We're poorer but happier in France

What prompts British people to give up jobs in the UK and move to France? We speak to families who made the move

25 February 2010

THE RECESSION has hit the pockets of many people living in France. The economic downturn has hit businesses and shrunk the jobs market.

Expats have been particularly hard hit for several reasons.

Pensioners and anyone drawing income from the UK have seen their earnings drop as the value of the pound tumbled against the euro.

This adds to the problems faced by Britons moving to France, even at the best of times.

People of working age often give up an established career or business to start a new life here from scratch with qualifications which may well be worthless.

Setting up a business is expensive and wages tend to be lower, so many of those coming to live here will earn less than in the UK.

It can be hard and does not always work out.

Some sell up and return to Britain but there are a great number who find the quality of life here is richer in ways that have nothing to do with money – and they are happy to stay even if it means fewer coppers in their pockets.

One such is Mark Fletcher. At the age of 35 he was running a successful painting and decorating business - but he was working 16-18 hours a day, six days a week and most Sunday afternoons just, as he said, "to keep up with the Joneses".

He had not been able to spend time with his 18-month-old son. So seven years ago he gave it all up for France.

He has no regrets: "I still do painting and decorating, some computer work and raise and sell rare breed poultry. I do not earn as much as I did in England but I spend loads of time with my children and do what I want, when I want.

"I am dressed like a tramp most of the time, covered in chicken poo most mornings and I love it. No-one is judgmental here and life is much better and safer for the kids."

He says he had a wonderful childhood and wanted the same for his children. "We live in the Finistère and I think it is like the UK countryside 30-40 years ago when people could leave their doors open.

"The children can just get on their bikes and ride off with no worries. The quality of family life is preserved and as long as we have money for food on the table and wood on the fire we are happy."

Jennifer and Peter Clayton moved to Brittany in 2004 and have two children aged two and eight.

Jennifer runs a gite and Peter, who is a flooring contractor, does most of his work in the UK where he has kept his contacts since he moved.

"We did all the sums before we came but could not foresee some of the costs. Our British friends here have a joke that every time the postman comes he will be bringing yet another bill for €400," says Jennifer.

But her gite business is going well and she says it is an excellent place for the children to grow up: "It is a combination of small things that make it so good for them.

"Somebody said ‘it is the whole village which brings a child up’ and that is so true here. We feel really involved in the local community. I like the way the children are taught to respect others and themselves.

"It is a great place to be young. We are near to the coast and we enjoy meeting the different people who come to stay with us.

"The costs of running a small business are very high. But all the qualities we came for are here - and it’s a very nice life."

Sallie Golden is one of the pensioners who have seen their income drastically reduced, but she is not sure that she would be any better off in the UK.

"I would be tightening my belt even if I was in England - and here I have things I could never afford back home. I have a house overlooking a lake which is big enough to have a room to rent out as a chambre d’hôte and I have enough land to grow my own food."

She lives in the Côtes d’Armor in Brittany and says she feels much safer there than in London.

"There I felt nervous but here I never lock the door and I can go out for a walk without feeling frightened.

"I think there is more tolerance here and people communicate more.

"Of course the health service is second to none. The doctors are amazing, you only have to wait a week or two for an appointment and you can have a single room in hospital rather than being on a crowded ward.

"Your health is your wealth and here you can have it."

Barbara Hollingworth has lived in Poitou-Charentes since 2005 and says the phrase poorer but happier in France sums it up for her.

She says her quality of life is much better now - there is no crime or petty vandalism, there is a good community spirit and it is altogether calmer and less stressful and commercial than in the UK.

Barbara worked in administration in England and gave up work when she came here to nurse her sick mother-in-law. But now she has had to find employment to pay the bills and started off as a chamber maid.

"It was something I had never done before and I hated it. But I persisted and now I have got a job as a hotel receptionist, which I love.

"My husband and I have a nice little bungalow and two cats and this feels like our home now. People are so nice and we have lots of friends - both French and British and we feel really integrated.

"It is hard for people back in Britain. Everybody is worried about losing their jobs and the social problems do not seem to be getting any better.

"It is true that the world of work is harder here and the pay is not good. But, on balance, I would definitely stay here."

'I was always worrying in London'

Keith Eckstein says: "I earn a sixth of what I used to but I am six times richer."

He moved to Brittany in 2002 after leaving his job as an IT manager in the City and had a complete change of lifestyle when he got a job in a
slaughterhouse where he worked for six years.

"The work was physically hard, lugging carcasses around, but there was less stress and we had fun.

"There was a great atmosphere and I felt I was sharing in the lives of those I was working with.

"We were all from the same village and would meet in the market on Saturday morning.

"The challenge of speaking in French also made it interesting.

"In London I would work 80 hours a week and was always waiting for things to go wrong.

"Here it was a 35-hour week and I have time to do other things - such as go out collecting mushrooms and reading."

He has now left the abattoir and set up a website design business and even has a blog to "share my love of Brittany".

Now he says he enjoys "the things that are really important to me such as cooking, eating, reading and enjoying the countryside and the people who live here."

'When things got tougher we chose France over the UK'

Keith and Sharon Smith moved to the Dordogne in 2004 with their four boys, aged at that time nine, 10, 11 and 13.

They moved into a mill complete with chambre d’hôte, but quickly discovered the high cost of running the business.

So Keith continued his job as an aircraft engineer in the UK - and, with the recession hitting the industry, has had to continue working abroad for much of the time, including a four-month stint in Kuala Lumpur.

He is paid in pounds so his income has also gone down in real terms in France and it has also meant a harder life for Sharon who has been mostly on her own without him.

Now they have put their house on the market but want to buy something cheaper here in France, rather than head back to Stockport.

"I think it has been much better for the boys.

"They appreciate the country life; we have had goats, a donkey, chickens and two pigs that we are rearing for meat - and it is a much healthier lifestyle.

In the summer they spend hours swimming in the River Dordogne, walking in the woods with the dogs and playing football on the village pitch.

"I would rather they were doing that than hanging about in a shopping centre - which seems to be the lot of many of their friends back home.

"The two older boys are now at catering college in nearby Souillac, which is one of the best in France, and they love the experience.

"They would not have had such good training in England."

'We love the life, even if we are skint'

Corinne Newton and her husband, Barry, both worked for local government in the UK and so just being here has made them happier. They live at St-Aubin-des-Châteaux in the Loire Atlantique.

"We love the space, the cleanliness and the people.

"We can afford a spacious house. Our son Jack is 14. He is happier at school and he has more freedom.

"We come from an area rife with drugs and he was not allowed beyond the garden gate. The activities during the holidays here are amazing. Jack has done archery, climbing, karting, ski-ing, water sports, karate. He would never have had the opportunity in the UK to do all those things and the cost has been minimal.

"We believe the health service to be brilliant with no waiting for months for appointments.

"Our income has been reduced by a third with the exchange rate but we both say we would rather be here and poor than go back to the UK. Obviously this lifestyle suits us, even though we are skint."

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