The helpline that provides emotional support for English-speakers in France

During lockdown many people will feel isolated and afraid - but for people living far from home and family it can be much worse.

The helpline that provides emotional support for English-speakers in France
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But for anyone struggling there is an English-language helpline specifically aimed at foreigners living in France.

The SOS Helpline is a long-established charity, but could be particularly useful for people struggling with the current situation – or any aspect of life in France.

Founded in 1974, SOS Help is a voluntary support telephone line for the English-speaking community in France. Linked to the Samaritans, it provides anonymous and confidential emotional support. 

The Local has previously spoken to one of the volunteer listeners about the type of problems that they hear from English-speaking immigrants in France.

“The main problems people call us about are solitude and loneliness.

“We have people calling who have gone for days without speaking to anyone. So we provide company as well as comfort” says Simon*. 

There is one telephone line and it is open daily from 5pm – 9pm. The line is manned in shifts by a team of volunteers and they try to keep the call duration at less than 30 minutes unless the person is in severe emotional trauma. 

“Volunteers are called ‘listeners’ because that’s what we do,” says Simon.

SOS Help has between 25 – 30 ‘listeners’ and they take more than 5,000 calls each year on everything from depression and bereavement to trouble making friends, though this number is rising.

Simon has volunteered with SOS Help for 13 years, ever since he went to an expat event and saw a stand advertising the group. He ‘listens’ three times a month on four hour shifts and there is also a monthly debrief meeting for volunteers, to make sure they themselves are not affected by the suffering they encounter. 

“These sessions are very important for 'listeners'. They're held with a psychotherapist and they help us to watch out for any transference, if volunteers start to take on the problems of callers.”

READ MORE: France in lockdown: What are the rules?

The main nationalities of callers are British and Americans, though there are also a surprising amount of French callers. 

“We don’t really know why they call, but some admit that they call us because they can’t get through to SOS Amitié (the French telephone helpline). I think people also feel at ease talking to a foreigner rather than a fellow countryman, it creates a little distance.” 

Simon says there are three categories of callers: one-off callers who are in the middle of some crisis; short-term callers going through a distressing experience over a period of time; and regular callers.

“Crucially, there is no way to know who you are going to speak to. Listeners are encouraged to volunteer on different days of the month, so it is impossible for someone to try to speak to a specific person. It’s very important that no one develops a dependence on a particular 'listener'.”

Apparently, more women than men use the service and the average age of callers is between 40 – 65 years old. “We do also have student callers, but they are normally one-off calls just after they have arrived in France about difficulties settling in and meeting people.”

If you need help and support, SOS Help can be reached on 01 46 21 46 46.

*Simon is a pseudonym to protect the volunteer’s anonymity.


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Where in France are there concerns about pesticides in drinking water

An investigation has revealed that tap water supplied to some 12 million people in France was sometimes contaminated with high levels of pesticides last year.

Where in France are there concerns about pesticides in drinking water

Data from regional health agencies, and collated by Le Monde, found that supplies to about 20 percent of the population, up from 5.9 percent the year previously, failed to consistently meet regional quality standards. 

The study highlighted regional differences in tap water quality. Hauts-de-France water was the most likely to be affected, with 65 percent of the population there drinking water contaminated by unacceptable pesticide levels. In Brittany, that level fell to 43 percent; 25.5 percent in the Grand-Est, and 25 percent in the Pays de la Loire.

Occitanie, in southwest France, meanwhile, showed the lowest level of non-compliance with standards, with just 5.1 percent of the region’s population affected by high pesticide levels in their tap water. However, figures show that 71 percent of people in one département in the region, Gers, were supplied with water containing high levels of pesticides.

Regional discrepancies in testing, including what chemicals are tested for, mean that results and standards are not uniform across France. Tap water in Haute-Corse is tested for 24 pesticide molecules; in Hauts-de-Seine, that figure rises to 477. 

One reason for regional testing standards are differences in local agricultural requirements.

Part of the increase in the year-on-year number of households supplied with affected water may also be explained by the fact that tests in many regions now seek to trace more molecules, Le Monde noted.

Water quality standards in France are strict – with a limit for pesticide residues set at 0.1 microgramme per litre, so the “high” levels found in tap water supplies may not represent a danger to health.

The question of the level of health risk to humans, therefore, remains unclear. The Agence nationale de sécurité sanitaire de l’alimentation, de l’environnement et du travail (Anses) has not defined a maximum safety level for 23 pesticides or their metabolites. Le Monde cites two metabolites of chloridazone, a herbicide used until 2020 on beet fields, for which only provisional safety levels in tap water have been set. 

Many of these molecules and their long-term effects remain unknown – and “the long-term health effects of exposure to low doses of pesticides are difficult to assess,” admits the Ministry of Health.

Michel Laforcade, former director general of the ARS Nouvelle-Aquitaine told Le Monde that health authorities have “failed” on this subject. 

“One day, we will have to give an account,” he said. “It may not be on the same scale as the contaminated blood affair, but it could become the next public health scandal.”

In December 2020, the Direction générale de la santé (DGS) recommended “restricting uses of water” as soon as the 0.1 micrograms per litre quality threshold is exceeded, in cases of residues for which there is no formal maximum health value.

But this principle is not always applied, according to France 2’s Complètement d’enquête programme.

In December 2021, the DGS asked the Haut conseil de la santé publique (HCSP) “for support on the management of health risks associated with the presence of pesticides and pesticide metabolites in water intended for human consumption.”

The HCSP, in response, said that “an active and urgent policy must be implemented to reduce the contamination of resources by pesticides”.