Peter Mayle, the doyen of writers about the good life in France, died recently at the age of 78. His book, A Year in Provence (1989), describes how he restored an 18th-century farmhouse near Ménerbes in the Luberon with the erratic help of local artisans, while enjoying the cuisine, wine and culture of Provence. The book became an unexpected bestseller and spawned many imitations.
A Year in Provence was followed by Toujours Provence and Encore Provence, which regaled readers with additional anecdotes of his life in France. Peter Mayle worked for some time in the advertising business and it’s fair to say that he could sell refrigeration to Inuits. How much easier it was, then, to peddle Provence to a market that was already accustomed to the recipes of Elizabeth David and holidays in the sun.
Peter Mayle became a victim of his own success. A Year in Provence was made into an embarrassingly bad TV serialisation starring a miscast John Thaw. Trespassers and paparazzi were sometimes found snooping around Peter Mayle’s house and garden. And he was blamed for the increase in Provençal house prices when people felt they’d also like a share of the good life he so successfully sold. He actually left France for a time to live in the U.S. before returning to a more secluded spot in Provence.
The Brits arrive
In the three decades since A Year in Provence was published, the number of Brits living in France has greatly increased, attracted by the comparatively cheap housing, wine and restaurant meals and the more relaxed, traditional way of life. This was facilitated by the creation of the European Union in 1992, establishing the free movement of member states’ residents.
INSEE (national statistics organisation) reckons that about 173,000 Brits live in France. I presume this means “live permanently”. Their numbers are swelled by the thousands who own holiday homes.
Out of a total population of France of about 67 million, 0.26% (the British contingent) may not seem particularly significant. But they are clustered in certain parts of the country: notably Normandy, Brittany, Charente and the south west. The highest number of Brits is in Paris, but they are less noticeable in the cosmopolitan mix. The demographic of these immigrants has changed in the past 30 years. To begin with, they were mainly retired people but it is noticeable that more families with children have moved in since the early 2000s and many Brits run business or work in France.
Effects on French rural society
I sometimes worry about the effect of all this on French society. I remember having a heated argument with one of my compatriots before we voted in our first French municipal elections. He said that he didn’t vote because local politics were about personalities and local issues that we couldn’t possibly comprehend and that we would step on local sensibilities. I maintained that we have just as much right to vote as the locals because we use and pay for the services provided by the local authorities.
I still believe that, but perhaps my views are more nuanced than they were in the early days. My interlocutor also claimed that we were in danger of altering French rural society forever and not necessarily in a good way. I think there are two sides to the argument.
On the minus side, there’s no doubt that house prices increased as a result of foreign buyers, thus putting them out of the reach of some locals. I distinctly remember mutterings in this area in the early 2000s. Since then, and especially with the spectre of Brexit, prices have stabilised or fallen. We have imported some of our customs, such as carol services, village cricket teams, fish and chips and English pubs. It’s a moot point as to whether the French either notice or care, but it makes me uncomfortable sometimes.
On the plus side, we Brits have rescued from oblivion and restored with care buildings that would otherwise be heaps of ruins. We have brought money and tourism to French regions and, in some cases, helped to revive villages that were moribund. Many Brits take an active part in the local community and in cultural and social associations, although most of us are careful to act like foot soldiers rather than generals.
I think it’s important to remember why we came to France, i.e. for a simpler life in a more tranquil setting, and to celebrate occasionally the symbols of our nationality, but not to try to turn France into a Little Britain. As Peter Mayle said, we will never be anything else but permanent visitors in someone else’s country and we have to respect that.
Sometimes in the depths of a gloomy winter (they don’t tell you about those when you buy a house in France), I re-read A Year in Provence. Okay, Peter Mayle caricatures the locals and romanticises aspects of French life, but he also shares his frustrations with bureaucracy and the vagaries of French tradespeople. And he does it with warmth and humour.
You might also like:
Why Living in France is Like Marriage
The Ups and Downs of Life in La France Profonde
Things I Didn’t Know When I Moved to France: Part 1, the Positives
Things I Didn’t Know When I Moved to France: Part 2 the Negatives
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