at Limogne on market day
Café at Limogne on market day

I sometimes worry about the effect of all this on French society. I remember having a heated argument with one of my compatriots before we voted in our first French municipal elections. He said that he didn’t vote because local politics were about personalities and local issues that we couldn’t possibly comprehend and that we would step on local sensibilities. I maintained that we have just as much right to vote as the locals because we use and pay for the services provided by the local authorities.

I still believe that, but perhaps my views are more nuanced than they were in the early days. My interlocutor also claimed that we were in danger of altering French rural society forever and not necessarily in a good way. I think there are two sides to the argument.

On the minus side, there’s no doubt that house prices increased as a result of foreign buyers, thus putting them out of the reach of some locals. I distinctly remember mutterings in this area in the early 2000s. Since then, and especially with the spectre of Brexit, prices have stabilised or fallen. We have imported some of our customs, such as carol services, village cricket teams, fish and chips and English pubs. It’s a moot point as to whether the French either notice or care, but it makes me uncomfortable sometimes.

Des res...
This one was too far gone, but similar ruins have been restored

On the plus side, we Brits have rescued from oblivion and restored with care buildings that would otherwise be heaps of ruins. We have brought money and tourism to French regions and, in some cases, helped to revive villages that were moribund. Many Brits take an active part in the local community and in cultural and social associations, although most of us are careful to act like foot soldiers rather than generals.

Healthy compromise?

I think it’s important to remember why we came to France, i.e. for a simpler life in a more tranquil setting, and to celebrate occasionally the symbols of our nationality, but not to try to turn France into a Little Britain. As Peter Mayle said, we will never be anything else but permanent visitors in someone else’s country and we have to respect that.

Sometimes in the depths of a gloomy winter (they don’t tell you about those when you buy a house in France), I re-read A Year in Provence. Okay, Peter Mayle caricatures the locals and romanticises aspects of French life, but he also shares his frustrations with bureaucracy and the vagaries of French tradespeople. And he does it with warmth and humour.

You might also like:

Why Living in France is Like Marriage
The Ups and Downs of Life in La France Profonde
Things I Didn’t Know When I Moved to France: Part 1, the Positives
Things I Didn’t Know When I Moved to France: Part 2 the Negatives

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  1. For me it is essential to speak the language and keep improving my skill such as it is, to integrate fully with the locals but yet to never pretend that I am a native. In Cantal there are virtually no other Brits so it was a full immersion and sink or swim. I swam. All that said, it must be acknowledged as you eloquently do that the foreigners do bring something to the party. So long as we don’t try to dominate, I am happy with that. I guess in the end, as I do in life, I simply want to blend in and not cause a scene!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I was very anxious to improve my dreadful French when we first arrive, so we spent four years having French lessons. Even after 20 years, with my accent I will never be taken for a native! We have always taken the line of taking part without taking over. The French way of doing things is often different, and also frustrating at times, but it doesn’t do to complain about it too vociferously.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I love that – take part without taking over … that seems perfect to me. My husband and i are often teased because he has excellent FRench with a dreadful accent and although I’m an improver, I still have a way to go but my accent is generally thought to be very good. All in all we will always be foreign but so long as we are enhancing rather than irritating I will be happy enough and hopefully so will they!

        Liked by 1 person

        • French people always say they find my accent charming. Being a perfectionist, I am not convinced. However, I suppose it is no good trying to pretend to be French when I am plainly not. I like to think we bring something to the party and I think French people appreciate that we try.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. OOH, Nessa you are brave posting on this subject!

    I find it a very contentious matter. Personally, we (try to) speak the language, are doing our level best to integrate and are so grateful to be here that it is probably pathetic to all onlookers.
    That said, we have Little Britain in an unnamed enclave just down the road and these people are just an embarassment that we try to disassociate ourselves from wherever possible. So sad. My view is DON’T come for the weather and the cheap wine and the bargain properties if you can’t/won’t integrate and make the effort.

    I think we have earned some “Brownie” points by actually living IN the old village centre itself, rather than buying or building on the outskirts.

    We will hang in here. We have to. I do not want to be anywhere else.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Not especially brave. I have made similar noises in previous posts! I think that people who come just for the sun (?) and the relatively cheap housing without making an effort to integrate are missing out on a lot. I am eternally grateful that we took French lessons for 4 years and that I am now reasonably fluent. This has enabled us to take part in things much more easily. I don’t want to be anywhere else, either!


  3. I do agree that it is not all bad or all good. I am constantly aware of not stepping on toes, doing our best to integrate and accepting differences, and I enjoy finding others who feel the same. I was not aware of the Peter Mayle effect. It makes me sad to think that something as simple and joyous as sharing his story may have back-fired for him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the point you make about accepting differences is very important. It certainly broadens one’s horizons living in another country and I like to think that many of the French people around here embrace the differences, provided we don’t overstep certain bounds.

      Peter Mayle did pretty well out of his books, so I wouldn’t feel too sorry for him! And the French gov’t awarded him the Légion d’Honneur. However, he didn’t quite realise what he was going to unleash when A Year in Provence, which was not expected to sell all that well, became an international bestseller.


  4. Amen, to not turning a French town/village into a small Britain. Can’t see the point of going to another country if you don’t integrate into that culture or at least try to speak the language and play the French equivalent to bowls, not the English one. Luckily for us, we have housesat for 5 different households who have all not made their piece of paradise into a small Britain. All of them do not want to return to Britain if they can help it. We enjoy both countries and enjoy the more positive sides of both.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I agree with you about speaking the language, etc. I have to say that we have British friends as well as French ones, but sometimes it’s relaxing to be able to speak your own language and share jokes and common cultural references. I would find it hard to go back to Britain after 20 years.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh yes, we do appreciate being able to have a conversation that is fully understood. A good thing is that we have enough variation of places to housesit. Then there is the visit back to NZ to polish up the native lingo 🙂


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