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The secrets to settling in France: Readers reveal their five top tips

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The secrets to settling in France: Readers reveal their five top tips
All photos: AFP
11:11 CEST+02:00
Moving to a new country is never easy, but France seems to be gaining a reputation as a country that is hard to settle in if you're not a native. So what's the secret?

We asked the experts - the long-term French residents among readers of The Local - what advice they would give to newcomers on how best to feel at home in France.

A survey published last week by Expat Insider Internations group showed France placed 42nd out of 64 countries rated as the best places for foreigners to move to. And it was ranked 52nd out of 64 in the categories on friendliness and ease of settling in.

Survey respondents said that those who do not speak fluent French have a particularly hard time when they first arrive, but even those with good language skills found it hard to make friends with French people.

So we asked readers of The Local - many of whom have lived in France for decades - about their experiences and what they would suggest to new arrivals.

1. Learn French

It might seem pretty obvious, but if you're planning on being here long term, you will need to learn the language. Unlike other countries where it seems that virtually everyone speaks English, many French people speak little or no English. If you're in a touristy area, or an area with a high concentration of English speakers, you are likely to find people who can help you out with day to day requirements, but if you're looking to settle down and make friends with the locals, French will be essential.

Anne McKee, who has lived in France for 29 years, said: "It is imperative to learn French, learn how things work and be determined to stick at it and accept that France is not England. It is unfair to the French to compare them to the English."

In good news, there is lots of help on offer for people who want to learn, and if you're unemployed or with an income below a certain level, the French government will even pay for your classes.

On the plus side, due to the reputation that English-speakers have for being somewhat monoglot, people who do make a real effort to speak French are generally appreciated.

Ela Jacobs added: "Make the most of all that one is offered - arts, festivals, markets, etc. And having a go with the language. People here in Perpignan are very welcoming - many speak English, but like you even better if you have a go, and interact and laugh/smile as well."

READ ALSO Sympathy and the odd freebie - why you really should speak bad French

2. Learn the secrets of bureaucracy

One of the main things that strikes foreigners when they first move here is the incredible amount of paperwork necessary for daily life. When you first move there will be big things to arrange like a carte de séjour residency permit (depending on your nationality and status) and a carte vitale health card. But even after the big things are out of the way there will still be lots to keep you occupied - from your complex yearly tax returns to the necessity of taking your passport to the post office every time you need to collect a parcel.

Claire Harvwood, who has lived in France for 15 years, said: "Getting a degree in government administration in French would be of benefit before you arrive. Paperwork is a big issue so getting all documentation together is crucial. Today, dealing with the Town Hall is much easier than 15 years ago as people working there have now become more communicative and share information when you ask a direct question."

Michelle Lucas agreed, saying: "The bureaucracy can be a nightmare! By this, I mean the paperwork; the difficulty in getting appointments, the many papers they require (sometimes several times over due to 'clerical errors'), and the time it takes for them to process said papers once the 'clerical errors' have ceased. Opening bank accounts, obtaining the proper insurance if you're renting a place, getting electricity hooked up in your name, and transferring the license plate on your vehicle also have the potential to cause much frustration."

Sadly there are no shortcuts to French bureaucracy, it all needs to be done and it will all take lots of time, so perhaps the best advice is simply to adopt an attitude of zen-like calm when you are asked to fill in the same form for the fifth time.

READ ALSO From dossier to notaire - your guide to the crazy world of French bureaucracy

3. Move to the country

Perhaps not practical for everyone, but readers in rural areas report that their neighbours and colleagues were much keener to be friendly and welcoming than those in the city.

Long-term resident Thomasina said: "Living in a small village makes life infinitely easier in France. You see the same people, day in and day out.

"At some point, the locals actually acknowledge your presence, every time they see you. Visibility is key. Familiarity is key. And the day you receive the triple (in the south of France where I live) kiss greeting, you know you've made it."

Peta Dulwaulle added: "I've made loads of French friends over more that 30 happy years living in a small village in Normandy and have always been treated with love, kindness and respect."

One American reader even reported that the neighbours in rural France supervised the refurbishment of their kitchen after a fire when they had to return to the USA for eight months for family reasons.

READ ALSO These are the biggest challenges of living in rural France

4. Join in

Making friends anywhere new is not easy, but joining clubs, groups and organisations is generally a great way to meet new people.

Fetes and community gatherings are important in France, particularly rural France, so go along and show your support - most villages have a Committee de Fête which is usually looking for volunteers.

As with every country, there are numerous groups, associations and clubs where you can meet people who share your interests.

France even has a special day for making friends with your neighbours.

And of course a short-cut to integrating into French society is hooking up with a Frenchman or Frenchwoman. If you're on the market - check out our guide to online dating in France.

READ ALSO How to make friends with your French neighbours in rural France

5. Learn to say bonjour

OK so this is generally the first word that any student of French learns so it's unlikely that anyone moving here would not know the word. But what you might not appreciate is the importance of greetings and general politeness in French culture.

A formal greeting is expected in France in any situation, whether you're popping in to the boulangerie to pick up some bread or asking someone for help. Most French people would expect a bonjour if you walk into a crowded lift or a doctor's waiting room - anywhere where there are already people in situ.

People coming from slightly more casual cultures like the USA or UK can frequently fall foul of this and end up unintentionally causing offence. So revise and revise again bonjour, bonsoir, bonne journée, bonne soirée, merci, de rien, pardon, s'il vous plaît and au revoir.

One American long-term resident said: "Learn the customs, be polite and treat people as you would like to be treated. A nice bonjour goes a long way!"

READ ALSO Why bonjour is the most important word in the French language

And finally - remember why you moved here. 

Yes, France does have its challenges, but there's a reason why it's the most visited tourist destination in the world. From its stunning scenery and world-beating cuisine to more prosaic matters like excellent healthcare and (largely) free education, it is all in all a great country to live in even if sometimes you will find yourself feeling lonely, frustrated and unable to understand why everyone is on strike again.

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