Around 200,000 Britons live in France. A considerable number of these live in rural areas and it is estimated that Britons own 3% of the French countryside (including vineyards, farms and forests)
Since the 19th century, British citizens have moved to rural France in search of an ‘unspoilt’ and ‘rustic’ way of life. This is driven by an idyllic vision of life in rural France, complete with a picturesque landscape and a simple way of life.
Because the UK and France are both part of the European Union (EU), it is relatively straightforward for the British to migrate to and work in France. Visas and work permits are not required and residents of EU countries have the same working rights as French nationals.
The relocation of the British middle classes to the Lot can be classed as ‘lifestyle migration’. But how do people’s ideas of rural France compare to the realities of living there? This research investigates how France is imagined by the British middle classes and how it is actually experienced through everyday residential life there.
About the lot
Why do they migrate?
A view from the researcher
Living in the Lot
Making a living
Researcher Michaela Benson spent one year living in the Lot, where she conducted 75 interviews and spent a considerable amount of time undertaking ‘participant observation’.
Interviews were used to collect a ‘life history’. This involves talking through the reasons that led to them migrating, as well as their experience of migration itself. This aimed to create a biography of how people came to live in the Lot. It relates their life in the Lot to their life back in the UK.
Participant observation involves watching and taking part in and making notes about people’s lives. The aim is to find out how people go about everyday life. This involves attending events and doing day-to-day activities, such as walks in the countryside.
This research summary will focus only on permanent residents that live in the Lot all year round. It will not cover seasonal British residents spent part of the year living in Britain.
The Lot is one of France’s 96 ‘departments’, which are administrative divisions of the country. Located in inland Southwest France, the Lot is sub-division of the Midi-Pyrenees region.
The Lot has a moderate continental climate of dry, mild winters and warm summers. It has a varied landscape of limestone cliffs in the East and rolling farmland in the West. The River Lot flows across the south of the department.
Covering 5,217 km2 and with a total population of 169,531 (2006 French census), the Lot has a very low population density of just a 32.4 people/km2. By contrast, the UK has an average population density of 246 people/km2.
Following World War II, France underwent rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. The creation of jobs in urban areas pulled people away from the countryside. The mechanisation of agriculture also reduced jobs opportunities in rural areas and pushed people towards French towns and cities.
This process of rural-urban migration was accelerated by the fact that the Lot’s land was not suited to agricultural machinery and local farmers struggled to compete with modernising farmers elsewhere. As a result of urban ‘pull’ factors and rural ‘push’ factors, the Lot experienced large-scale depopulation.
Out-migration of the economically active still occurs today. Many young people in the Lot migrate to towns and cities throughout France for education and employment opportunities. In the smallest villages and hamlets of the Lot there may no schools. Young families therefore also migrate out.
The Lot’s economy relies largely upon agriculture, as well as some tourism and industrial production. However, an ageing rural population means that when older farmers die there are often no younger farmers to take over their farms. This could lead to decline. But farms have been increasingly bought and renovated by younger migrants from Paris, Britain and the Netherlands.
International in-migration has gone some way to offsetting the Lot’s rural-urban migration. 10,465 foreigners were recorded as living in the Lot, according to the 2006 French census. Almost a third of theses moved to the Lot in the five years preceding the census. Of all of the French departments, the Lot has one of highest percentages of British-born residents.
British migrants to the Lot tend to be white, middle class and of English origin. But the age at which Britons migrate to the Lot, and the circumstances under which they do so, varies. Some residents arrive in the Lot having retired or taken early retirement in the UK. Others migrate in their 30s with young children.
Most migrants involved in this research were couples or families. However, a small number of single migrants were also interviewed. This is broadly representative of the social profile of British migrants to the Lot.
British migrants to the Lot believe that the move will transform their lives for the better. Driven by their perceived shortcomings of life in Britain today, they believed that a rural idyll in France would provide the lifestyle they desired.
In search of a more fulfilling life, migrants often hold the idea of ‘returning to the land’. As such, they are drawn to the Lot by: the beautiful landscape, a favourable climate, the good food and wine, cheap property and a slower pace of life.
When I first visited the Lot in 2000, I could immediately understand why people would choose to live there. To the inexperienced eye, it offers a certain tranquil mystique, with its verdant green valleys and the Lot river, the backdrop of awesome limestone cliffs and its sense of emptiness.
– Dr Michaela Benson, in her book ‘The British in Rural France’ (page 5)
The reality of living in the Lot does not necessarily meet people’s idea of it as rural idyll. Life as a resident in the Lot is not the same as that experienced by tourists. Indeed, many migrants to the Lot had visited the area or other parts of rural France on holiday before relocating permanently.
In summer, tourists visit the Lot for its history and cuisine. They fill the Medieval villages, purchase souvenirs from the local artisan shops, and eat and drink in the local cafes. Such tourist experiences play an important role in creating the idea of an unspoilt and rustic French idyll. Indeed, these experiences and ideas encourage British citizens to migrate to the Lot. However, once living in the Lot, residents avoid tourist hotspots during the summer. They complain about the busier roads and inflated supermarket prices that are associated with seasonal tourist influxes.
Although many migrants still hold romantic ideas about living in the Lot, they also experience difficulties and struggles of relocating to a different country and to an area so remote. There is little that is modern about the Lot. For example, shops close for two hours or more in the middle of the day and the roads are generally very quiet.
Furthermore, young families have to find schools for their children to attend, which can be difficult in such a rural area where there are so few schools. And, like all international migrants, Britons moving to the Lot have to understand how the French healthcare and taxation systems operate.
A migrant’s life in the Lot depends somewhat on their income and how they make a living. Retirees often have a British pension and money from their British property or other investment, allowing them freedom to enjoy a slow-paced life. However, younger migrants need to generate an income, often through small businesses connected to tourism.
Some migrants might have a ‘gîte’ (holiday home) or a ‘chambre d’hôte’ (bed and breakfast) to generate an income. Others operate small-scale businesses including: working as a bilingual tour guide, making hand-made greetings cards and running IT services. These businesses tend to remain small as the migrants want to avoid long working-days.
For example, one migrant couple had set up a successful website advertising gîtes around France. Unfortunately, this shifted their work-life balance so that they were working even harder than they had in Britain. Because they had failed to realise their dream of a slower pace of life, they were considering moving back to Britain.
Life in the Lot is imagined by many as idyllic. Images of an unspoilt, quiet and rustic life encourage the British middle class to migrate there. Such migrants often seek distinction from life in Britain. They migrate in search of an ‘authentic’ way of living.
But life in the Lot does not always match people’s imagination of it. Moving to the Lot is just one step towards a better life. To actually achieve their desired lifestyle, migrants must work hard to establish a secure income, a suitable pace of life, a strong social network and all of the affordances that they have grown accustomed to.
Read more in our Ask the Expert interview: Michaela Benson: British migration to rural France
By placing a booking, you are permitting us to store and use your (and any other attendees) details in order to fulfil the booking.
We will not use your details for marketing purposes without your explicit consent.
You must be a member holding a valid Society membership to view the content you are trying to access. Please login to continue.
Join us today, Society membership is open to anyone with a passion for geography
Cookies on the RGS website