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When Olivier Lesault went to the Béziers Chamber of Commerce recently to register his new air conditioning business, he was amazed to find that the common language was English. "Every artisan there was British,” he says. “There were plumbers, welders, builders and carpenters, I couldn't believe it."

When Olivier Lesault went to the Béziers Chamber of Commerce recently to register his new air conditioning business, he was amazed to find that the common language was English. “Every artisan there was British,” he says. “There were plumbers, welders, builders and carpenters, I couldn’t believe it.” Not one of them spoke good enough French to deal with the forms and questions they were asked so Olivier, who is married to an Irish woman, acted as translator. “In the end the woman at the chamber asked me if I was paid to do this job. No, I told her, I just want to register my business!”

Unless you are moving to France to retire or you have a private income, the first thing you need once you’ve bough the house is a job. And for many Brits, who aren’t as fluent in French as they would like to be, one option is setting up a business of your own.

An English restaurant in France might seem an unlikely business plan but Louise Burnell and her partner Muriel Quinquis have made it work. Auntie Lou’s opened for business in Montpellier in the south of France in November 2003. “We chose Montpellier because we like the city, we like the sun and there are three successful Irish pubs here,” says Louise who trained as a chef and worked in the hospitality trade for 20 years before leaving England.

Originally from Yorkshire, Louise had the idea of opening a restaurant serving traditional British food. “Muriel is French which made things easier, but still setting up the business was really tough,” says Louise. “It was a totally different experience than back home.”

Muriel and Louise found that quotes they were given by workmen varied enormously. “If you’re a foreigner, they try and rip you off,” says Muriel. “When we compared the quotes we had from several workmen and they were way out. Either they were trying to take us for a ride or they didn’t want the work.”

The authorities were no easier to deal with. They didn’t have mains gas in the restaurant and despite paying a deposit to Gaz de France in August and sending letters by registered post, as well as calling them; they still weren’t connected the day before they were due to open on November 14th. Finally Muriel called them and pretended to be a single mother with a six-month old baby. They were immediately connected. “The French administration is undoubtedly the toughest aspect of setting up a business here,” says Muriel. “There is no service culture and they do not try to be helpful.”

Another difficulty has been sourcing the ingredients. “We can get baked beans here, but they’re very expensive,” says Louise. “But things like Marrowfat Peas to make mushy peas from I have to get friends to bring over.”

The customers at Auntie Lou’s are 70% French and 30% English. The Brits come from miles outside of the city to sample classics like Bangers & Mash and Fish & Chips. The restaurant has 30 covers and when they opened they were serving on average 10 people at lunchtime. That figure has now doubled. They initially invested €60,000 in the property, moving out to France and renovation work. During their first year their turnover was €80,000. “We want to double that next year,” says Muriel. “And then we’ll start paying ourselves a salary. At the moment we’re ploughing everything back into the business.”

When they started Auntie Lou’s, Muriel’s French friends thought she was mad, as did the locals. “They would walk past the restaurant when we were doing it up and ask what we were up to,” says Louise. “When we told them we were opening a British restaurant they literally collapsed in heaps of laughter in the street.” Muriel says the prejudice that anything from Britain must taste awful persists. “People see the flag and ask what’s going on. When I tell them it’s a British restaurant they say ‘Oh God that must be awful’. I smile and ask them when the last time they actually tried British food was,” she says.

Louise advises anyone thinking of setting up a business in France to think about it very carefully. “I knew it was going to be tough,” says Louise. “But I didn’t expect it to be as tough as it was. But we have no regrets. It’s been fabulous and can only get better now we’re making a name for ourselves. Who knows, maybe we’ll franchise it eventually. I can see Auntie Lou’s popping up all over France.”

Ceri McGuire opened Le Bookshop in Béziers in the Languedoc six months ago. A bookshop wasn’t part of the plan when she moved to France with her husband and three children in April 2002. “In 2003 we went on holiday to Nice,” she says. “And I found the best part of it was browsing in all the English bookshops. It occurred to me that for the hundreds of Brits that live around Béziers the only options are amazon or Montpellier. I have always been a big reader and love books so decided to go for it.”

The first thing Cheri did was to get the business structure in place. “I knew what a bureaucratic nightmare it would be, so I decided to get professional help.” Cheri hired an accountant to do everything for her, from registering the business to setting up the books. “That’s my top tip for anyone thinking of doing business here; get an accountant to do the business side of things. I get hundreds of bits of paper through the post and I just pass them all onto her. I don’t even have to read them,” she says.

The next step was finding the premises. The first shop Cheri found fell through on the day she was meant to move in. “The place I eventually found is on the tourist route from the town to the cathedral and right in the middle of things, it’s perfect,” she says.

Alex, who works as a mathematician during the day, spent his evenings and weekends during two months doing the premises up. “It was an underwear shop before we moved in,” says Ceri. “So there were all kinds of strange structures that had to be taken off the walls.”

Ceri had to buy around 2,000 books to stock the shop, an investment of £15,000. She says the most difficult thing was choosing which books to buy. She was given a list of the top 5,000 sellers by her wholesaler. “Some of them were things like maps of Humberside, hardly relevant to readers in Béziers,” she says. “I chose about 80% from the list and then I just went round my house picking out all my favourite books.”

Ceri sells between 200 and 300 books a month on average and 50% of her clients are French. “They love their PD James and Agatha Christie,” she says. “And they think it’s really cool that Béziers has an English bookshop. The Brits buy lots of chick-lit and children’s books, as well as anything to do with living in France.”

Ceri sells a book that retails in the UK for £9.99 for €15.99. Included in that price are transportation costs and 5.5% VAT which you have to pay on books in France. She predicts “minimal” profits for her first year. “But the fact that I’ve made any profit at all is great, and it can only get better,” she says. 

In France the Brits are not so much a nation of shopkeepers as a nation of estate agents. It seems every other person moving across the Channel is thinking of setting up as an agent. Mike and Sally Monkman set up an estate agency in the Languedoc when they moved out three years with their three children then aged 13, nine and five. “The hardest thing about the whole move and setting up the office was the language barrier,” says Mike. “Sally was the only fluent French speaker among us so for two years she was literally the mouth and ears for the whole family. The language factor should not be taken lightly for anyone planning a move to France.”

Mike and Sally concede it is a tough business to be in. “The system here is so different,” says Mike.  “Many agents have the same properties so competition is fierce. Even if you run around with a client for two or three days there is no guarantee they will buy from you, you have to go that bit extra for them.”
Mike and Sally work with local agents and receive a percentage of their commission which can be anything between 5 and 10 per cent. “You can make a good living,” says Mike. “But you have to remember that taxes and social costs are high in France. Once we have paid the TVA (VAT) of 19.6% on any sale we then need to fork out another 47 per cent in social costs, so you certainly have to keep moving those properties.”

If you’re looking to buy an existing business then the Entente Cordiale in Abjat-sur-Bandiat in the Perigord Vert region of the Dordogne is for sale. The traditional English pub come tabac, restaurant and hotel was set up in 1989 by Stewart Edwards and his wife Sue. They are now looking to retire and have bought a house a few doors away from the bar. “That way we will be around to help the new owners should they need it,” says Stewart. “It is a great place and extremely popular with French and Brits alike. It’s a proper community bar.” The Entente-Cordiale is for sale for €450,000.