Integrating in France
Your guide to settling in as quickly and easily as possible
It is often said that when people move abroad, where the culture and traditions are different from home, they go through a four-stage process to settling in – the honeymoon stage, the culture shock, acceptance and finally adaptation. Hopefully, if you are a regular Living France reader, the impact of the culture shock phase should be gentler as you’ll have gleaned an insight into what to expect in your adopted home. That said, when you’re actually walking the walk in the land of les Gaulois (who? Look them up, it’s all part of the integration journey), you realise there’s still a lot to learn and assimilate about France, the French, and fitting into their way of life. But let’s start by putting some balls in your corner and looking at ways that can help get you through stage two, once the sunshine and rosé give way to le mistral and a verveine infusion. (A what? You know what to do!)
Wherever you go, whatever the occasion, the key to getting on and having a good time is communication, and communicating usually involves talking. So, being able to converse with the local people is probably one of the most important routes to integration. You’ll pick up the language faster once you’re living in France, but it’s definitely a good idea to give yourself a head start by taking lessons in the months, if not years, before making the leap across the Channel.
If you need to hit the ground running as soon as you arrive, for example if you need to be able to express yourself sufficiently well in French to get a job, then aim for greater immersion in the language for a sustained period prior to moving. Tune into French radio and television, follow additional online courses, try to find a French language ‘buddy’ happy to meet up for French/English conversation exchanges (or via Skype), and try to read a little in French. If you are able to expose yourself to the language in some form or other every day, you’ll be surprised at the difference it makes.
WAYS TO MEET PEOPLE CLUBS AND ASSOCIATIONS
If you play a sport or enjoy a hobby, pursue it in France if possible. Doing an activity with others who share the same passion or interest is one of the best ways to make friends, and often it’s a more relaxing way to get involved in the local community because the language side of things can take second place as you’re ‘communicating’ in other ways.
Going along to local events shows your interest in the community and willingness to get involved. The conviviality of the occasion will soften any preconceptions (if there are any) and conquer any mutual shyness as the wine and beer flows, plus it’s a way to meet a lot of people in one go. Offers of help with events are usually very welcome, so this is another way to get more involved – and more popular! Further down the line, you could join the comité des fêtes, thereby cementing your commitment to the local social life.
The workplace in France is more formal than in the UK and in general there is less socialising with colleagues. That said, you will usually meet one or two people that you get on well with and with whom, over time, a friendship outside work could develop.
Aside from making friends, if you work in a French company, surrounded mostly by French people, you will pick up the language, the culture, the humour and the politics (with a small ‘p’) of the country much quicker. In short, the integration process is accelerated. There is also the advantage that you are seen to be embracing the French system, in terms of contributing to the economy and ‘doing your bit’, which in a predominantly socialist-thinking society is an important factor.
If you have children of school age, there’s no doubt this opens another door to meeting people and becoming a part of the local community. Take every chance to exchange with other parents at the school gate and at the various events (there is nearly always an annual bingo called the loto and an end-of-year concert or play). Depending on where you live, you could also consider sharing the school run with neighbours, as this again can strengthen ties as well as having practical benefits.
After a little while, and if your French is up to it, consider standing as a parents’ representative or joining the ‘Sou des écoles’ (school fundraising committee). This can bring you into contact with more parents as well as representatives from the local mairie, plus it will give you a greater insight into the French education system.
Make the effort to introduce yourself to your neighbours on arrival – they can be a valuable source of information when you’re first in the country and, if you’re lucky, will help introduce you to others in the community. The Fête des Voisins has become a popular annual occasion across France, as in many other countries, and is a great way to foster and maintain good relations between neighbours, both old and new.
GET TO KNOW YOUR ADOPTED COUNTRY
The more you get to know about France, the more you will be able to participate in society. When living in your home country, it’s easy to forget how much knowledge and understanding of that country has been acquired over the years, from learning British history in school, to recognising regional and social differences in society, to following current affairs. All of this information feeds almost subconsciously into our daily conversations, choices and actions.
It will be difficult to assimilate this level of knowledge about France, certainly not for many years. But if you try to address the basics (if you apply for French citizenship at any stage, you’ll be required to), it could go a long way to helping the integration process along. So, why not read up a little about the French Republic, get into the habit of following French current affairs, and, if possible, take a few trips and holidays within France to get to know the regions and the diverse traditions and culture. It will open up new horizons when mixing with French people.