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What’s it really like, living in France?

I get a lot of e-mails from people considering a life in France. Some have visited, others haven’t. Some are married to French nationals, and others come alone or with their non-French spouse. They want to know what life is really like in France, what I like or dislike the most, how hard it will be to get a job or find a home or get along with the French.

I actually try to answer these questions, but they’re really quite complicated and I end up writing half a novel before I’ve made any point. So first off, check the sites and recommended books from the first article I wrote on Moving to France.

Don’t read tourism guides. Don’t read anything by someone who hasn’t actually lived here (yes, some people don’t think you need to actually live here to write about it). Try and avoid sappy films. There’s so much gushing about life in France that you really need to take a close look at the criticism (and once you’re here more than a year, you realize it never changes, everyone complains about the same things…).

Here’s a short list of the major complaints by expats:

Crime and police inefficiency This was a huge issue with the French voters in the last presidential election (which is why the nationalist/racist LePen, who campaigned for tougher crime laws, was able to do so well).

Bureaucracy Everything and anything you do will require three forms, officially translated, signed by an approved notary, turned in at the office which is only open for two hours every third Tuesday, where you’ll find lines stretching out the door, only to find you didn’t have the correct forms of ID nor the requisite 3 passport photos (and the photo booth in the government building is always jammed or you have no change and no one will give you any). Any given procedure that would take an afternoon to do in the US takes about two months from start to finish in France, and the final “papers” or whatever it is you need will arrive six months later.

Rudeness There are certain things the French do which are not considered rude in France, only to foreigners (like not smiling); but “incivilité” (un-civilised behavior) is bad manners even to other French people. This includes the way they drive, the way they cut in line, the way no one seated on the Metro gets up for the elderly or parents with babies, etc. It’s not a “French” thing, but it’s become very common, especially in the big cities.

Cost of Living Taxes, taxes, taxes, and the high cost of doing everything is the usually the first complaint of the expat (unless maybe you’re from Manhattan). Wine may be cheaper, but everything else in larger towns is more expensive (blame the 20% Value-added tax), and gasoline is still about $4/gallon.

Opening Hours It’s better than it used to be a decade ago, but in general most places are closed on Sundays and Mondays, supermarkets are open from 9am and closed around 7pm, many smaller shops close for a few hours at lunch, and usually for an entire month in August (or November on the Riviera) for the annual vacation.

Strikes Paris Metro and bus strikes, air traffic controller strikes, farmers’ strikes where they block up the highways by tipping over foreign trucks full of produce, truckers’ strikes where they block access to all of the gas stations, fishermen’s strikes which block the ferries going to England, and armoured car-driver strikes which leave ATM/cash points with no money in them…these are such common occurrences in France that most French people just shrug and get on with life best they can until things blow over. To say they’re disruptive to daily life would be an understatement, especially if you travel often.

Obviously, there’s more, but that gives you the idea. I don’t think any of these complaints should keep people from wanting to live here, I’m not trying to scare you off! As a travel writer specializing in France, I usually have to write only the good things, but I think when people move here they should really know what they’re in for. As one German expat told me recently in an interview, it’s a very beautiful place to live, but it’s not an easy place to live. Perhaps if it was, everyone would be here! For many expats, life in France can be an almost daily struggle, but we stay because it’s worth it. And personally, I think that no matter how much I complain, it took too much work to get this far and I refuse to leave!

I sat in on one of Polly Platt’s seminars when I was in Paris last month. Even after all these years I still found her advice on cross-cultural living invaluable. I would highly recommend her seminars to anyone new to France or anyone who’s finding their life in France is making them miserable (or read one of her books, they’re both great).

I welcome any comments on this topic either in the discussion box below or by e-mail. Stay tuned for the next article on this topic: Daily life in France

This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’ve republished them in autumn 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” Broken and dead links have been updated or deactivated, but otherwise the article remains unchanged. 

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