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Forget the sunny south, here’s why you should move to northern France

The unglamorous and often overcast far north of France is never high on the list of French regions foreigners dream of moving to, but author Janine Marsh explains why people need to give it more thought.

Forget the sunny south, here's why you should move to northern France
Cap Blanc Nez on the nothern coast of France. Photo: Maelick/Flickr

At this year's France Show in London an estate agent gave a presentation about the best places in France to move to in front of dozens who are mulling over the move.

From Dordogne to the Charente and from Brittany to Normandy the agent covered all the popular places expats tend to head to.

But the far north of the country, the region now known as Hauts-de-France and in particular the most northerly departments of Pas-de-Calais and Nord did not get a mention.

Perhaps it's not surprising. Maybe it's considered too close to Britain, not just geographically but when it comes to the industrial landscape in parts of the north as well as the weather.

(Janine Marsh with her rooster. Photo: Janine Marsh)

But author Janine Marsh who has a house in the Seven Valleys area of Pas-de-Calais says more people should consider the north.

“It's only 35 minutes from the UK but it's a different world,” she says. “I don't know why more people don't think about this area.”

Marsh is the author of “My Good Life in France: In pursuit of the rural dream” and decided to buy her house on a whim during a short trip across the Channel back in 2004.

She did the exact opposite to what most people looking to buy a house in France are advised to do.

“We did no research at all. We didn't know the village or the area. We didn't really know what we doing, but life is short,” Marsh says.

Her house cost just €60,000. Even though it was in desperate need of a sprucing up the price just seemed too good to walk away from. 

“The mortgage cost about as much as my gym membership in London,” she says.

(Photo:Pierre Andre Leclerq/Flickr)

Commuting to London

One of the real advantages of northern France compared to the sunnier parts of the country that draw in many expats is its proximity to the UK and to Eurostar terminals in Lille and Calais.

That means people could still keep the jobs in the south east of England but live in France.

“I can be in London in 58 minutes. In other words you can work in London and have the best of France; the lifestyle, the food,” says Marsh. “There are people who spend more than two hours each day commuting to London from around the UK.

“A lot of the Brits who live in this part of France work shifts in the UK such as nurses or doctors and get three days off in a row. There are also lots of young people moving to the area who work in areas like publishing and can work from home in France for a few days a week and then pop to the office in London once a week.”

The only problem that Marsh points out is that a fast internet connection is not guaranteed in all parts of the rural north. So those who need to work from home will have to do their research first.

Making friends.

If there's one thing the north of France has over the rest of the country it's the reputed friendliness of the locals, known in colloquial terms as “Les Ch'tis”.

“It's easy to make friends with the French in the north,” says Marsh. “They are very interested in what you do. People used to just come and knock on my door or wander into the garden to introduce themselves.

“After being in London I wasn't used to people coming up to me and shaking my hand or even kissing me. But now I love it.

“Now everyone knows my business, even if I don't know theirs. It's a bit like going back in time 50 years, people leave their doors open and neighbours don't turn you away.

People who move to France to start a new life often tend to fall into two categories, those who like to be around other expats and those who like to avoid them completely.

Marsh says northern France offers the best of both worlds.

“There are expat clubs around here with hundreds of members, so if people want them they are there and if they want to avoid them then they can.”

What about the weather?

One of the reasons the estate agent at the France Show in London ignored the north of France is that many who move from the UK head for the sunny south or south west.

When it comes to the weather, northern France has the same reputation as northern England, eternally drizzly and overcast.

( Mont de Kersuin at Bouin Plumoison in the Seven Valleys. Photo: Steve C/Flickr))

But it's not that bad, says Marsh.

“I've been down to the south of France and it rained non-stop for three days. I got back home and the sun was shining.”

Nevertheless if you want sun the north of France is not for you. The departments of Nord and Pas de Calais get just over 1,500 hours of sunshine each year – which ranks them among the six least sunny departments in all of France.

