Escape to France

Over the last twenty years there’s been an exodus of people from the United Kingdom seeking a better life in Europe or further a field. Reasons for leaving may be varied; from the want of a little more sun and less rain to experiencing a different culture or just to experience new things. France remains one of the most popular destinations for Brits searching a new life. Around 150,000 ex-pats now live in France. Phil Voice investigates

Despite romantic notions of an easier life with long sultry days, long walks and even longer lunches, not to mention the overflowing wine vats, the realities of living and working in France are a little more sobering. There are two options available for the small business. A Micro Enterprise or Auto-Entrepreneur.
Under the Micro Enterprise scheme a business owner may have to pay up to 50% of their turnover in social charges. Under the Auto-Entrepreneur scheme a small business owner will pay 23.1% of their turnover in social charges and will only pay tax after three years.
All cases are individual and too complex to give concise advice here so if you are planning a move then do get expert advice.
Case studies
Here we talk to four very different people who’ve moved to France and set up or intend to set a business in the landscape and horticulture industry.
The newbie

Jill Foxley, along with her husband Simon, are new arrivals in France having moved to an isolated property near Castillones in the Lot et Garonne, in November 2012. They previously owned and run the Perfumed Garden based in Royston, Hertfordshire. You may remember their famous Pink Tap show garden at Hampton Court? Jill is a garden designer and Simon carries out the construction.
Once Jill and Simon have finished renovating the old French farmhouse they’ve just moved in to. They will be setting up in business and putting their previous skills and experience to good use selling garden design and landscaping services to ex-pats and French clients.
 
Why France?
“Simon and I had been considering relocating to France for a few years although decided to wait until all the children were independent and had made their own lives. Last year was the ?rst that we felt was the right time to go ahead with it.
“The primary and almost primal appeal of south west France that there has always been, is the generally warmer climate and the promise of sunshine in the summer. Working outside in all weathers really puts you in touch with the seasons, and sun and warmth became a rare delight in the UK in 2011 and the spring of 2012.”
What are the advantages and disadvantages of your new life?
Making money is a little way off for Jill and Simon and their primary objective is to restore their new old property to make it habitable and comfortable but after this they intend to use their skills and experience. In the meantime they are getting to grips with a new way of life; here they talk about the pros and cons.
“From the short experience we have so far had, although it certainly does rain here, the sky seems bigger and brighter and not so gloomy. The sun is warm even in winter, explains Jill.
“We have our old house and land that we have always wanted so feel
We can breathe again. Even though I know we are in the honeymoon stage at present, we have fewer ?nancial pressures. It makes me shudder when I think back to work being snowed off for two weeks at a time, or being underwater and in the middle of a hosepipe ban at the height of the busiest time of the year. “
“Top of the list of advantages is that I aim to have the time to design, create and maintain my own garden which is something that fell by the wayside a long time ago.”
“One downside is that we have encountered thus far, has to be the process of trying to get information from Her Majesty’s Government regarding healthcare issues. Even though we have obtained telephone numbers and are trying to get through (automated telephone systems – another loathsome invention), it seems impossibility at present, but we are working on it, so will see how it goes.
“Language is also de?nitely an issue and can cause frustrations.”
What does design/landscaping offer you that’s different to the UK?

“Simon has always said that I do ‘green’ and he does ‘grey and brown’. I am responsible for plants and he takes charge of the hard landscaping.
“I get the impression that the French have a very different response to gardens and gardening to the British.
“French gardens are often very open, utilitarian and not considered as an aesthetic whole. Basically, there is little evidence of ‘design’ per se, although there are sometimes odd features that seem to spring awkwardly from various far reaches of the garden area.
“Awareness of gardens is growing and I do think people here are becoming more interested in their gardens. It would be very rewarding to be a part of this upcoming trend, whilst still maintaining the innate respect that the French seem to have for their landscape and nature. It is the respect for their surroundings that I love and the use of local products for hard landscaping, which always sit better in their locale.”
Will you target ex-pat clients or French clients?

Historically, we have worked only through recommendations, so I envisage there will an element of luck’ as to which path we take. Inevitably, it will be easier with the ex-pats as it is a long time since I learned what little French I currently have.
It goes without saying that learning the language is something I am very keen to do.
I hope that we can satisfy both the French and the ex-pat community with the broad
spectrum of knowledge and high standards that we set to achieve. The key with any client commission, is to listen to their requirements and try to get to know their wants and needs as fully as you can, interpreting them in their garden design.
Are you prepared to travel back to the UK for commissions?
“De?nitely. We enjoy and are proud of our design and landscaping achievements but we are now looking forward to continuing this although on a more specialised scale, aiming to concentrate on larger designs. I am really lucky in that I currently have an ongoing commission for an evolving garden back in the UK so will be backwards and forwards to see it over the coming years.”
How is your French?
At present, it has to be said, my French speaking ability is limited which can be quite comical. Despite this, we have found as long as we make an effort, it is possible to converse using the schoolgirl French that I am trawling out from the depths of the grey matter.
“Comparing now to even just two months ago, there’s a huge improvement though. I think you just have to go for it and not worry about making a fool of yourself if you make mistakes.”
Steve & Dawn Lowe
Steve Lowe lives in the Dordogne region. Along with his wife Dawn, Steve only cuts grass.
When did you move to France?
“This will be our 11th year here. We weren’t in the horticulture industry before, but we worked long hours, only seeing each other occasionally and at weekends.
“We decided to jump ship well before we had planned. We managed sold our house and all possessions and paid off the mortgage, and bought a motor home to live in.
“Eventually we bought a house and some gardening equipment.”
What are the advantages and disadvantages of your life in France?
“The advantages for us are we are always together, which doesn’t always work for some and we are outside in the summer, in the fresh air.
“The disadvantages are there are lots of hurdles and red tape. It took us three years to get to grips with the MSA, which all horticulture businesses have to be registered with. Fifty-one percent of our earnings to go in national insurance contributions, then we pay tax on top of that.
“The French do not look after small businesses.”
“We only cut grass. No flower beds, no tree felling, no hedge cutting, patio laying fencing etc. Just cut grass. We subcontract the other work.
“Our clientele is a mixture of all nationalities of which sixty percent are British. We only ever work in France.

