British expats are known for sticking together when moving abroad, but new rules pose a challenge – and an opportunity for integration
“When I arrived I only had schoolgirl French,” says Nancy Shorter, a real estate agent based near Toulouse in south-west France. “I had to learn the language in order to understand the news, to understand the correspondence, to speak to French people, to make friends and to have a life here. I took classes for five years and I’m glad I did. I can speak, read and write French.”
Ms Shorter, who is also Vice President of the English Theater Company, a local drama company, is now a resident of France. However, for newly arrived British expatriates, their stay now depends on their knowledge of French.
Earlier this month, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said non-EU citizens must pass a language test to get their carte de séjour, or multi-year residence permit. “Mastering the French language will be compulsory,” he told the Assemblée Nationale, but added that this does not apply to passport holders from other EU countries, including dual nationals.
The test, which would take place at an officially recognized language school, covers the areas of reading, listening, writing and speaking. Applicants for a residency must achieve at least level A2 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which means they can handle simple and direct exchange communication on familiar topics and activities.
For French nationality, the challenge is more difficult. A passport is only issued to those who pass the CEFR-B1 level, which involves sustained French conversation. They must also take citizenship courses on French values, culture and civic duties.
Still, some newcomers to France are worried. Abi Hunter, a graphic designer who moved to Toulouse with her boyfriend earlier this year, says she’s always struggled with languages. “Of course I tried to learn French, but it’s difficult,” she says. “Normally I can get along here without much French, but that’s no longer possible.”
British retirees looking to spend their autumn years in EU countries often travel to regions known for expats, such as the Dordogne in France or the Costa del Sol in Spain. However, they then risk remaining in a bubble where only English is spoken.
“There are two categories of Brits here,” says Jeremy Moore, who works in a foreign-language bookshop in Toulouse. “There are those who just want to get by with English and those who want to learn the language and culture. But if you just want to get by, you should know that the French really appreciate it if you make an effort in French. If you try to speak to them in their language, everyone benefits.”
Tony Lomas, the area dean of pastoral care for Aquitaine, says he welcomes the tests. “Basically, I think it’s a good idea to have at least a working knowledge of the language of the host country,” he says. “But I also recognize the difficulties that some, especially older expats, have had in building this knowledge.”
Emma Nelson, founder of Jack in the Box, which offers English classes in primary and secondary schools in Toulouse, says compulsory testing is an inevitable consequence of Brexit. “That’s what you get when you vote out your rights — a lot of roadblocks in the way of what used to be easy,” she says.
Language schools say they are ready for British expats who want to brush up on their French. According to Marie-Mandarine Colle-Quesada, the teaching director of L’Alliance Française de Toulouse, there was already an increase in teaching after the 2016 referendum on leaving the EU. “Most Brits, including those who work here at Airbus, already speak some French,” she says. “But it’s good if they understand better. It would be difficult to live a correct and comfortable life here without speaking French.”
Lise Valadou from the Langue Onze Toulouse school agrees, saying that people who come to France usually speak some French. “Yes, the British do not have a good reputation for learning other languages. But neither do the French,” she says.
France is far from the only EU country to introduce language or citizenship tests: around 22 of the 27 member states make language a requirement for citizenship, although they are less strict on residency. Each country has different rules on naturalization, including residency requirements, dual citizenship, or family ties.
For Ms Shorter, the property agent and amateur actress, the test should help break British expats out of their bubble. “A lot of Brits here seek each other out and don’t mix with the French because they don’t speak the language,” she says. “Often it is also a matter of trust. I can tell you with certainty that when the British try to speak French, the French will kill themselves to encourage and help. But if the British don’t try, the French won’t do anything.”