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'Things have slowed dramatically': Brits in southwest France fear impact of Brexit

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'Things have slowed dramatically': Brits in southwest France fear impact of Brexit
Photo: ruskpp/Depositphotos
11:51 CET+01:00
Some 40,000 Britons have made south west France their home, but there are growing fears that Brexit could force many out of business, a disaster for them and a huge blow for the rural communities they have breathed life into.

In southwest France, where around one quarter of all Brits in the country live, Brexit is baring its teeth.

“Since September last year things have slowed down dramatically,” says Carolyn Pratt, a partner at real estate agency Idimmo in Saint-Jean-d'Angély, in the Charente-Maritime department.

Pratt says her agency has had 50 per cent less demand from UK clients since the end of last year.

“The minute there is uncertainty people lock away their purses."

The estate agent says her firm has cancelled three annual French property shows in London, Leeds and Manchester due to a lack of demand.

Britain's imminent divorce from the EU means 2019 and beyond is clouded with uncertainty.

"Nobody knows how anyone is going to react," she said. 

A slowdown in the property market expected in Nouvelle Aquitaine in 2019 will mean local British tradespeople are likely to be hit hard.

“There's a massive group of British builders, tilers, electricians and plumbers who are going to suffer because of the drop in sterling and the downturn in the property market,” says Pratt.

British couple Angie and Andy Quick run a roofing and renovation service, based near the border of Deux-Sévres and Charente, in the north of Nouvelle-Aquitaine.

Given that they rely on British clients for business they fear a slowdown in Brits moving to the area because of Brexit.

At the moment the outlook is uncertain and the impact of the referendum on local British tradespeople depends on who you speak to.

“We've been hearing mixed things,” says Angie.

READ ALSO: How Britons made south west France their home

How the British have made south west France their home

Last chance for Brits?

However another estate agent in the south west tells a different story of the impact of Brexit on trade.

“If anything Brexit has helped fuel sales,” says Elaine Bennett, from British estate agency Bernard Bennett in the department of Charente in the Nouvelle Aquitaine region.

“Many Brits want to buy before Brexit,” Bennett said, adding that 2018 was “a very successful year for our British client base.”

Some in the removals trade also report that business is still healthy.

“We are taking bookings from people moving out to France between April and July this year,” said Stephen Franklin, co-owner of logistics firm Franklin Removals which does 60 per cent of its business in the regions of Charente and Dordogne.

Franklin says his company, which does hundreds of removals to and from the French region each year, hasn't experienced a downturn since the referendum.

“We won't know until after Brexit but people haven't got that fear yet,” says the family business owner based in Lichfield, UK.

READ ALSO: No-deal Brexit: What France's contingency plan means for Brits in France

No-deal Brexit: What France's contingency plan means for Brits in France

Having one foot in France before March 29th – the day when Britain and its citizens could crash out of the EU unless a deal has been secured – will help Brits secure residency more easily after Brexit if Britain crashes out without a deal.

If Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement is somehow ratified by parliament then Brits will have until December 2020 - the end of the transition period -  to take advantage of freedom of movement and make the move to France. After that it is unclear what bureaucratic hurdles future movers will have to overcome.

In January 2019 France passed emergency legislation “which would provide interim protection for the rights of all British citizens who are legally resident on exit day” in the event of a no-deal, states an update by citizens' rights group Remain in France Together.

'Little England'

Retirees first started moving in numbers to the Nouvelle Aquitaine region around 30 years ago.

Thousands more, often younger Brits arrived this side of the millennium and many set up small companies providing services to British home owners.

Between 2000 and 2005 four out of ten EU nationals who moved to Nouvelle Aquitaine were from the UK.

The influx meant Nouvelle Aquitaine and its departments such as the Dordogne and Charente, which up until then were known as a home for retired expats, had a younger expat demographic.

More than a quarter of the 39,000 UK nationals in the region are of working age, based on data from France's national office of statistics INSEE.

'A lot of Britons don't understand the rules'

READ ALSO: Brexit - What are Britons in France supposed to do now?

Brexit: What are Britons living in France supposed to do now?

Yet finding work can be hard.

“The vast majority of people in the area are self-employed,” says Kathryn Dobson who runs Living Magazine.

The unemployment rate in the Dordogne was nearly 10 per cent in 2017 , higher than the French national average, according to data from INSEE.

Yet the steady influx of Brits to the Nouvelle Aquitaine region has helped shape an economy, often informal, for self-employed Brits providing services.

Many Britons work in construction or provide lifestyle and administration services; or as teachers, translators or in hospitality.

Brits have often settled in departments like Creuse and Corrèze that have experienced a general depopulation since 2008.

A steady influx of Brits with enough capital to renovate their homes has helped sustain an economy for other English-speakers in the region.

“Many British workers are employed by British clients,” says Dobson.

She says how many white collar Brits have traditionally worked for wealthier pensioners who invested and settled in the Dordogne area.

She says less-established Britons are already seeing their work decimated by reduced spending on homes and a drop in the number of new arrivals from Briton.

The fact many work informally in the service-providing economy means some Brits could struggle to prove they have all the right paperwork, such as tax returns, needed to gain a Carte de Séjour residency permit - which Brits are being urged to apply for by French authorities.

Campaign groups report that many Britons are afraid to apply for the necessary permit for fear of being turned down.

“A lot of people haven't understood the rules,” Dobson says. “A sizeable community lives off low income. Now that they are being asked to prove levels of income for residency, they are finding it difficult,” Dobson said.

With the French government set to introduce new legislation for Brits in France – in the event of a no-deal Brexit – elderly Brits who live off small pensions in the region and the self-employed could struggle to meet any future income assessment criteria for residency.

French MP Alexandre Holroyd,the lawmaker behind France's no-deal Brexit bill, told The Local recently that the process to register Britons must be made simpler and that some of the rules around levels of income should be softened, so people are not forced to leave the country. (You can read his interview below)

READ ALSO: 'It must be made simpler': The huge challenge France faces to register Britons after Brexit

'It must be made simpler': The huge challenge France faces to register Britons after Brexit

'Britons have made an impact'

But the French have been clear in their message that they want Britons to stay and to continue to come to France, not least because of the positive impact they have on rural areas that were in decline.

“In many cases, they (Brits) came to villages in France that were dying and made an impact,”  Senator Oliver Cadic told The Local. “They represent an added value for many places.”

France's Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau told The Local: "British citizens are a priority. We want them to stay. We want them to be able to work, study or be retired here."

Those thoughts will be echoed by many worried Britons in south west France.

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