Do you speak French?
“Our French is OK but I didn’t speak a word when we arrived!
Would you go back to the UK?
“Not on your Nellie! Our business has grown year on year and is now just about right – I have just ordered a new van as we have outgrown our current one. We don’t do much in the winter but work seven days a week from March to October. Life is good.
Another 10 years and we plan to retire; the business will be sold along with all the contracts and equipment.
Colin Elliot
Colin is a garden designer and lives in the Indre department of central France. He has worked in the horticulture industry for forty-four years. Colin’s been a Royal gardener, a grower and a manager of several garden centres. He’s also earned a living as a marketing manager for a major seed production company, an industrial and domestic landscaper, as a garden designer and in horticultural education and training.
Why did you move to France?
“Having met and married a French girl from Bordeaux I guess living in France has been on the cards ever since.
“After decades of French holidays and a few aborted attempts to buy a French property but it took serious health issues to finally persuade us that we wanted and needed a lifestyle change. For me, that meant dropping everything and moving to France.
“A new start in a new country and a new language to learn: clearly I am either brave or foolish, but I am very pleased to have made a complete break with our old life. Our working day is very different now.”
How different is working in France to your old life in the UK?
“Well it wasn’t the complete break I envisioned.
“Gardening and horticulture is the only way I know of earning an honest crust and I have been doing so as a landscaper and garden designer for half my working life. Our old life involved an 80-hour working week, more than 20 staff and producing 100 garden designs a year.
“We built £500,000 private gardens and show gardens at Chelsea. This was not what we were looking for at this point in our lives. We now concentrate on offering an international garden design service as the Garden Design Co. and with garden and horticulture education at the Garden Design Academy.”
The disadvantages
The immediate result of moving to France was a 90% drop in our income. We had been preparing for the relocation for nearly 10 years however and this was neither a surprise nor a major problem.
“Our new businesses would take some time before they would support us, despite all this preparation and it was all in the business plan. As a Brit in a foreign country, the easiest way to make a living is by working for other Brits, many of whom are more comfortable with tradesmen who speak their language.
Do you work for French or British clients?
“Around 40% of our clients live in the UK, 16% in France and the remainder are scattered throughout the world.
“It has been a difficult journey, learning our way around the language and the legal system and discovering the ins and outs of the landscape and garden industry here.
“I am sure there is also a good living to be made from working for the French. The tiniest village in the UK has its Garden designer, perhaps two or three, but they are almost unheard of here. But to exploit the market you would need to choose your region well – France is nearly three times the size of the UK but with the same population. It’s a big country with marked regional and cultural variations.
“It is essential to find a wealthy and cultured town like Bordeaux, Nice or Paris if you want to continue to create £100,000 gardens as we do in the UK. Here in the French countryside, they laugh when I tell them how I earn my living: “What, they pay you for that!” On the other hand, you can buy a small chateau here for the cost of a three-bed semi in St. Albans.
“As my French improves I am increasingly active in the industry, attending trade shows, joining garden industry organisations and reading the trade papers and this is fuelling my confidence in my ability to earn a living by offering my services to the French. Plane flights, train journeys and six-hour drives are now a part of my life and I have visited clients in Spain, the south of France and the UK already this year.
“Increasingly we are being employed by landscapers, which I think is a very positive Sign, but are principle client remains the well-heeled, English ex-pat.
“For us, moving to France was a life-style choice and our quality of life has improved marvellously. Financially it still makes little sense to uproot yourself if you are earning a good living in the UK – in our case, the expense of closing down our business, selling our house and moving everything to France saw to that – but I would not change my current life for the world!”
 
Philip Howard
Philip is a silviculturalist, specialising in tree planting and soils, which in France, as it is increasingly in the UK, comes within the landscaping sector and not forestry, as it once did.
How long have you lived in France?
“We moved as a family to the Vienne in 2008 We have no intention of moving back to the UK. We are all happy and as my son is very content here it would be very sad if we ever have to leave.”
Is it easy to find work in France?
“Initially work was easy to come by, but sporadic. I speak French which allowed me to work in Paris as a consultant; working in both the private and public sector on the design and maintenance of urban trees as well as sustainable landscaping; dry stone walling, slow drainage and bioremediation.”

Moving into full-time employment
“Last year I started a long term contract on the Cote d’Azur which has now become a permanent position and as such we have moved to.”
How does the landscape profession differ in France compared to the UK?
“France, unlike the UK, places the landscaper at the top table of decision and is held in quite high esteem.
“The advantages of working in France include a respect for professionals in land-based industry. This is reflected in good salaries as well as being listened to by all.
…and the downsides?
“The downsides are the intimidating bureaucracy and having to get used to the fact that we are immigrants and very much treated as such by the French civil servants, and some members of the public.
“There is a trade union for landscapers but this is mainly for those who are employed.
“Due to high level assistance towards SMEs there is little need for affiliation to an accreditation association – although proof of higher education qualifications is required for insurance payments, which are high and unavoidable”
Sustainable and organic is certainly the only route towards good salary and status for professional landscapers in France, almost triple that of the UK in salary.
 

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