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A history of the British in the French property market
A recently published book looked at the property market at the end of the 19th century, while current political developments are shining a light on the role of the British buyer in France’s national property market.
The seeds of the modern property market sown
It was after Haussmann’s renovation of , which took place between 1853 and 1870, that construction in really kicked off. The Baron’s work was mainly to erect huge boulevards and clear space for new building construction by private developers, a well-known fact that was explored in more detail by Alexia Yates in her 2015 book .
In it, Yates analyses the emergence of new players onto a nascent market. The estate agent emerged as a wealth of new property owners needed salaried tenants for the new towering Haussmannian blocks. was a city of renters more then than it is today – 90% to today’s 60% – and the new figure started to take on some of the roles previously overseen solely by the Notaire, to the modern day when the two practically have parity.
The system of concessions given out to property developers as old buildings were expropriated and demolished was tainted with many issues that play out in the modern day, nimbyism and gentrification to name but two. Banks, landlords, builders and the state had to interact to a degree never seen before, laying the groundwork for the modern property market.
But the most fascinating trend focused on by Yates is the emergence of a new rhetoric about real estate. The Napoleonic code, which dominated thought until this point, viewed property and real estate through an unashamedly anti-commercial lens and the upper classes did everything to ensure those below them could not access it. Once the frenzy of construction took place after Haussmann’s renovation, access to what was then high-end property expanded to the middle-classes, and a new culture of the patrimoine immobilier (property estate) entered common parlance.
British buyers in the French countryside
The British started buying property in France in significant numbers starting at the beginning of the 19th century, acquiring large properties in port towns on the Channel such as Calais and Boulogne. Later, many started venturing to the warmer climate in the south, setting up shop in towns like Antibes and Cannes, which retain a significant diaspora today.
The inter-war period saw artists and intellectuals flock to France: playwright George Bernard Shaw to Antibes; H.G. Wells to Grasse; Nancy Cunard and Louis Aragon to Normandy (whose house remains abandoned today); Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, with the process accelerating once the UK joined the European Union (the European Economic Community as it was named then).
Houses remain vastly more affordable in France than in the UK, mostly owing to a comparative abundance of land. Average house prices are about two-thirds of that of the UK, while is about half as expensive as London for comparable properties. Many retirees buy affordable homes in regions like Brittany, Normandy or the Cote d’Azur, though the latter is on the upper-end. Brits remain the most prominent foreign clientele in the French countryside, while Americans and Italians dominate in .