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EXP-BRITAIN-FRANCE-PR 05-29

ENDING A FRENCH CONNECTION

By MATTHEW SALTMARSH

(This article is part of TIMES EXPRESS. It is a condensed version of a story that will appear in tomorrow’s New York Times.)

c.2009 New York Times News Service

LASSAY-LES-CHATEAUX, France — A stumbling British economy is doing what the French have not been able to do in centuries: Rout the British.

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For more than a decade, Englishmen have been one of Britain’s biggest cross-Channel exports: they bought second homes in French villages, or even retired there. They came to make up as much as one-fifth of the population in some French villages.

But now the flow of Britons is slowing to a trickle and, in some cases, reversing course.

Only instead of bidding them a relieved adieu, many of the French are longing for them — and their money — to stay.

Some expatriates have already headed back to Britain, while the movement of others has been curtailed by the stagnant housing market on both sides of the Channel, though a hard core is determined to remain and pursue the French dream, whatever turmoil rocks the global economy.

From the 1990s until the recent bust, a property boom propelled British housing to new heights, allowing Britons to leverage their increasing worth to buy property in places like France and Spain, either as vacation or primary homes. Now that the financial crisis has burst the real estate bubble in Britain and sunk the formerly high-flying pound, the legions who crossed the English Channel are finding it trickier to achieve their idyll.

According to data from the European Union based on national censuses, there were 133,000 British living permanently in France in 2005, making France second only to Spain, with 205,000 Britons. By 2008, the number in Spain had risen to 354,000. France does not have more recent data, but some estimates put the number now at closer to 200,000 — with as many second-home owners.

There is no shortage of anecdotal evidence that the number of Britons in France is dwindling, albeit falling short of an exodus. Grainne Cavanagh, director of the Road Ahead, a moving company near Biarritz specializing in transfers between Britain and the Continent, started noting a change about a year ago.

"Absolutely, without a doubt," the number of British heading to France has fallen, and some are heading back to Britain, she said. As a result, business has fallen by about 50 percent so far this year from two years ago. The company has cut prices 15 percent and relies more on city-to-city moves by professionals than on transfers by families or retirees to the countryside.

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