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MOVING TO FRANCE

Parents reveal: The hardest things about moving to France with children

When asked why they dream of moving to France, many people say that it's about a better quality of life for their family - but just how easy is it to uproot children to a foreign country? We asked those who have done it to explain the challenges, the benefits and offer some crucial advice.

Parents reveal: The hardest things about moving to France with children
Photo: Depositphotos

Moving to France from another country is never easy for anyone, but it can be especially difficult with children.

So what is the best way to manage to move to ensure that things go as smoothly as possible for youngsters?

What were the biggest hurdles and what were the challenges that were easy to overcome? And what was easier than they expected?

We asked the true experts – the families who have already made the move to France and who have learned a few things along the way. 

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Children prepare for la rentrée in September. Photo: AFP

Language

Of course for everyone, child and adult, the biggest preoccupation is learning the language. People arrive with different levels of French, but almost all of us need to do some rapid learning once we get here.

So what's the best way to ensure your children pick up the language easily? And is it really true that kids just 'pick it up' without any effort?

British mum of three and Our Normandy Life blogger Natasha Alexander says it's not quite that simple.

She said: “It is such a myth that children will be fluent in three months, especially younger children. Normally chimed by people who 1) don’t have any children of this age and 2) are not moving to France.

“I’d say allow a year for children to be more comfortable speaking and two years to be totally fluent – and that’s with full immersion during term time.” 

In our survey, 42 percent of The Local's readers said that learning the language was the hardest aspect of moving for their children.

And most parents will say that children need at least a grounding in French before you make the move.

Angela Saver, who moved from Canada with three children aged 11, seven and six said: “Get their French language skills up before arriving.

“Order some French workbooks (the kind they sell for kids to use in the summer etc) to get them on track before the rentrée.”

Emma Snead, who lives in Aveyron in south west France said: “My son was aged 4 when we moved. The hardest part was that this is a small town with very little English spoken anywhere. He arrived to a classroom where he was the only non French kid and as a very verbal English boy it was hard for him to express himself.

She said the key was making friends with other parents.

“We made friends with parents and had them over for dinner with their kids and having been told by the teacher that he wasn’t making any progress, that night he became French and just relaxed into conversation with his friends. We were gobsmacked. Since then he’s been fine,” she said.

Blogger Elizabeth Hall, who writes the Sunkissis blog, took a slightly different tack and her daughter began learning French well before the family moved from Los Angeles to Paris.

She said: “Our daughter Olivia has attended French school since she was four and most people say she has no accent.”

In fact she said that her daughter was so fluent that she acted as the family's translator when they first made the move.

But most parents agree that while the transition isn't easy, most kids get there in the end.

Angela Saver added: “It was hardest for my 11-year-old who started in 6eme, academically there was some catching up to do but she kept up with the pace and graduated with her Bac last year after being accepted to the Sorbonne.”

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Schooling

The big decision that parents have to make when moving to France is what kind of school they should send their children to – state school, private school or international school.

We have a full guide to the different types of schooling in France here, but broadly speaking state schools are available to anyone and are free (apart from lunches and after-school activities) while private and international schools charge fees.

Lessons at French state schools are, of course, taught entirely in French and extra support for non French speakers varies quite widely from place to place. They offer 'total immersion' in French so many children learn rapidly, but for a child with no French at all it can be a challenge.

The other option is an international school, where lessons are generally taught in English, but have French classes. An easier option for some but they are generally in the bigger cities so may not be available to people living in rural areas.

There are also private schools, some of which have a level of state subsidy so offer cheaper fees, some where parents pay the full fees, such as the school in Paris which has no rules.

'French school was unfamiliar to us'

Louisa Russell, who lives in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region in south east France, selected the local school, but said that initially it was a struggle.

She said: “Our son Darien was 11. The fact that we couldn’t help him as easily with his homework was difficult because we had never been through the French education system ourselves. French school was as unfamiliar to us as it was to him.

“I would recommend parents to find a school with an international programme.”

Natasha Alexander's children are in a local private school, which is partially funded by the state, so fees are low.

She sad: “My son has one-to-one French lessons everyday for an hour – this is a fabulous support and not something I anticipated.”

But she added that parents should be prepared that not only is the curriculum different, teaching styles are often very different from British or US schools.

She said: “There’s no smiley faces here – it’s a red or green mark. It’s right or it’s wrong – there’s no 'well done for trying and never mind if you got it wrong' but not in a horrible way. It is what it is.”

One thing to add about local schools, teachers can and frequently do go on strike leaving parents having to take time off work or organise emergency cover.

Parents who have come from abroad don't have the grandparents to fall back on like French couples often do.

READ ALSO What is France's new education law and why is it so controversial?

 
Protests over changes to the French shool system (complete with French grammar joke). Photo: AFP

Making friends

Making new friends can be difficult for children (and adults!) wherever they are moving to, and with an added language and cultural barrier it can be much harder in France.

Jeff Waters said: “The biggest challenge for our daughter was making new friends. In many ways, France is a very insulated society that puts a lot of emphasis on family, so it’s difficult for outsiders to break in. The language barrier doesn’t help!

“It's important to make sure that your children are involved in a variety of different activities.

“We have our daughter in an international school and we attend the American Church in Paris. She also takes dance classes with students predominately French-speaking and is also involved in a choir that is predominantly French speaking.

“Think of your child as a tree: He/she needs lots of roots in different places in order for them to grow!”

The positives

Some parents however noted that they were pleasantly surprised that certain aspects of the move turned out to be easier than expected.

Elizabeth Hall, who moved from Los Angeles to Paris added that her daughter Olivia found it was to her advantage to have English as her mother-tongue.

She said: “Liv has made quite a few friends here in Paris. She is stoked that during English class she is the teacher’s assistant and she helps her classmates with their pronunciation.”

Angela Saver, who moved from Canada to France, said the key was to make the move an adventure for the children and it's now paid off.

“Our children initially saw the move as an adventure and we made efforts to keep the adventure pace going when they were young, visiting new places on the weekends, lots of car trips, hikes, beach outings, museums etc,” she said.

“After eight years they truly understand our motivations for jumping at our opportunity to move here and are quite happy we did.”

And Emma Snead, who has settled in the small village of Villefranche-de-Rouergue in Aveyron, said they were surprised by how welcoming people were.

“Older people especially are happy to chat and we have noticed that some parents are really happy to be friends with us as it means their children are expanding their horizons,” she said.

And for anyone struggling with the move she had this advice: “Just keep the faith. We didn’t do anything differently. We just kept smiling.”

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PROPERTY

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)

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