France faces loneliness problem

Abandoned women grab the headlines, but the problem goes much deeper

24 February 2011

PRESS reports about British women in France being deserted by their husbands have missed the point and failed to address a much bigger issue about loneliness, campaigners say. 

Media outlets on both sides of the Channel have shown an interest in stories of marriage break-ups and abandonment, but they have treated it as a purely expat phenomenon affecting women whose “French dream” turned sour.

Maria-Louise Sawyer, whose husband returned suddenly to the UK in 2008, found articles soon turned into a barrage of abuse from online commentators about British immigration to France.

She said the problem was just as serious for men and for French couples as it was for British women. She set up Waifs (Women Alone in France) to offer support and advice on “the petty nuts and bolts” of French administration.

Ms Sawyer said not enough was being done to protect those who suddenly find themselves alone. “A lot of people are ashamed to be in this position,” she said.

“They come here thinking: we’re going to make a life in here. They are frightened that people will laugh that they didn’t make it work.

“There are people over here who are in desperate situations and who have no idea how to get anything done.

“I have [British] people say they’ve gone to the embassy and and the staff say: ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do’. The embassy should be able to understand that people need help.”

The British consul in Marseille, Simon Taylor, said: “We do work hard where we can to signpost and refer people to expat associations or other bodies that may be able to help, and we will, if necessary, take up the matter with the French authorities.

“When we get calls for help from British nationals with problems such as loneliness, marriage and relationship break-up, bereavement, financial issues, or indeed a combination of all these then, of course, we take time to talk them through and offer as much practical help and support as we can.

“But there are challenges ahead for our consular network to improve the ways in which we provide help.”

A study by the Fondation de France charity last summer found one in 10 people lives in solitude and a quarter have only the most basic links to family or friends. The problem is just as widespread in towns and cities as in rural areas, and does not only affect older people: a third of those living in solitude are under 50.

Ms Sawyer added: “People are living longer and you are going to find a large number of people living on their own. They [the authorities] are going to have to think about helping these people and caring for them. Even French people don’t know the systems available to them.”

President Sarkozy has made dependency one of his top reform priorities for 2011, as France tries to find a sustainable way of paying for an ageing population’s care needs.

The interior ministry has already taken the lead with a new project called Opération Tranquillité Seniors, in which army reserves carry out regular checks on vulnerable and isolated elderly people.

I had the village turn against me

Martin (not his real name) moved to a remote village in the Aude with his wife in 2002 and they had a baby boy two years later, who spent several months in intensive care and has been in and out of hospital since.

The couple renovated a number of run-down properties and bought the local bar, but the business collapsed. Martin’s wife decided to move back to the UK and, after a three-year divorce case, she gave up custody in exchange for seeing her son at holidays.

He said French people have seen his case as exceptional, but there was never any question of him leaving his son or moving back to the UK.

“Even under French law, which I thought was quite fair, I had to go through a lot of processes [to get custody]. I had the village turn against me.”

Martin is one of just two men enrolled at a “mums and tots” group near his new home that allows English-speaking parents to help each other out.

“People say it’s the women who get lumped and dumped,” he added. “Often, when I have this discussion, people say I’m an exceptional case and don't fit into the norm.”

Husband was unable to take part in conversations

Mary Paddock, 54, moved to France with her then-husband in 2004. They settled in the Indre, where Ms Paddock’s husband was planning to set up an information technology consultancy and computer maintenance firm.

The couple did not speak much French and had a lot of difficult getting the business off the ground and dealing with bureaucracy.

Her husband soon became homesick. Ms Paddock told The Connexion: “In my experience, it’s usually the men in the relationship who are too lazy or afraid to try to speak French.

“We met quite a lot of English couples and it was nearly always the women who got stuck into going out, doing the shopping and getting things done, unless the guy was very sociable.

“We were always getting invites to French neighbours and it was almost as if he wasn’t there. He couldn’t contribute. I’d be sitting there trying to translate and keep up with the conversation. He loved where we were, but there wasn’t a life for him there.”

Find out more

Divorce options explained

SOS Help: free English-language listening line in France. 01 46 21 46 46 (daily from 3pm-11pm)

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