We moved to France in 1992. This was mainly due to my career. I qualified as a UK qualified lawyer in 1987 and worked in the finance department of my law firm doing mainly international markets work. My firm is an international firm with an overseas network of about 37 offices in roughly as many jurisdictions. When I moved to Paris we had only 3 overseas offices, Dubai, Brussels and Paris had just opened.
I moved to Paris in 1992 as we were trying to develop a capital markets practice in France and having originally been a languages graduate I was seen as well placed for this role. Initially we were in a sort of collaborative relationship with a French firm and worked closely together with them. This was a huge challenge as their culture couldn’t have been more different from ours and I had to call upon all my skills of diplomacy to make the relationship work – which it did until 1999 at which time we split with this firm and went on our own in Paris having managed to poach their best French lawyers in the relevant practice areas. Since then we have been very successful in Paris and I have continued my career here.
On a personal/family level there have been some huge challenges. When Philippa and I arrived here we had a 13 month old little boy (Edward) and 2 more (Robert and Freddie) were born here subsequently in 1994 and 1998 respectively. Education has been a real challenge – all 3 of them started in the French/international system and it was nothing short of disastrous to be honest. The French educational system is very tough indeed and as our children were completely English (even though living and being born in France) this made things even more difficult. I suppose the advantage was that each one of them grew up bi-lingual and they are now to some extent benefitting from this. One of the problems with the French educational system is that it is extremely rigid and does not cater for talents other than those which are academic related. In order to succeed in this educational environment you need to be able to master the art of rote learning rather than having any independence of thought. It is also very science/maths focussed and if you are not gifted in this area you are basically less well perceived. Added to which French teachers tend not to have the same vocational approach as in the UK. They are basically civil servants and do not really have a particularly caring attitude to their pupils. They regularly go on strike for better pay, pensions or conditions.
I would not consider myself to be an expat any longer as we have lived here too long as a family. That said many of our friends are expats – we tend to gravitate together. I have quite a few French friends and colleagues (I work in a predominantly French environment with a small English team) but I would say that Philippa has less French friends as she has found it more difficult to embrace the French culture. She is desperate to move back to England. The only thing that has kept us here is my career – the problem is I am less use to my firm in the UK than in France therefore I would probably have done less well there. I have a strong cultural and academic link to France – I studied French and German at university (before doing a law conversion course) and I always had a plan (even a dream) of becoming an international lawyer. It is a dream I have realised but probably at the expense of my family’s well-being and happiness. I feel guilty that I have imposed this on them – on the other hand they have enjoyed a good standard of living – better than we could have had in the UK. Also as a student I lived for a year in Lyon and worked as a language assistant in a lycee.
The French are not always easy to get along with - they do things in a certain way and are slow to change. They have a very different approach/philosophy/outlook from the English or Americans and tend to be more conservative. Business is more dependent on personal relationships.
The biggest challenges have been (a) education, (b) French bureaucracy (always difficult and confusing) and (c) persuading my wife that life is not so bad here. On the positive side I think on the whole I have enjoyed life here, made some great friends and above all enjoyed seeing my sons grow up here as bi-lingual children. My career has also gone reasonably well and I have developed a good practice here which was quite a challenge in the early days.
We shall come back to England in the next few years as our sons are very much gravitating to the UK and our parents (i.e. my parents and Philippa’s) are getting older so we need to be in greater proximity. There is nothing to keep us in France any more.
For anyone planning on a move abroad I would suggest one thing: do your homework/research and take your time if possible particularly regarding accommodation and the best areas in which to live. Do not be rushed into anything. Also make sure you take proper instruction and advice as to your tax and national insurance status as an ex-pact and whether your employer will offer you any tax indemnities or equalisation or salary uplift or accommodation allowance as an incentive for accepting an overseas post.
These things are crucial and should be sorted out in advance of arrival in the country concerned so that the ex-pat has no doubt as to his/her status, the cost of living in the country and what his/her disposable income will be. Coming to live abroad has many unexpected surprises (some pleasant but many less so). Speak to friends etc. who have lived in those countries.