Magazine article The Spectator

France's British Poor

Magazine article The Spectator

France's British Poor

Article excerpt

THE ENTREPRENEUR - usually an 'euse' - rents a room in a Walthamstow/ Wanstead/Pinner hotel, stages an exhibition of photographs of vacant farmhouses in the Limousin in south-west France, which embraces the departments of the Haute-Vienne, Creuse and Correze with price tags of between 15,000 and 60,000, depending on whether they come with or without water, electricity or roofs. Whatever, the equivalent in the United Kingdom would cost four or five times as much.

England has too many people, France too few. In England, agricultural land is around 3,000 an acre, where we live in France, a tenth of that and the price has been static since 1955; so here you need no money to become a farmer. In France an emigrant from Britain, Holland or even Normandy needs only a strong pair of hands and a willingness to learn. The French ministry of agriculture is so keen to repopulate the countryside that it lends money over 20 years at 3 per cent.

But the punters fantasising at the pictures on show are probably retired with a paid-off mortgage on a house worth 80-125,000 and a pension, so if they buy a lovely old stone house with a bit of a lake, a wood and an orchard they will have some change and money to live on, provided the pound sticks around 1OF. When it dipped two years ago to 7.30F. some Britons went on short commons, for the cost of food, electricity, telephone and petrol is quite as high as `at home'. The punter is reassured that the purchase can be put in good order by an English contractor employing English masons, roofers, plumbers and electricians, so no language problem. Few English arriving in France have a word of French and often never acquire one.

But there will be other problems: the ladies who mastermind these sales and restorations tend to operate on the windy side of the law. They are not licensed estate agents but dealers buying for cash, at a knockdown price, a property, which might not have been inhabited for years, selling it on at a topped-up price, and even claiming commission at both ends. One such, who had swallowed her client's repair money, consistently avoided TVA (VAT) and all taxes, was eventually prosecuted, fined and returned home. Her Parthian shot was to stake a rude, untruthful and illiterate notice on her front door, whose last few lines I reproduce:

Of the half-million Britons living in France, many are registered with HM's consuls general, paying their taxes foncieres and taxes d'habitation, but quite a few are not. They are the new poor, the cheapest labour in Europe, paid less than the SMIG (salaires minimum interprofessionels garantis), living rough, often on the run from angry mothers of their children or even the police; they are, illegally, outside social security, which costs an employer 49 per cent on top of wages, so if they fall off a roof they are whisked back to Blighty to avoid explanations. They are sloppy workers, smoking, unlike the French, on the job and breaking off for frequent cups of tea. We employed one who lived in a horsebox which he had to vacate come gymkhana time.

But English settlers who integrate into the French system are supported at all levels and with compassion if they fall on hard times. A Yorkshire couple brought a small farm for their rabbits and four children. The rabbits -- guaranteed not to caught myxomatosis, but the suppliers went bust. …

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