Compare that to the Riviera where the Alpes-Maritmes department gets over 3,000 hours of sunshine a year.

“The sun is overrated,” says Marsh.”It never gets too hot here. I have friends in the south who tell me the only way they can sleep in the summer is by putting their pyjamas in the fridge.”

(Stella beach, Pas-de-Calais – Vincent Desjardins)

Picturesque Pas-de-Calais

While other parts of France are better known for their spectacular scenery such as the Dordogne or the former Languedoc region in the south west, the far Pas-de-Calais and the surrounding areas do have plenty going for them.

Not least the opal coast and the stunning cliffs at Cap-Blanc-Nez and Cap-Blanc-Gris. There is also the chic beach resort of Le Touquet where the French president Emmanuel Macron has a house in the centre of town and a little further down the coast is Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, which in 2017 was voted France's most beautiful village.

The region is also home to historic towns like Arras (see pic below) and if you looking for big urban centre Lille is close and Paris is of course not too far away.

Photo: OliBac/Flickr

And you have the peace and tranquility that makes rural France so attractive.

“I drive to the shop and pass three cars on the way,” says Marsh. “I never sit in traffic apart from when you meet a herd of cows crossing the road.

“It's only 35 minutes from the UK but it's a different world. I don't know why more people don't think about this area.”

The far north of France has probably suffered a little from bad publicity in recent years due to the migrant crisis in and around Calais which has given the whole area an unfair reputation. 

“When people think of Pas-de-Calais they just think of Calais,” says Marsh. “But that's just one town. There are picturesque villages and medieval towns, hills and valleys. Every town has a market and it's great to go to the local café for a coffee or an aperitif.

“The sandy beaches and the cliffs along the coast are stunning. You'll see fishermen selling fish out of their garages,” says Marsh.

“If you want that kind of life you read about in Peter Mayle books you can have it in northern France.”

(Equihen plage. Photo: Guillaume Baviere.)

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For members


Garant: How the French guarantor system works for property rental

If you're looking to rent an apartment in a larger city in France, you're likely to see announcements that require a 'garant'. Here is what you need to know about finding a guarantor in France.

Garant: How the French guarantor system works for property rental

Renting in large cities in France – particularly in Paris – is a known challenge for foreigners, especially new arrivals. In the countryside, it’s a bit easier, with less competition properties, but in the big cities compiling your dossier and landing the right place can be a challenge.

One of the biggest surprises for many people is that most landlords ask for a guarantor (garant) in order to sign a lease for an apartment. It is not a legal requirement, but in competitive real estate markets, it certainly feels like one.

Though asking for a garant might feel a bit juvenile, it is quite common, and applies to a lot more people than you might realise. Here is what you need to know:

Who typically needs a guarantor?

The most common group to need guarantors are students. However, if you are a foreigner who is not employed with a CDI (indefinite contract) and if you do not make over three times your monthly rent, you will likely need a guarantor as well.

If you don’t collect your income in France (or if you don’t have an income) you will need a guarantor.

You will also likely need one if you are still in the probationary period of your CDI, or if you cannot show three months worth of pay stubs from your job yet (even if you pay meets the three times a month requirement). If you do have a CDI, you could ask your employer to sign you an attestation d’employeur which verifies your monthly income. 

If your income is not steady or consistent (perhaps you are a freelancer). Typically, if you use an agency during the leasing process, they will require a guarantor, especially if any of these conditions apply to you. 

It is worth noting that showing bank statements typically do not suffice – landlords are looking for proof of ongoing income, not savings.

Who can count as a guarantor?

The guarantor should be a third party, such as a parent or close relative who agrees to pay your rent if you fail to pay.

This person must fulfil all the requirements outlined above (ie earning more than three times your rent with an indefinite contract).

The other tricky part is that this person must work and live in France, and usually it’s best that they are French themselves.

