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Moving to France – how to zap the culture shock

Many people dream of making the move to France. It’s a country marinated in culture, blanketed in gorgeous natural landscapes, and famed for its exquisite cuisine. It also has an enviable work-life balance and social safety net. But moving to France involves more than just finding a house near to your favourite bistro.

Moving to France - how to zap the culture shock
Heather, now, and in 2011 after her family's move to France

Before making the move, even before you start properly planning your move, there are a number of things of which you need to be aware, things that will almost certainly give you a jolt of culture shock and for which you need to prepare.

A significant shock is housing, especially in cities, says Heather Hughes, an HR Mobility Consultant for relocation specialists AGS Movers.

“I think for a lot of families, a major difference is that in French cities, many families live in flats or apartments. Many British think of an apartment as somewhere you live in when you’re younger, when you’re either flat-sharing or choosing to live in a city centre because you want to be near the nightlife. But that’s not the way it is in France. Here it’s much more common for families to live centrally in large apartments, and when the kids need to get a bit of fresh air, they simply pop down to the park.”

Take the pain out of your move to France. Plan your relocation with AGS Movers

It’s not just the British that find it strange not to live in a house with a garden. “We met lots of American families who just didn’t understand it, either. In the US, once you get a family – you move to the suburbs. But if the French work in a city, and they have a family, they will live in the city in an apartment. So newcomers from other countries will have to adjust to this difference.”

Heather has herself experienced relocating to France, and that’s why she can empathise with AGS clients who are relocating. It’s a key reason why she loves working in the relocation industry.

“Also you should beware of bureaucracy and administration,” says Heather. “The French administration system can be a bit of a challenge. It’s totally different to the system in the UK.”

“When I moved here permanently in 2011, I thought I’d easily integrate into French life. I was fluent in French and I’d been to university here, so I thought it would be simple. But it wasn’t. It was much trickier than I expected. It was quite bureaucratic.”  

France’s much-vaunted free healthcare system needs patience to negotiate, too, according to Heather.

“Administration-wise, France can be complex. Applying for the carte vitale (the French health insurance card that allows those who have one to have most or all of their health costs either covered or reimbursed by the state) can be frustrating and time-consuming, especially if you’re navigating the waters on your own and don’t speak fluent French. It’s hard to get hold of, but once you have it, it’s very efficient.”

Heather and her family just after their move to France.

But there is a way to lessen culture shock, to reduce stress levels and make the process smoother. Because, according to Heather, the hardest part of moving to France is not the logistical problem of actually moving house, it’s preparing for a completely different way of life.

“When we relocated to France the planning was monumental,” Heather says. “I really advise people to start planning as soon as possible. But the actual nuts and bolts of the physical move were not the things that kept me awake at night. It was all the little details, such as registering in France, sorting out healthcare, and getting our eldest child into an international school. I was also pregnant. So, that was another huge cause of anxiety. What did I need to do to register with the maternity system in France? I knew it was completely different in France. That was such a worry at first.”

And, of course, there’s the language barrier. “You really need at least a little French,” says Heather. “It’s not as if most people can’t speak English, but if you went to an office, unless it was an office of a British company where most of the staff were British, the language would be French. Whereas I think you’d probably find in the Netherlands or some of the Nordic countries you could get away with not speaking the local language, that’s not true in France. I would say you really need to speak a decent, minimum level of French to really integrate in any way.”

Zap that culture shock by planning your move to France with AGS Movers. Get a quote here

But, luckily, Heather had employed a relocation company to help them. “I really appreciated having a relocation specialist to help us. Obviously they packed up our house, and gave us advice on house-hunting, but it was the other stuff, the stuff that had been keeping me awake at nights, that they really helped with. For instance, with finding a school, they take your hand and say, ‘These are your options. This is where you can go. There are these international schools, or you can put your kid into a French state school. We will hold your hand, guide you, and take you through these things.’ They guided us through the whole moving process and all the fine details thereafter. And of course the relocation company also guided me through the labyrinthine process of being pregnant in France. That made such a huge difference.”

There’s been research on cultural integration and the process has been broken down into four stages.

“At first you’re nervous before you go,” says Heather, “and then when you get to your new home, you have this whole excitement of being there, drinking wine with locals, having fun, and you think, ‘Wow, this is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.’

“Then that stage ends and you start to live life normally, and it’s really difficult. Everything is new and hard. And then you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’ve done. This is awful. Everything’s so difficult. Why did I do this? Because I don’t know how to do any of these things that I need to do for everyday life.’ Then eventually that passes and you learn and it becomes normal again. And then, finally, you don’t want to go home because you can’t remember how it works in the country you came from.

“At AGS Movers, we accompany more than 85,000 families with their moving and relocation process every year. We also offer HR services, immigration and destination services to help private clients, as well as supporting employers to enable their employees to transition smoothly. AGS manages every move with professionalism, expertise and experience.”

