A middle-class Norman invasion

The village school has reopened to teach French as a foreign language. They sell fish and chips outside the local pub. And a quarter of house sales are to British buyers. John Lichfield reports from Le Petit Celland
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For the first time in 30 years, the intricacies of the French language are being taught in the village school in Le Petit Celland. Christian Ricoux, precise and kindly and humorous, like a village teacher in an old movie, is trying to explain the meaning of the word assiégé - "besieged". "We in Normandy are besieged by the English," he says. "But at least they are peaceful invaders." Polite, nervous laughter - English laughter - tumbles around the room.

For the first time in 30 years, the intricacies of the French language are being taught in the village school in Le Petit Celland. Christian Ricoux, precise and kindly and humorous, like a village teacher in an old movie, is trying to explain the meaning of the word assiégé - "besieged". "We in Normandy are besieged by the English," he says. "But at least they are peaceful invaders." Polite, nervous laughter - English laughter - tumbles around the room.

The tiny school at Le Petit Celland, which closed down in the early 1970s, started taking pupils again this month. All the new élèves are immigrants from Britain. All but one of them are adults.

In this small, bright schoolroom the passing generations of local farming families once sat and fidgeted - the little Desfeux, the Jouaults, the Lemarchands and the Chartiers. The dozen new pupils, who will come here for French lessons each Tuesday night until May, have names like Hamilton or Hammond or West or Gibbs. Most of them are in their forties or early fifties. One or two are older, and there's a woman of 20 and a boy of 15.

Most of these Britons - virtually all from the south of England, just over the water - have chosen to come to France, not to retire, but to start a new life, bringing children or teenagers with them.

British holiday homes or retirement homes in Normandy have been a fact of life for decades. In the past five years, something has changed, says the village mayor, François Serrant - the younger British have stopped going home. "We have a new generation of British buyers," Serrant says. "People who have sold their homes in England and bought, not ruins or cottages, like the previous generation, but substantial homes. These are people who want to settle, who find in rural France something they can no longer find in England."

There are 100 British-owned homes in this and the neighbouring villages that form the "canton" of Brécey, in the Manche département of Normandy, near the frontier with Brittany. At least half of these homes - 50 within a 10-mile radius - are lived in permanently. One in four houses sold in this part of Normandy now goes to a British buyer - a Norman invasion in reverse.

A similar pattern of settlement can be detected in parts of Brittany and south-western France (encouraged partly by the recent boom in cheap air travel). Officially, the British immigrant community in France is put at 70,000. Semi-officially, it is believed to be at least double that and rising.

At the same time, tens of thousands of young French people have created urban colonies in London and south-east England. The French community in Britain is estimated at 250,000, almost all of them in the London area and largely established in the last dozen years. The middle-aged Britons seek the quiet of the French countryside; the young French are attracted to the buzz, and the job opportunities, of London.

This phenomenon of two-way emigration - of exchange of populations - is quite new in the history of two countries that have lived parallel, back-to-back existences for 10 centuries. Other than in times of war or religious or political persecution, there has never been such a large French expatriate community in Britain. Since the Hundred Years War, there has never been such a large, permanent and socially varied British - mostly English - community in France.

Next month sees the centenary of the official treaty of Anglo-French friendship, the Entente Cordiale. The two countries - often portrayed as in everlasting political and cultural warfare - are quietly cross-pollinating like adjacent fields of maize.

Why are so many middle-class English people (despite the constant anti-French propaganda in bibles of middle-class virtues such as the Daily Mail) throwing up their established lives in southern England and moving to France?

A straw poll of the pupils improving their French in the classroom at Le Petit Celland reveals many personal reasons and a few recurring themes. Cherry, Paul, Bob, Stuart and the others say they are here to escape the jammed roads, the dysfunctional public transport, the poor schools, the limping health system, the violence and the crime - but above all the overcrowding - of southern England.

They are also here because it makes economic sense. They can sell a cramped, ordinary, suburban home with a small garden in the Home Counties, or on the south coast of England, for, say, £300,000 to £400,000. In this part of Normandy (too far from Paris to be popular with Parisian weekenders), they can buy a bigger house, with a large garden, for £60,000. They can buy a manor house for £120,000.

Part of the attraction is that the hillier, prettier parts of Normandy look like England, but the quieter, greener England of 50 years ago. There are few cars. Wild primroses are scattered on every verge. Cow-slips and apple blossom are a month away.

Bob Hamilton, 52, who left the motor trade in the Home Counties to come here with his wife and two teenage children two years ago, says: "You see birds and flowers here every day which we haven't seen in southern England for decades. The whole pace of life - the willingness to enjoy life - is light years from the frantic way that people live back home."