However, this can pose a problem for foreigners who might not know anyone that fits that description, so thankfully there are some other options fill this requirement, like taking out a caution bancaire or using an online agency. We explained the ins-and-outs of these bellow.

What does my guarantor need to show?

The guarantor needs to put together a dossier of documents including;

  • Proof of identification (a passport or French ID card)
  • Proof of residence that is less than three months old (eg utility bills).
  • Most recent tax returns
  • Employment contract and typically three months worth of payslips
  • If they earn money via real estate, they must also provide documentation for this
  • If the person in question is retired, they must provide proof of pension (again, this must exceed your monthly rent threefold). 

So, what if I don’t have a French person who can be my guarantor? There are a few options for you:

Use an online service

There are two main online services that can act as guarantors for foreigners in France.

The first is Visale, which is accessible primarily to foreign students.

This is a programme offered via the French state through “Action Logement” and it covers up to three years of unpaid rent. You must be between 18 and 30 years old to apply, and you must hold a long-stay visa (VLS-TS) – either a student visa or a ‘talent’ one.

For students who are already citizens of a European Union country, then simply presenting a student card and a valid passport will be sufficient. It can be applied to private housing and student residences, but it is ultimately up to the landlord as to whether they will accept a tenant who uses Visale as their guarantor. The main benefit to Visale is that it is free for the user.

Visale does come with some restrictions, however. Your rent (including charges) cannot exceed €1,500 in Paris, and €1,300 in the rest of the country. In addition, the lease must be for a primary residence, and your rent should not exceed 50 percent of your total income.

Another option is GarantMe, a paid online website that can also serve as an official guarantor.

Landlords might actually prefer this service over a physical guarantor who might refuse to pay or for whatever reason not have the funds to do so. The benefit to GarantMe is that they accept a wider range of tenants for their service, but the downside is that there is a fee. The minimum payment (per year) is €150, but the fee is normally 3.5 percent of the annual rent (including charges) and it renews automatically.

The nice thing about GarantMe, is that in order to apply for the service, you basically need to create a full dossier that will be identical to what you’ll need for your apartment search anyways.

Take out a Caution Bancaire

Basically, a caution bancaire is a bank guarantee, and typically its a bit more of a last resort option because it is quite restrictive for the tenant. It involves blocking off a large sum of money to be used to pay rent if you fail to do so.

Depending on the landlord (and the bank), they might ask you to block between six months worth of rent to sometimes up to two years. This would be used as guarantee during the duration of your lease, but it takes a bit of administrative coordination and obviously requires a large sum of liquid funds.

Sometimes activating a bank guarantee can take a few weeks, and for foreigners, of course, this would require already having a French bank account. There can also be fees, depending on the bank, for using a caution bancaire, and simply closing of caution bancaire account in itself can involve fees.

The other downside to this is that not all landlords will accept it, which is why this option might be best served as a last resort.

Attempt to find an apartment that does not require a garant

This is quite difficult in Paris (and other large cities around France). It is possible sometimes if you stick to foreigner-oriented sites like NY Habitat or Paris Attitude. Another possible loophole could be to see if your insurance plan offers coverage of unpaid rent. This is quite uncommon, but could be a possible option. If you rent specifically particulier-à-particulier (meaning you do not use an agency at all) you might be able to negotiate with the landlord, or if you have a sub-lease you might not need to show proof of a guarantor.

Ultimately, however, in most cases when renting in France’s large cities, you’ll likely need a guarantor.

What should I be aware of when it comes to guarantor websites?

As mentioned previously, Visale is only for people in the 18-30 age group, so unfortunately it does not apply to everyone. It is also intended for lower income people or students, so if you are a high earner you might be rejected.

Regarding using a website like GarantMe, beware that they will charge you every year – it is not a one time fee. This will be deducted from the card you put on the site and the only way to cancel the charge will be to show proof that you have moved out (i.e. an état des lieux or letter releasing you from the obligation signed from your landlord)