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How expat support groups can help you integrate in France

PUBLISHED: 09:45 21 May 2019

Friends from the Vivre Ensembe en Minervois Association

Friends from the Vivre Ensembe en Minervois Association

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Struggling to feel at home in your French community? If you don't have a local expat support group, you could always set one up yourself, suggests Sally Dixon

When the excitement of moving to France has passed, the sparkle can fizzle out of your enthusiasm. People need people and although we all

want to become a part of our new French community when we move here, sometimes it is not that easy. The odd "comment ça va?" over the garden fence is fine but unfortunately, it sometimes doesn't progress any further, especially when neither side has any degree of fluency in the other's language.

New arrivals can often find themselves feeling very isolated, and a recent survey found that depression is now the most prevalent mental health issue among expats across the globe. The main concerns amongst those surveyed were found to be and inability to take part in activities formerly pursued at home, loss of a support network and language difficulties - in short, missing home and friends, plus coping with culture shock and language barriers.

The good news for expats here in France is that community associations have sprung up around the country, fulfilling all types of needs and providing a real lifeline for many. In my own region, we have just such an organisation. I live in the Minervois area and our association, Vivre Ensemble en Minervois, or VEEM for short, has over 200 members from about 20 different nationalities, including French people who are new to the region.

We have our own clubrooms in the centre of Olonzac and activities range from walking groups to art and culture. The most popular tend to be the various language workshops - French (at all levels), English, German, Spanish and, because we are in the Languedoc, Occitan.

Building bridges in Minerve (c) moonmeister Getty ImagesBuilding bridges in Minerve (c) moonmeister Getty Images

Needless to say, another popular group is the wine one - the Languedoc is, after all, one of the largest wine-producing areas in France. Our wine group is an excellent supporter of the local industry, with members happily visiting vineyards from Narbonne to Carcassonne to find their rosé préferé.

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Paperwork power

When you are new to a country, a lot of the necessary administration can seem very daunting and, of course, with the advent of Brexit, even more so. With this in mind, the VEEM organises monthly sessions to help newcomers, or not-so-new-comers, to navigate their way through the mire of French bureaucracy. The most common queries are usually about how to access the health system, or import a car, and after that tax - surprisingly there are still people who relocate to France and think that it is a matter of choice whether they pay their income tax in France or their home country! With the advent of Brexit, these advice sessions have become even more needed and extra presentations have been added to the calendar.

Computing, cookery and creative writing

For those of us who are more technically challenged, the VEEM has a group that will try to solve your computer problems or even help you with such projects as building your own website. If you are aiming to be in the next Masterchefseries, the cookery workshop will no doubt aide your culinary creativity.

For myself, it is the creative writing workshop that has proven to be my support network. We have a wealth of talent in our group, from a professional editor to a retired journalist, with history buffs, a photographer and a single-handed yachtswoman added to the mix. One member has written books on the Pyrénées while another has written a series of tongue-in-cheek books based on life in France. Others have been successful with historical romances and English language textbooks.

I have found the group not only supportive but an invaluable sounding board. Being a member inspired me to finish my new novel Three Girls, which can now be found on Amazon in paperback or Kindle. The book explores the lives and loves of three young women, living in a modern-day, multicultural European city - a love story, set against a background of terrorism and murder. Needless to say, the book has been influenced by events in France such as the Bataclan bombing.

Do it yourself

If you are unlucky and find there is no association near where you live, the answer may well be to start one up yourself. As the saying goes: "If you build it, they will come!" Under French law this is very easily done. It requires a minimum of two people who want to get together to pursue an activity, with an objective other than making money. You can charge a nominal membership fee to cover costs but the association must be non-profit

making. It can have a bank account, ask for subsidies and even employ people.

There are two simple formalities to be followed when setting up your association. It has to be registered at the local préfecture or sous-préfecture, and an announcement has to be published in the government publication Le Journal Officiel (JO). This announcement, which is free, must contain the following:

1. the association's name,

2. its acronym,

3. its aim,

4. the address of its registered office (this can be a member's home),

5. the names, professions, addresses and nationalities of people responsible for its administration, and

6. a copy of its statutes, dated and witnessed.

Associations are completely free of tax obligations if they fulfill three conditions: they are run on a voluntary basis, no profit is distributed and the administrators have no financial interest in the association.

So, don't let the challenges of moving to a new country overwhelm you - there is always a support network out there. If you can't find a ready-made one, then start one up. Put an advert in your local magasin de bricolage - DIY stores are good places to find fellow expats - or supermarket or even the local boulangerie. You will be sure to find other like-minded people with interests the same as yours.

Sally Dixon's novel Three Girls is available from Amazon in paperback or Kindle

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