Dordogne's expats rise in revolt after cheap airline takes flight

Dordogneshire is in mourning, or at least one half of it.

The southern part of the most British of all French départements has been left feeling cut-off, and betrayed, by the decision of the cut-price airline Ryanair to end flights from Stansted to the small town of Bergerac. The northern part of the Dordogne is breathing a sigh of relief that similar flights to Limoges will continue, for the time being.

For the past year, the British home-from-home in south-western France has been only a relatively simple, and sometimes cheap, flight from the old homeland. Dordogne has been an expatriate and holiday haven for many years but the cheap and convenient flights started by the now defunct airline Buzz have produced a second migratory wave of Britons, both young and old, in the past 12 months.

"Scores of people have bought homes here on the basis of the new flights. Some were even commuting from work in Britain each weekend," said Bunty Cox, 54, a long-time resident of the village of Boisse, south of Bergerac.

"People with second homes here were coming over more often. Relatives of permanent residents were popping over, as if it was just a bus ride," she said. "The local economy, from house prices, to builders and plumbers, to trade in the shops, has been absolutely booming in the past year. Now all of us – English and French – feel stuffed by Ryanair."

Estimates of the size of the British community in Dordogne and its surrounding areas vary, but about 100,000 Britons are believed to be living there permanently or regularly visiting second homes.

The Dublin-based airline, which took over Buzz in January, announced this week that it would cut off flights to half the Buzz destinations in France from April, including Bergerac, Caen, Dijon, Chambéry and Brest. Ryanair says it intends to concentrate on other, more profitable routes, to staunch losses of about £700,000 a week.

Ms Cox and other British and French residents campaigning for the direct air link to the Dordogne to be restored (three other cut-price airlines say they are interested in the route) accept that airlines have to be profitable. That they were taking a gamble was understood by anyone who bought a house in the belief that the flights, ranging from £60 to £300 return from Bergerac, would continue.

"And yet we all believed it would last," said Ms Cox. "The aircraft were always crowded, every day of the week. There was 90 per cent occupancy."

Buzz says it was one of its most profitable routes. "It's not as if the fares were always cheap. Many people were paying £200 or £300 return," a spokesperson said.

French officials say that Ryanair made clear that it would only stay on the Bergerac route if the runway at the small airport was extended and the terminal improved. Local authorities scraped together the €5m (£3.4m) needed to do the work. But the officials say that Ryanair also demanded a payment of more than €1m a year, for at least 10 years, as a "contribution to its marketing budget".

Such demands by Ryanair are under investigation by the French aviation authorities and have already been condemned in other countries by the European Commission as tantamount to an illegal public subsidy. Bergerac was unable to find the money. British residents of the Dordogne – organised by Ms Cox – were passing around the hat to raise the cash at €25 a time when the airline announced last week that it was stopping the nine weekly Buzz flights to Bergerac from 31 March.

Jennifer Chabaneix-Weeks, 69, who has lived in the Dordogne for 30 years, is running a petition calling for the air link to Bergerac to be restored. "Whatever Ryanair say, it is obvious that an air route from Britain to the Dordogne can make money," she asserted. "I have received 1,500 signatures in three days and the fax machine is beginning to melt under the strain."

Further north in the département – some of which resembles a more tropical version of the Peak District or the Yorkshire Moors – the immigrant British community is celebrating. Buzz/Ryanair flights into nearby Limoges airport, in the neighbouring département of Haute-Vienne, are to continue, for now.

One of the best-known British residents of the northern Dordogne is Stuart Edwards, 56, who runs the Entente Cordiale pub, restaurant and hotel in the village of Abjar. He is also the founder and president of the French national conker team.

"There is no doubt that the new flights have produced an influx of British second-homers and tourists and there is also a new generation of permanent British residents, often younger than before," he said. "As soon as a house goes in the window of a local estate agent, it flies out again. In our primary school, with 70 or 80 children, 15 are from British families. Three other British children have just arrived."

Mr Edwards says the knowledge that Britain was only an easy and relatively cheap flight away (as little as £30 return from Limoges) helped to create the wave of migrants. But he said that he had also detected another change.

"A few years ago people came to retire or because they valued the weather, or the calm and the beauty of the countryside. Now people say that they want to escape from Britain, the congestion, the nanny state, the poor public services. They think that they can have a better quality of life in France."

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