Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

English homes attacked in Brittany

On my way home last night I read a slightly unsettling article in one of the free London newspapers:
British families have had their homes and cars set alight in a spate of attacks against foreign-owned property in Brittany. "Britts out" graffiti has been daubed across towns in the area in protests over an influx of foreign homeowners, which has caused house prices to spiral. Last night, Iraq war veteran Darren Widd and his wife Linsey were forced to flee their home in Callac at 2am with their daughter Chloe, two. Arsonists had attached their car,parked directly outside their café-bar, causing their property to go up in flames. On the same night, two English-owned homes in a nearby village were ransacked and a camper van set ablaze.

Of course reading articles like this it's hard to understand whether this was just a one-off incident or whether it really is as bad as the headline writers would have us believe. I had a look on both BBC news where I found nothing and then Google news which lead me to a similar article about English homes being attacked on Times Online.

My experience has if anything been pretty much the opposite of the story-line. We've found that although there are quite a few ex-pats living in Brittany there's hardly enough to be described as an 'influx'. We only know of one other English couple a few miles away from us and it's hardly Costa del Sol with wall-to-wall fish and chip shops and English bars on the high street. English occupation levels are I believe much higher in neighbouring Normandy around Cherbourg, St James and Vire.

We've always been made very welcome by everyone we've met; our immediate neighbours often give us (and our holiday guests) little parcels of home-grown produce from their garden - a lettuce or two, tomatoes, rhubarb or French beans. I've always tried to keep them informed of what we are doing in the house and they've always been very friendly and pleasant despite the language barrier which can reduce the small-talk between us!

I've also heard quite the opposite on the issue of the English buying up all the properties in the area. Most English looking to buy in rural France want to buy a characterful house with stone walls and oak beams - quite the opposite of the French who want to live in a modern centrally heated house with big windows and a manageable garden. They're often more than happy to sell on a crumbling pile of stones (sometimes little more than a shell of a building - what our estate agents would call 'has potential') and move to somewhere more up to date and modern. Of course renovating the property then means more work for the local builders, tradesmen and bricolage's and if the mad Anglais want to pay over the odds for a ruin then a canny Frenchman is hardly going to stand in their way!

The housing market in France has for the last few years been considerably steadier than it has in the UK. Most areas have seen a gradual 4-7% rise in property prices per year, far lower than the galloping UK property inflation, and obviously there is the usual laws of supply and demand especially in and around fashionable towns and seaside resorts. There's definite evidence of over-supply as well and it's not uncommon for houses to take up to 2 years to sell - two sets of friends of ours have had their houses on the market for over a year.

I'm obviously sorry to hear of the Widd's tale and hope (and my own experiences back this up) that this is a relatively isolated incident.

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  • I'm afraid this is a tale of racism like many others. We don't have to think too far back to remember the Welsh Nationalists and their campaign to burn down English owned holiday cottages in the principality ("Come home to a real fire, buy a cottage in Wales"!). More recently, the Cornish have had a thing or two to say about the English incomers and have made threats towards Rick Stein & Co. for pushing up house prices for locals. It seems to be a particularly Celtic trait borne of a complex combination of patriotism, feelings of repression, a siege mentality, and then rising house prices (I say this as a Welshman).
    Geoffrey is right to point out that many of the houses bought by the British would otherwise be unrennovated ruins, and suspect this is certainly true of our own cottage that has been a holiday home for the previous three sets of owners prior to our purchase, and I get the impression the most unpopular of all incomers are Parisians!
    There was some hope in the widd story, I noted that they said "If it hadn’t been for our neighbours’ support we might have packed up and gone home" indicating that the anti-British sentiment was far from universally shared, and that many of their neighbours welcomed their presence.
    You have to have some sympathy for communities that see village houses bought by holiday owners (of whatever nationality) who then use it for a few weeks a year, contributing little to the local economy. That's where I think the likes of the coans and I can occupy a bit of moral high ground, as our ownership model does include renting out - ours will be occupied for at least 220 nights this year and each guest will be buying local goods and spending money in the local community, helping to sustain the economy. This is good for everyone - unfortunately, racism feeds on ignorance, not logic.

    By Blogger me, at July 13, 2007  

  • Hi Geoffrey

    Apart from a run in with one of the Chasse who beat his chest and told me to go home because 'France is his country' we have nothing but a warn and friendly welcome here in South West France.

    Our children have made very good friends and their parents are happy for us to be part of the local population.

    We laugh and talk and generally interact.

    There are quite a few Brits within the locality and we have had many comments about how the English have saved the country stone houses from permanent ruin.

    I will watch with interest.



    By Anonymous Anonymous, at July 13, 2007  

  • sad news for brittany guys

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at July 15, 2007  

  • As a family who rented a stone cottage renovation in SW Brittany May 2007, (not one of the 2 above )I will add that we were welcomed for our one week stay and found the townspeople friendly. The home was lovely, though a bit chilly and had lots of spiders!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at July 20, 2007  

  • Thanks everyone for your comments.

    Another angle on this unacceptable racist attack that I'd not thought about until recently is that of the Breton people who might consider themselves as being increasingly isolated and marginalised in their own country. There's clear similarities with the Welsh and Cornish locals who also can't afford to buy homes because of second home foreigners who don't speak their language, understand their culture, and only occupy their house for a few days of the year.

    Who am I talking about? Why the Parisians of course! There's probably many more Parisians who have a second 'country home' in rural France as there are British, and unlike many of us their country home doubtless stays unoccupied for most of the year. Martin makes an excellent point about those of us (like him) that rent out our holiday homes are not only helping to pay our own bills but also bringing tourists and their spending into rural France and as a result directly benefiting the local economy.

    Arguably we could be considered as a positive contribution to society as we pay all our local taxes, take comparatively little back in return (we don't use the local schools or welfare state, etc) and we spend a small fortune renovating and repairing our French idyll's.

    As for local trouble the only grumble I've had about being English was when I turned up at the builders merchant at 11:50 to buy some supplies and the lady reprimanded me for nearly causing the staff to be late for their lunchbreak - the shops shutting from 12 until 2 is still something we find hard to get used to.


    By Blogger Geoffrey, at July 22, 2007  

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