Make your relocation much less stressful by contacting AGS Movers

Member comments

  1. “The prescription will be fulfilled by a pharmacy and must be paid for; the little price stickers (vignettes) from each medicine should then be stuck on the Feuille de Soins, which is a reimbursement form for medical expenses. It’s all so gloriously complicated.” Not once you are in the system (Ameli). I haven’t had to do the sticker thing you describe for more than 20 years.
    And if you haven’t lived in the UK for 10 years you’ll be shocked by the petty-fogging bureaucracy that now exists. It’s (much) worse than France, because no matter the pleadings in your individual case, or the insanity of the demand, you will get zero flexibility. So change the record, change the stereotype, UK is now much more painfully bureaucratic.
    Vive la France!

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FRENCH BUREAUCRACY

Can you get married in France if you don’t live here?

France has a booming wedding industry and many of its beautiful and historic chateaux - including more than a few owned by foreigners - hire themselves out as the perfect romantic wedding venue. But what's the legal position around getting married in France as a non-resident?

Can you get married in France if you don't live here?

Google ‘French wedding chateau’ and you’ll get thousands of results, complete with romantic pictures of beautiful brides, handsome grooms and historic country houses, but not all of these ‘weddings’ are quite what they seem.

Getting married in France – as in any country – is a legal procedure as well as a romantic celebration and there are certain hoops to jump through in order to make sure that the wedding is a legally binding ceremony. These include an interview at the commune where you intend to marry, a lot of paperwork and publishing the bans at least 10 days in advance (unless there are exceptional circumstances).

READ ALSO What you need to know about getting married in France

There are also different rules depending on whether you are a French citizen, a French resident or a visitor who simply wants to hold your wedding here.

French resident or citizen

If one or both of the couple is a French citizen or has permanent residency in France, then you have the right to get married here. 

You need to make an appointment at the mairie and begin collecting the paperwork together – full details here.

There is one important caveat for foreigners – you must also be able to legally marry in your home country. This can be an issue for same-sex couples whose home country does not allow them to marry. 

Non-resident

If you do not have citizenship or residency, it may still be possible to marry here – you are required to have some kind of ‘close link’ to the commune in which you want to marry.

This is up to local authorities to decide upon, but common examples include the parents of one half of the couple living in the commune (whether they are French or not) while second-home owners may be able to demonstrate that they have a close link to the commune.

No link

If you and your family have no particular links to France, then you may not be able to legally marry here. Here are the options;

Just a party – the most common tactic for people who don’t live here is to have their beautiful celebration at the chateau of their choice and then do the legal bit at another time.

In many ways this is the best of both worlds – you can still have a romantic ceremony and/or fabulous party with all your nearest and dearest in a beautiful setting, but you don’t need to worry about filling in French paperwork and trying to follow a marriage ceremony that must, by law, be in French. You can then do the legal bit at the register office in the country where you live either before or after the ceremony.

Most wedding venue chateaux are perfectly upfront about the fact that the ceremony they’re offering is not legally binding, and all responsible venue owners will make it clear to the couple that they will have to do the legal paperwork themselves. 

One-month residency – if you are determined to be legally married in France, you can do so by establishing residency here

At least one member of the couple must have “resided continuously for at least one month” in the commune in which you want to marry. There is no requirement to have a residency card, nor for your tax residency to be in France.

You will need to provide proof of your stay, but this can be in the form of a simple attestation (affidavit) from your host or host institution (eg a hotel) with the dates of your stay.

Once you have been in France for a month, you can then visit the mairie and begin the process – this is the same as for permanent residents and includes a file of paperwork and an interview with the registrar. 

The one-month residency must be before the bans are read, and the bans must be read a minimum of 10 days before the ceremony – so in total you must arrive in France six weeks before the ceremony date.

The wedding ceremony must be in French, but you can have a translator, and the registrar can do this themselves (if they speak English obviously).

The civil ceremony will probably have to be in the mairie (see below).

French overseas territories – if you don’t have a spare month to establish residency in France, you can get married in some of France’s overseas territories without this requirement.

The French overseas territories of;

  • Nouvelle-Calédonie
  • Polynésie française
  • Saint-Barthélémy
  • Saint-Martin
  • Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon
  • Wallis-et-Futuna

allow you to marry without residency. However other French overseas territories, such as the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Gaudeloupe, do not.

Consular wedding – in certain circumstances it may be possible for you to be married at the consulate of your home country in France, or in front of a consular official, but this depends on your home country’s policy.

Most consulates offer this only in exceptional circumstances.

Mairie

Even French residents and/or citizens usually cannot actually get married at the chateau, and this is because France is a secular country so only civil marriages are legally recognised. In order to make your marriage legally binding you will need to have a civil ceremony in a public building in the commune where you have registered your paperwork.

The ‘public building’ is usually the mairie, but can be a village hall or other community building and the ceremony is performed by a local official – usually the mayor or deputy mayor.

Once you have done the civil ceremony, you can then have either a religious wedding or a lakeside chateau ceremony or whatever else you want, but it’s the mairie bit that makes the marriage legally binding.

(Just photos? Never mind not doing a legal wedding – some couples don’t even have the party in France, they just bring their wedding outfits along on their honeymoon and pose for photos in front of French landmarks like the Eiffel Tower).

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