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France is more class ridden than Britain, and where you end up buying says a lot about who you are.

If you think that by moving to France you can escape class-ridden England, you are wrong. It is true that the French have cultivated an air

France is more class ridden than Britain, and where you end up buying says a lot about who you are.

If you think that by moving to France you can escape class-ridden England, you are wrong. It is true that the French have cultivated an air of equality – they call their plumbers ‘Monsieur’ - but that is probably because they are so grateful to find somebody who wants to go anywhere near a French toilet. Even after the Revolution and years of socialism, the French aristocracy is going strong. At a dinner party to celebrate Bastille Day in the summer near the southern French town of Béziers the host proposed a toast: “Liberté, egalité, fraternité”. “I’ll drink to two of those,” said the count sitting next to me. “But not to egalité. Men are not equal. Some come from very bad families and live in unspeakable parts of France.”  

They have developed cunning ways to tell if somebody if from a different class. For example, when you meet somebody, what should you say? Ever since I heard the word I have been using the seductive ‘ravi.’ You also hear a lot of people say ‘Enchante’. Both wrong. All you should do is say ‘bonjour’.
Nor should you say ‘Bonjour messieurs, dames.’ The count explained that this phrase is
for shopkeepers only. He told me the story of how his son came back with a girl one weekend. This dreaded phrase was the first thing she said to him and his wife.
“What did you do?” I asked, feigning horror. 
“We totally ignored her.”
“For the whole weekend?”
“Of course,” he delicately wiped some bread from the corner of his mouth. “He’s married to a perfectly nice girl now.”

The Mills & Boon tragedy of not being allowed to marry someone due to a careless phrase killed my appetite for the dinner but roused my curiosity. Have I really landed somewhere more class-ridden than Surrey?
Apparently I have. There are just as many things to avoid in the French language as in English – maybe more. Even the popular expression we Brits use innocently all the time ‘bon appetit’ is not considered terribly vulgar, as is bon courage.
“When I worked in London,” says a now retired French aristocrat who spent some years working for a French company in London. “Everyone would say bon courage every time the lift door opened. I just ignored them. In the end I began to regret having an office on the top floor, although of course the view over St. Paul’s was splendid.”
My French count also said that you can tell a lot about a person from where they live. “It is to my eternal shame that my family have lived in the Languedoc for more than a thousand years,” he said. “Every smart Frenchman knows that you should come from Paris. The only smart place in the countryside is the Bois de Boulogne.”

As English people living in France, we are exempt from much of the subtlety of the class system. However, you can also be undone is in your choice of where you live. Other Brits, and increasing numbers of French people, know exactly what kind of English person you are from your choice of French home.

For example, when we first thought about moving to France, we were attracted by the prices of houses in Limousin. For £35,000 we could have bought a farmhouse and land. The landscape was dreamy, reminiscent of Sussex 50 years ago. I happened to be staying with my French uncle, who is a related to the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, and mentioned this to him. He went white and clutched my arm. “You mustn’t go there,” he said. “No good ever came of living somewhere named after a cow. The people are terrible. No culture, no finesse.” He explained that there is a phrase in French which involves sending them to Limousin. It is the equivalent of being sent to Siberia.

In my research, I have discovered that there is a certain type of Brit who goes to Limousin. On visits to London, no less than four cabbies have told me they are moving to Limousin. It is perhaps fitting, for there is not much else to do there but drive around.
Burgundy, on the other hand, seems to attract more middle class types. Some would say this is partly due to the fact that they are wine snobs, but I think it has more to do with the landscape. It really is like the green and pleasant land all the middle classes love to reminisce about.

The Dordogne is Sussex with wine. People with houses there are likely to be middle-class, have a family and drive a Volvo. Teachers go to Normandy, because that’s where Flaubert came from, and besides, if you are going to spend your long summer holidays there you will want to take the car on the ferry, and bring it back laden with cheap cider.

The jet-set go to the Cote d’Azure, but for the rest of  Provence, you are likely to be either in the media, a designer, or an American who ‘just loves Peter Mayle’s books’.

I am obviously biased in favour of the Languedoc – the thinking person’s Provence – where the wine is better, the roads are emptier, and the people are friendly. Even some of the Brits talk to each other. There is also a better class of journalist moving in. Frank Johnson is my new neighbour and all summer his house is full of writers and supermodels.

Bordeaux still has a magic ring to those involved in fine wine and you will find wine-makers, marketers and even wine artists like David Eley living here. However you need a thick skin. Bordeaux is one of the least welcoming places in France, as David has found. “They really don’t make things easy for us Brits,” he says. “When my wife was stuck in a lift during the heatwave last year, their response to my panicked call was to tell me to learn to speak better French.”

Wherever you end up, you will find that the strange little things that tell the classes apart in Britain are just as important in France. In fact the class differences are really more pronounced, despite all their talk of egalité. Where I live there really isn’t a French middle class. You’re either an estate owner or a peasant that works on an estate. And how you say hello will reveal which of the two it is.