It’s immigration, Jacques, but not as we know it. I spent most of 2002 in the Bearn, a part of rural France so remote that most Parisians can hardly find it on a map. The province has its own diversity, with Basque, Spanish and North African elements in its dominant French culture.
It was a wild frontier for British expats. Not for long. In the past year, half the properties sold in my nearest market town have gone to British buyers. The new expats are nothing like the cliches struck by Peter Mayle and Somerset Maugham. Nor are they like the first wave – contented early retirees or habitual screw- ups on the run from negative equity or accidental VAT fraud. The new expats are young, in their thirties, often with small children and careers they intend to transplant to a better living environment. Unlike the first comers, they are ready to integrate. A new language? A different culture? Bring it on!
They are lifestyle expats, and they want to embrace the local way of life – unlike their counterparts in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East, who tolerate harsh and uncongenial living conditions in order to come home to a fat savings account. Sadly, sometimes, they do not come back at all.
But for the expats who escape across the Channel these days, life beckons in a construct of France that they have assembled from Manon des Sources, A Year in Provence and Nicolas Philibert’s film Etre et Avoir, a documentary about a year in the life of a village school in the remote Auvergne.
These wonders do exist but, as the new settlers discover, what supports them are high taxes, harsh bureaucracy and rural communities averse to change.
Despite this, a recent survey found that one British person in three would like to emigrate. The consulate in Bordeaux estimates that there are half a million British expats in Aquitaine alone.
The magazine French Property News thinks there may be 300,000 British people living and working in rural France, and at least as many again who own second homes. The International Passenger Survey, a questionnaire conducted on main transport routes and the Channel Tunnel, identified 359,000 British travellers en route to their homes in France last year.
Fuelling this tsunami of immigrants are soaring UK property prices, cheap credit, low air fares, pet passports, the new cyber-universe and the nice, secure feeling that we’re all in Europe now.
What is uniquely British is the knowledge that, over the centuries, we have built the social machinery that keeps a society together in spirit when its citizens are scattered around the world. Through the eras of exploration, colonisation, empire and war, for the sake of planters, merchants, soldiers, sailors, missionaries, civil servants, diplomats, VSO volunteers and backpackers, we have learned the skill of keeping in touch. British banks and businesses were multinational a full 200 years before the word entered the language. From letters, P&O steamers, bride-finding aunts and the BBC World Service to e-mail, Ryanair and mail-order Marmite, we have offered a whole repertoire of support services for adventurers.
The real difference between an immigrant and an expat is emotional. It’s about where the heart is. In the Bearn, I met British-born people who had decorated their houses in the Bearnais national colours and were determined to be buried within sight of the Pyrenees. I also met third-generation expats, the bilingual children of monolingual parents and grandparents. They called Essex “home”, but never intended to live there.
Small as the community was, certain divisions endured. Socialist teachers had coffee with Thatcherite property developers – but they did not barbecue together. The self-made millionaire graduate of an East End comprehensive refused to break baguette with the Oxbridge lawyer.
To be an expat is to realise that a sense of nationality is a cornerstone of self-image. In a strange land, this is shaken and, to underpin it, you recreate fragments of the culture you have left behind. I first felt this at the age of 19, studying at a French university, where I wrote home for marmalade and felt too humiliated to go to the Societe Generale on the day the pound was devalued. Now, in Provence expats play cricket; in the Dordogne they run a conkers tournament. In the Bearn, we have McGuire’s, an Irish pub where the English-speaking community gathers on Friday. Not quite integrated yet, then. But give them time.
Celia Brayfield’s book Deep France: a writer’s year in the Bearn is published by Pan Macmillan (£7.99)