A new life in France: How the British media write about the Brits in France

Thinking of buying a property in France for a new life? Beware the British media!

A flood, an invasion, bloodsuckers… we’ve all seen immigrants depicted using this kind of language in the British press. Did you know British journalists living in France use the same language to refer to their compatriots who’ve also made the move?

Migration often fosters resentment, but resentment of the British abroad is often generated by other British people, in a kind of ‘us and them’ scenario. 

Fascinated, I began a research project, investigating how the Brits in France were portrayed in the British media in the first decade of the 21st century. 

Researching the media

I chose a method of analysis known as corpus linguistics, looking for patterns of language across 69 newspaper articles mentioning the British in France.  This kind of analysis highlights word associations that are statistically frequent, so researchers like me aren’t simply cherry picking examples to suit a theory. 

For instance, the words British and invasion were shown to have a strong association.  Admittedly, the idea of a British invasion may well be tongue-in-cheek, but together with metaphors such as a wave, a flood, a deluge, a swelling army, they make us think of British property buyers as an uncontrolled mass entity.

The ‘wrong type’ of British expat

Many of the article writers lived in France. They often referred to other Brits as something to avoid; they even made vague attempts to categorise different expat types. And why not use the term migrant? Expats are migrants, surely? But if being different comes down to making clear what you are not, then what exactly is the wrong type of expat? 

Well, the more recent arrivals were described as inspired by cheap flights and the property they saw on TV.  There were class inferences, although they were contradictory, ranging from the Ryanair crowd  through Brummie mummies buying ketchup to put on their maigret to a slice of the home counties parachuted into the Périgord. Insulting, no?

In comparison, the longer-established residents were presented as the acceptable ones, in one case described as not only welcome, but prized by the French. These are the Britons who came because they loved France – a clear ‘us and them’ division, between the old-timers and the newcomers.

I expect the stereotypes have some truth in areas such as the Périgord. The Brits here have been satirised by the delightfully tongue-in-cheek book on the British invasion by French journalist José-Alain Fralon (Au secours, les Anglais nous envahissent!).  These stereotypes go back years; Peter Thorold’s book The British in France mentions them.

The British spirit of adventure

Some writers seemed offended that the British have somehow lost their famous spirit of adventure, because they listen to the BBC, make sausages and mash and drink too much wine. 

All of this is what comes naturally to many of us, so what makes it so remarkable when we cross the channel? And when I spent time in the (now closed) British shops in the Ariège, it was notable that at least half of the customers were French, popping in to buy teabags and biscuits.

The Brits in France weren’t always portrayed negatively, and the words ‘dream’ and ‘idyllic’ occurred frequently throughout the articles. However, the word ‘dream’ was more often used to suggest a dream that had little basis in reality, since it was only a half-baked dream that had now become a wake up call for the Brits – people enthused by low prices with little idea of what they were doing.

The myth of the English-speaking ghetto in France

Surprising was the frequent use of the word ghettos, a word that traditionally meant an isolated minority forced into a particular area. When people asked what my research was about, they often nodded in recognition and went into a mild rant about the Brits abroad, huddled into their ghettos and all dependent on each other. It wouldn’t be so bad if people gave evidence of a specific place to support such a thing, but instead it’s just assumed that they exist. 

It’s a cultural stereotype that gets repeated across the media. I get tired of hearing it bandied so thoughtlessly in casual conversation. I know that people want to represent themselves as different from the stereotype, and I know that stereotypes start from something, but mindless repetition of a stereotype can be unpleasant and even dangerous.

It’s a fact that many Britons do return to the UK because the new life turned out to be impractical and not what they’d imagined.  It’s easy to imagine a new life across the channel, especially when the property magazines and the TV programmes focus heavily on value for money and the ever-present glass of wine.  Lots of people manage by ‘getting by’ but it would be good to see these property programmes focus a bit less on grabbing a bargain, and more on the practicalities of day to day life.

Us and them

Conclusion? There’s a sense of conflict between the original migrants who enriched the dying French villages, and the newer arrivals viewed as seeking a bargain. It was similar to the language used in the tabloids to depict immigrants and asylum seekers to the UK, but this time the ‘us and them’ distinction is made within the same compatriot group. 

By identifying ourselves as somehow different from the flood of other Brits, we legitimise our own behaviour. Because, above all, we want to be seen as the right kind of immigrant.

British shop in the Ariege France, where British people move to France
Former British shop in Ariège
A House at the End of the Track book

Want to know the rest of the story? It’s all here in the realistic travel narrative A House at the End of the Track.

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