But what do all these people do here? How do they make a living? All have the rudiments of the language, but not enough to get jobs in the mainstream French economy. Some work over the phone or through the internet. Others travel home to do contract work, leaving their families behind for several weeks at a time. Several - including Bob Hamilton - have set up house renovation firms, working largely for other Britons.

The local bar, La Forge, re-opened two years ago, is run by a young Englishman, Alan Barry, from Hampshire. Another Hampshire exile, Steve Blandford, has a thriving business selling fish and chips from a van. (He also keeps his fellow exiles supplied with other forms of British haute cuisine, such as porridge oats and Bisto.) The van's window is festooned with business cards - with Normandy phone numbers and British names - offering services ranging from removals to crane hire.

"We came over here for the summer a couple of years ago and never went back," says Blandford, serving up cod and chips in Le Petit Celland. "I asked the family if they wanted to go home and they said no. The kids [boys aged 14, 10 and seven] are doing great in French schools. The seven-year-old is top of his class. Scott [who is 14 and helping his dad] is the goalkeeper in the school team. We've got a bit of land with the house. We can keep a few pets. Ask Scott if he wants to go home."

We ask Scott. "Never," he replies.

The British customers are rolling up in their cars from miles around, despite the freezing temperatures. Stuart Gibbs, 48, a jovial man in a checked shirt and highlighted hair, overhears our conversation. "Why come to France? Why come to France?" he asks. "I'll tell you why: 'cos France works. England doesn't. Here, I can leave my car door open, my house door open. Nothing will happen. Over there, my car radio was being nicked every couple of hours."

It turns out that Gibbs is a solicitor who lives in Normandy but operates in the English legal system on accident compensation claims, working by letter, phone, internet and the occasional foray across the Channel. He is one of the pupils in the French classes at the village school.

It was Serrant, the mayor of Le Petit Celland for the past 15 years, succeeding his father who had been mayor for 40 years, who had the idea to use the school to offer French lessons to the incomers. "The new English residents fit into our way of life perfectly, except for one thing," Serrant says. "They cannot converse with us. The English children go to local schools and learn French quickly. But the adults - well, their French is often a little limited. They can ask for what they want in a shop but they cannot talk to local people.

"You see in Alan's bar that the English and French customers tend to come in at different times. To prevent barriers of language arising, which might cause tension in the future, we have started these lessons. There has been a very pleasing response."

The teacher, Christian Ricoux, 57, actually teaches English at a lycée in Avranches, eight miles away. As the classes progress, he says, he plans to teach his pupils, not only French, but a little more about the "French way of life" they have come to share: French history, French culture and French politics.

Alan Barry, 34, who gave up a job in the computer industry in Hampshire to re-open the village bar two years ago, is an unconditional fan of France. He admits, however, that he has found the adjustment to excessive French officialdom and French taxation - and more modest French drinking habits - rather difficult. "In Britain, you can't keep people out of the pub. In France, you can't get them in. Or at least you can but you have to work hard at it until they get used to the idea and then they'll keep coming back."

His clientele is now equally divided between the French and British locals. As we talked, Marjorie Peachey came in with her four grandchildren, aged 14, 10, eight and five. They have arrived for their weekly treat of fish, or burger, and chips from Blandford's van. Peachey's son and daughter-in-law moved here from Cambridge three years ago. After visiting them on holidays, she decided to join them.

Her son is an engineer who works on contracts in Britain and then spends extended periods at home in Normandy. He sees as much of his family now as he did when they lived in Cambridge. "I won't hear a word said against France," says Peachey, 62. "The pace of life. The enjoyment of life. The health service. The schools. The kids love their schools. They still have discipline here. At home, the teachers hardly dare look at a child..."

Her oldest grandchild Katrina, 14, nods. Some of the older French children were hostile to the newcomers at first but now that she can speak French, she has plenty of friends.

The mayor admits that there is some grumbling from locals about the British invasion and its effect on house prices, but he dismisses this as a "passing phase" that will "balance itself in time". Overall, Serrant says, locals are pleased with the increase in what was a declining population and are delighted to have a village bar again. One or two have even tried fish and chips.

Some words of warning. British consular officials point out that the gap in house prices between France and the UK is an open door in one direction and a steep barrier in the other. If you step off the property ladder in England, and life in France turns sour - as it can - you might find it difficult to go home.

On the whole, however, it seems that the new Anglo-French rural entente is blooming, especially among the young. Katrina was standing beside the chip van when one of her school mates, a tall, handsome French teenager, came along. He made to kiss her on both cheeks in the French way. For an instant, a look of English teenage panic crossed her face. As she accepted the two, innocent kisses, her expression changed to a look of immaculate, French cool.

A couple of minutes later, another Englishman in his forties approached Steve Blandford in his van. "Can you put up this card for me, mate?" he says. "We've just come over here to live and I'm looking for work."

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