Since the first decades of the 19th century, many British citizens have bought properties or built houses in France. Approximately 150,000 UK citizens currently live in France, second only to Spain. With Brexit on the horizon, many are uneasy, for the draw of life in France remains strong, and its roots are deep.
Initially, those who acquired estates in France belonged to the privileged classes. They were seeking a milder climate as well as a lower cost of living. Starting in the 1800s, prominent British citizens began buying or building luxurious residences in the Channel ports of Boulogne and Calais. In Dieppe, on the Emerald Coast, the Villa Bric à Brac, was built in 1856 by the members of the Faber family. (It has recently been transformed into a luxurious hotel). Close by, another superb English villa is Solidor, owned by Williers Forbes, who in 1879 launched the first tennis club in France. In 2005 it was purchased by French billionaire François Pinault and renovated. Many distinguished guests, including French president Jacques Chirac, have been hosted there.
In the south of France, other British visitors started exploring what was to become the Côte d'Azur. In 1834, Lord Brougham discovered a small village named Cannes.
Enchanted by the place, the politician and staunch abolitionist built a beautiful villa, which he named Eleonore-Louise, after his daughter. He stayed there every winter until his death in 1868, and his statue stands in the nearby Allées de la Liberté.
During the inter-war period, British and Irish artists and intellectuals were attracted to France. Playwright George Bernard Shaw came every year to stay in the mythical Eden Roc Hotel in Cap d'Antibes; H.G. Wells, the father of modern science fiction, preferred the town of Grasse. In 1927, Wells had the Lou Pidou built, a house in which he lived with his companion Odette Keun, a Dutch journalist.
Nancy Cunard, the “scandalous” writer and rich heiress of the eponymous transatlantic shipping company, bought a farm house in Normandy, at the La Chapelle Réanville. She restored the house, known as Le Puits carré (“the square well”), with writer and poet Louis Aragon. There she launched the Hours Press, her publishing house, and there produced twenty or so books, including texts by Samuel Beckett. Badly damaged during World War II, the house is now completely abandoned. But the memory of the couple remains; Aragon’s name was given to a nearby secondary school.
With the war’s end, former residents such as Graham Green (Travels with my Aunt, 1969) and Somerset Maugham (The Razor’s Edge, 1944) began to return. They and other “old timers” were soon outnumbered by new arrivals. In the mid-1980s, the writer William Boyd (A Good man in Africa, 1981) bought an estate in Sadillac, near Bergerac in the Dordogne, where he produces his own wine. During the same time, in Provence, Peter Mayle lived and wrote his ode to the French lifestyle, A Year in Provence (1989). By the end of the 1990s, more and more Britons were crossing the Channel with the intention of settling somewhere deep in the French countryside, be it in Normandy, the interior of Brittany, or in Limousin, where rural houses are inexpensive by UK standards.
The romance endures
Unable to buy the cottage of their dreams in the UK, retirees and others from the less monied classes are now contributing to the revitalisation of rural France. Whether they are optimistic or pessimistic, whether or not their pensions are paid in sterling, most of those who live in France or who wish to do so have been considering Brexit with some apprehension. Has this prospect discouraged those who planned to purchase a property in France?
The majority of British (65%) who were intending to buy a house in France prior to Brexit do not seem to have changed their minds. According to the 9th edition of the Investing & Living Abroad report from BNP Paribas, 23% of the potential buyers are considering accelerating their efforts – the fear is that their plans could be hindered when the divorce between the UK and the EU is formalised.
UK citizens remain the first buyers of real estate in France, while in Paris itself, Americans and Italians come first. Indeed, there the resources needed by would-be property owners are necessarily greater than those available to the average Briton who hopes to settle in some remote farmhouse.
Thus in two centuries, the profile of the British in France has completely changed. In the beginning of the 19th century it was the lovers of French culture and the admirers of the Revolution of 1789, enlightened amateurs, hedonists, and cosmopolitans. They were gradually joined and progressively replaced by the first “tourists” travelling in groups, chaperoned by Thomas Cook and Co, and later by writers and artists who came to seek inspiration in the Latin Quarter or around Montparnasse.
While these earlier residents would sometimes buy an apartment, their enthusiasm for owning property in France was nothing compared to that of the British citizens, who at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st are now helping revitalise rural France. And so even as it changes form, the longstanding passion of the British for real estate in France endures.
Diana Cooper-Richet, Chercheur au Centre d’histoire culturelle des sociétés contemporaines, Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin en Yvelines – Université Paris-Saclay