'Au revoir...' Has the British love affair with Brittany turned sour?

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On her visit to Paris last week to mark the centenary of the Entente Cordiale, the Queen spoke glowingly of the new phenomenon of two-way emigration between Britain and France.

On her visit to Paris last week to mark the centenary of the Entente Cordiale, the Queen spoke glowingly of the new phenomenon of two-way emigration between Britain and France.

Nowhere is this trend more evident than in Brittany, where thousands of British people have bought homes - as much to escape their own country as to embrace the Gallic lifestyle. But it seems that not everybody in the region finds the idea of Anglo-French cohabitation quite so cordial.

A rash of graffiti has been appearing in northern Brittany in recent days complaining about the influx of British housebuyers. The messages, scrawled on estate agents' walls or by the roadside, scream "Brits out" or instruct "English colonisers" to "integrate" or go home.

The graffiti appears to be the first symptom - apart from occasional grumbling - of a French backlash against the permanent, British, middle-class immigration which has gathered pace in Brittany, Normandy and south-western France in recent years. It prompted the local newspaper, Ouest-France, to suggest yesterday that the Entente Cordiale was turning sour.

Local people, both French and British, were at pains to tell The Independent that the graffiti should not be taken too seriously. Gendarmes and local mayors in the Côtes d'Armor département, on the north Breton coast, dismissed the messages as the work of a "marginal group of Breton separatists".

The choice of the words "Brits out" - associated with scrawlings on the walls of Belfast and other towns in Northern Ireland - was significant, they said. This was not a phrase which would have occurred to apolitical, rural Bretons. The slogan reflected the romantic links between Breton and Irish nationalism.

Some of the graffitti says: "Brits out." Others read: "Anglais intégrés, oui. Colons, non." (Integrated English, yes. Colonisers, no.)

Jean le Pommelec, mayor of the village of Plussulien, south of Saint-Brieuc, said: "This is the work of a group of separatist extremists who want to kick all French people out of Brittany, never mind the English."

Nonetheless, he and other local people suggested that the scribbled messages were a useful reminder that the influx of British residents - while overwhelmingly positive in its impact on rural life - had to be managed carefully. "I do have one criticism," he said. "We have a new generation of British house-buyers who want to live here permanently. Some - not all, to be fair - don't want to learn French and they don't want to integrate in local life. In the long run, that could cause problems." Another local mayor said: "It is important to tell your readers that our English friends are very welcome. There is no hostility. These graffitti are just the work of someone trying to stir up trouble."

It is estimated by the British consulate in Paris that there are 150,000 British people living permanently in France, mostly in rural areas. There are, according to the French embassy in London, 250,000 mostly young, French people living in Britain, mainly in the London area. The purchase by British people of holiday or retirement homes in France is nothing new.

However, in the last five years, there has been a new wave of middle-class, middle-aged housebuyers, often with children, who want to settle permanently. They seek jobs locally or, more often, work by telephone or via the internet, or on contract back in the UK.

They choose to move to France because they prefer the quality and pace of French life and want to escape the problems of poor transport, education and health services in Britain. The key factor is that property in France can be bought for a fraction of the price of a similar home in the UK.

Olivier Moal, a notary, or property lawyer, in the small town of Bourbriac, where some of the graffiti has appeared, said that property prices in the area had been pushed up by 50 per cent in the past three years. One in three of all the houses sold in the region now goes to a British buyer.

"People complain that the English are pushing up prices but it's not really like that," M. Moal said. "The British usually buy old places that need to be renovated. Young locals are in a different market. They want to buy or build new houses."

Stanley Skinner, 53, gave up his job as a financial adviser and his home in Guildford 10 months ago to take over a bar in the village of Saint-Mayeux in the Côtes d'Armor département of Brittany. He said yesterday that he, and his wife and 17-year-old daughter have felt no hostility from the locals. He regarded the graffiti as "something political, the work of a couple of disaffected individuals". He said: "The attitude of most local people is that they are delighted we are here because otherwise they might not have a bar in the village. I would say that 80 per cent of my customers are French."