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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

MAP: Where in France can you buy property for less than €100k?

While French cities such as Paris are notoriously expensive, there are many areas outside the cities where it is still possible to buy spacious homes for less than €100,000 - particularly if you don't mind a bit of renovation.

MAP: Where in France can you buy property for less than €100k?

We decided to look at where in France you could afford a property on a budget of €100,000, and it turns out there are some bargains to be had.

There are a lot of caveats while searching for property, and many local variables in place, but our search does show some of the areas to concentrate on if you have a limited budget.

We used the Notaires de France immobilier website in August 2022, and we specified that the property should have at least five rooms (including kitchen and bathroom) and a floor space of at least 100 square metres.

We also discounted any property that was for sale under the viager system – a complicated purchase method which allows the resident to release equity on their property gradually, as the buyer puts down a lump sum in advance and then pays what is effectively a rent for the rest of the seller’s lifetime, while allowing them to remain in the property.

READ ALSO Viager: The French property system that can lead to a bargain

For a five-room, 100 square metre property at under €100,000, you won’t find anywhere in the Île-de-France region, where the proximity of Paris pushes up property prices. The city itself is famously expensive, but much of the greater Paris region is within commuting distance, which means pricier property. 

Equally the island of Corsica – where prices are pushed up by its popularity as a tourist destination – showed no properties for sale while the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur – which includes the French Riviera – showed only 1 property under €100,000.

The very presence of Bordeaux, meanwhile, takes the entire département of Gironde out of this equation – but that doesn’t mean that the southwest is completely out of the running. A total of 25 properties came up in the Nouvelle Aquitaine region. One property was on the market for a mere €20,000 – but it was, as the Notaires’ brochure noted, in need of “complete renovation”.

Neighbouring Occitanie, meanwhile, showed 12 further properties in the bracket.

By far the most properties on the day of our search – 67 – were to be found in the Grand Est region of eastern France. The eastern part of France overall comes out best for property bargains, with the north-east region of Hauts-de-France showing 38 properties and and Bourgogne-Franche-Comté displaying 25.

Further south, however, the presence of the Alps – another popular tourist destination – pushed up prices in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region which showed just three results.

The below map shows our search results, with darker colours indicating more cheap properties.

Property buying tips 

In order to make a comparison, we focused our search on properties advertised online, but if you have a specific area in mind it's well worth making friends with a few local real estate agents and perhaps also the mayor, since it's common for properties not to be advertised online.

Most of the truly 'bargain' properties are described as being "in need of renovation" - which is real estate speak for a complete wreck.

If you don't mind doing a bit of work you can often pick up property for low prices, but you need to do a clear-eyed assessment of exactly how much work you are willing and able to do, and what the cost is likely to be - there's no point getting a "cheap" house and then spending three times the purchase price on renovations.

READ ALSO 'Double your budget and make friends with the mayor' - tips for French property renovation

That said, there were plenty of properties at or near the €100,000 mark that were perfectly liveable or needed only relatively minor renovations.

You also need to pay attention to the location, as the sub-€100,000 properties are often in remote areas or very small villages with limited access to amenities. While this lifestyle suits many people, bear in mind that owning a car is a requirement and you may end up paying extra for certain services.

Finally remember that government help, in the form of loans and grants, is available for environmentally friendly improvements, such as insulation or glazing.

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