End of the affair? Britons quit France for the home life

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The Independent Online

When Steve Howe moved to the south of France in 2000, he thought he had found the good life. He had a bright business idea and his future, he believed, was in the Riviera sun.

After five years, disillusioned with both the aggressive approach of the French tax authorities and the slow pace of doing business, he returned to Britain and now runs his company from Bristol.

He is just one of an increasing number of British people from the many thousands who have moved across the Channel in recent years - often beguiled by television programmes - but are now returning, having found the lifestyle did not live up to expectations.

Mr Howe, 36, said: "I just found it easier to run things from here, although ironically, we are serving the south of France and I still fly there about once a month. Here, I have been able to expand my company from two freelance to 10 full time. We pay reasonable taxes, but the wages are higher." He now publishes two business directories, one aimed at English speakers in the Riviera and another for the Mediterranean yachting world.

Mr Howe was on an extended holiday from his job in advertising sales when he ended up in Antibes. He said: "I'd had this idea for a Yellow Pages-style business directory and thought that was where I was destined to be for a while. I found a great place to stay, moved all my stuff over and was enjoying living in Antibes, which is a party town.''

But he found the tax authorities and bureaucracy difficult. "The time spent preparing papers, accounts, paying accountants, lawyers, not to mention the worry, is horrendous," he said. "How can a business run with the tax man constantly breathing down your neck?'' Other problems stemmed from French attitudes: "Everything shuts for two hours at lunchtime and if you ask for something to be done - like business cards or an internet connection - it can take ages."

Mr Howe learnt French and said it was necessary to do so. "But even though I speak fluent French, I had and have no real French friends," he said.

Although the number of people moving to France remains high, the amount returning has dramatically increased over the past couple of years. The reasons vary from unhappiness at being parted from family, isolation, lack of contact with neighbours, difficulties with language and in finding work or running businesses.

James Hickman, sales director of currency brokers Caxton FX, said that in the first quarter of this year the number of people moving their money out of France had doubled, compared to the same period last year - from 17 per cent of transactions to 36 per cent.

"There is definitely an increase in people coming back," he said. "It's because they haven't done their homework properly and don't realise that it can be difficult to integrateinto French country life.

"While some small French rural towns are buzzing during the day, in the evening they are deserted because all the entertaining goes on at home. And people see a nice house on the internet and buy it without knowing anything about the area."

Estate agents agreed. Annie le Gal from Breton Homes, in Brittany, said she believed the figure for those returning was around 10 per cent, while Jane Tasker of Nord-Charente-Homes, in western France, said it was about 10 in every 250, compared with one or two a couple of years ago.

Many Britons have unrealistic business ideas, said Mike Meade, editor of the Riviera Reporter, a news letter for expatriates. He said: "I once met an Englishman who wanted to make and sell artisan pasta sauces on the Riviera. He hadn't thought this through: the best pasta sauces are a few minutes away by car in Italy, the French consider themselves better cooks than English people, so are unlikely to buy from one, and, like in the UK, you have to abide by health regulations.

"It must be said that the reason many Britons can't find work here is that they refuse to learn good French - which is absolutely normal and necessary - have no skills or have skills that are not needed here, or refuse to adapt to the French way of doing things, expecting instead that France adapt to them."

For Mr Howe there was one bright spot: his second customer in France was Armelle Zarate. She is half-Mexican, encountered the same problems he did - and is now his girlfriend.

Popular spots for Brits in France

* DORDOGNE:

This rural département of south-west France inland from the Bordeaux area has seen such an influx of Britons that it has been nicknamed "Dordogneshire". Originally mainly a tourist region because of attractions such as the cave paintings at Lascaux, many British visitors also decided it was a good place to live.

* NORD-PAS-DE-CALAIS:

The Channel Tunnel opened up the nearest bit of France to England, giving many Britons the option of living in France, while remaining close to home. There are attractive coastal towns like Le Touquet and Boulogne and other benefits of French life, like good schools, great restaurants and a pattiserie on every corner.

* THE SOUTH:

The Riviera became fashionable with upper-class British visitors at the end of the 19th century. In recent years the inland areas of Provence embodied the middle-class ideal of downsizing to an eccentric French village, following the success of Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence.

* NORMANDY:

Home of the three C's: camembert, cider and calvados, Normandy has become a popular place to relocate among Britons who first discovered it as a holiday destination. While the Normans were the last people to successfully invade this country, many British soldiers lost their lives on the Normandy beaches on D-Day in 1944.

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