Ashford: a little bit of France blossoming in the Garden of England

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The Independent Online

From the railway station, the town centre is signed " Centre ville" and the new office blocks boast " Bureaux à louer". In the market place a baker is advertising his wares from behind a heap of croissants and pains au chocolat - " Venez, messieurs-dames, profitez-en!" - while across the way, stallholders mutter Gallic complaints about the weather as they sell saucisson and fromage, and galettes slathered in confiture. The galette lady, however, has put up a sign explaining that galettes are buckwheat pancakes, for the benefit of anyone who might be foxed by the French term; because this is Ashford - in Kent.

From the railway station, the town centre is signed " Centre ville" and the new office blocks boast " Bureaux à louer". In the market place a baker is advertising his wares from behind a heap of croissants and pains au chocolat - " Venez, messieurs-dames, profitez-en!" - while across the way, stallholders mutter Gallic complaints about the weather as they sell saucisson and fromage, and galettes slathered in confiture. The galette lady, however, has put up a sign explaining that galettes are buckwheat pancakes, for the benefit of anyone who might be foxed by the French term; because this is Ashford - in Kent.

Ashford is the railway station that is the first British stop for the Eurostar coming from Paris; it's only an hour from here to northern Europe, and it's helpfully situated on the M20. The Channel Tunnel Rail Link, under construction, has made a portion of the town by the existing station into a building site, but the profit from all the mess will come with the fast domestic train link to London scheduled for completion in 2007. Because of this, French companies are hurrying to set up businesses here; Ashford is becoming a centre of administration, distribution and commerce for companies involved in computer software and mobile phone to plastics and fish distribution.

Reports of hundreds of new businesses are exaggerated, says Jo James, membership services manager at the Ashford Chamber of Commerce - but there is a distinct and growing trend. "A lot of French companies are registered in this area for tax purposes - there are around 365 of them. No one has a definitive list of the number that are actually trading, but I'd say between 60 and 80." The attraction, she says, is for financial reasons: high taxes and mind-boggling layers of bureaucracy in France are driving entrepreneurs across the Channel. "Social tax [National Insurance] is 12 per cent here, but 47 per cent in France. To set up a company in France there is endless red tape, but here you can be ready to trade in a day."

This little market town in Kent is an unlikely prototype for a European melting-pot, even though it has been nominally part of a "Euro-region" since 1995, lumped in with the French Nord Pas-de-Calais departement and the Belgian provinces of Wallonia and Flanders. The south coast around the Cinque Ports area sees itself as a doughty bastion against the depredations of Johnny Foreigner, not a gateway to welcome him in. One of the local MEPs, Nigel Farage, is from the UK Independence Party, with its resolutely Eurosceptic stance; he polled nearly 10 per cent of the vote in the 1999 elections.

In Ashford, however, a whole infrastructure has grown up to welcome the French invasion, offering all kinds of services to the incomers. Estate agents, property companies and recruitment agencies are leaping into the breach. Europe in England, off the high street, is one such, and has been helping French incomers since February. "There are a lot of different people asking for information, some about start-ups, some about relocation," explains director Cinzia Beretta. Her fellow directors are a lawyer, an accountant and a business services provider; between them, says Ms Beretta, they can explain how to start up a company, set up a registered office, deal with taxes and VAT, open a bank account, find premises if required, register for National Insurance, translate your driving licence, find a house and school and arrange English lessons.

Europe in England also offers office space, a telephone-answering service, a business address, secretarial support, and can even handle staff payments and process orders. It has had enquiries from Belgium, the Netherlands, India, New Zealand and Australia.

Sylvestre Martin is export manager of Seriplast, an injection- moulding company which makes plastic bottles and packaging for cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies. A client of Europe in England, he has been in Ashford since the beginning of the year. The UK, he says, is a good market; he is running a one-man commercial office for his company, but expects to open a full export operation next year. "There are a lot of French people here," he says. "I have been made really welcome. I am staying three weeks a month in the UK, then back to France one week."

Olivier Cadic, director of Info-Elec, a computer company, has moved to Ashford lock, stock and barrel; his six-year-old daughter, Margot, attends the local school. He also set up France Libre d'Entreprendre, an information service for French firms thinking about relocation, but is passing over the running of it to a full-time manager because he no longer has time to keep track of its 900 members. His turnover, he says, has increased from $1m (£670,000) to $3m since he moved to Ashford, while his personal living expenses have dropped by around a third. "In this country people accept that you want to make money," he says. "There is a different relationship with the administration than there is in France."

Alain Wiecek, a baker, has set up here with his girlfriend, Irene Canot. He came to Ashford because he wanted to be his own boss. "In France there are bakeries everywhere already, and I'd heard lots of comments about help for French businesses starting up in England." Business, he says guardedly, is "all right". But he is contending with less sophisticated palates than he is used to. "In Kent they are very traditional, they like their sausage rolls," he says, looking out glumly at the drizzle.

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