The media and the Brits in France

How are British incomers in France portrayed in the British media?

A flood, an invasion, bloodsuckers… we’ve all seen immigrants depicted using this kind of language in the British press.  Yet it surprised me to find that British journalists use the same language to refer to their compatriots who are living in France.

Migration often fosters resentment, but resentment of the British abroad is sometimes generated by other British people, in a kind of ‘us and them’ scenario.  My research led me to investigate how the Brits in France have been portrayed in the media in the first decade of the 21st century. 

I chose a method of analysis known as corpus linguistics, whereby I looked for patterns of language across 69 newspaper articles that referred to 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 represent British property buyers as an uncontrolled mass entity.

Many of the article writers were columnists who themselves lived in France.  They often referred to other Brits as something to avoid; they even made vague attempts to categorise different expat types (although personally I prefer to use the term migrant).  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.  In comparison, the longer-established residents were the acceptable ones, in one case described as not only welcome, but prized by the French.  These are the ones who came because they loved France.  So there was a clear ‘us and them’ division, between the old-timers and the newcomers.

I don’t doubt that 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 also go back years; Peter Thorold’s book The British in France goes into detail on this.

What also seemed to upset some writers was how 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?  Wandering through the Petty France area of Kensington recently, I wondered what the same writers would have to say about the profusion of French bakeries and restaurants.  Incidentally, when I spent time in the (now closed) British shops in Ariège, it was notable that at least half of the customers were French, popping in to buy teabags and biscuits (an idea for Boris Johnson to promote post-Brexit, perhaps?)

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 who came over with little idea of what they were doing.

Perhaps 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.  I have even heard this word used in Ariège, which has much lower concentrations of English speaking dwellers.  It’s a cultural stereotype that gets repeated across the media and 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 programmes consider how one might cope financially, and in day to day life, if people uproot for France without any work or knowledge of the basics in the local language.

After reading those articles I came away with a sense of conflict between the original migrants, who enriched the dying French villages, and the newer arrivals who were 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 being 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.

Former British shop in Ariège

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