Talking business

Alison Hughes takes a trip to Chasseneuil-sur-Bonnieure and meets expats who are making new lives for themselves in Poitou-Charentes

At first sight Chasseneuil-sur-Bonnieure seems an unlikely setting to host a weekend britannique. Set in the undulating lush landscape of Charente, famed for its Romanesque churches, woods and rivers, it all seems a million miles away from the British way of life. But delve a little deeper and two different threads emerge which link our two countries. The first is a historic one that still lives in the collective memory of this community.

If you arrive at Chasseneuil via the unexpectedly named village of St-Mary, you will be struck by a large monument on your left. My first thought was that it was a rather over-the-top war memorial but was chastened to learn that this imposing croix de Lorraine is in fact the national memorial for the Resistance movement in France. Chasseneuil lay very close to the demarcation line between free and occupied France and the Resistance movement here was particularly strong, the surrounding dense woods being ideal hiding places for parachuted supplies. Unfortunately reprisals were severe and the people of Chasseneuil suffered a terrible number of deportations and torture. Hence the memorial ground is the final resting place of the main leaders of the maquis charentais and also of 2,029 members of the Resistance and soldiers who perished in those turbulent times. So, it could be said that in the not-so-distant past, British people (parachuted in or not) have been made welcome here.

The charentais are still welcoming Brits today and the attractions of life in this rural area are perhaps common to many other regions of France - those things we dream of - a life away from the rat-race, sunshine, peaceful and beautiful surroundings and affordable property. But the particular collection of expats which gathered together on a recent spring morning seemed to have more in common than wanting all of the above; wittingly or unwittingly they are carrying on a charentais tradition of arts and crafts, so here is the second thread which binds.

What started as a school project - an idea of Genevi�ve Noumet, commerce teacher at the lyc�e professionnel, and her colleague Magali Poux, the English prof - finally saw daylight on Sunday 20 March. Months of preparation and hard work saw more than 40 stallholders setting out their wares in the salle des f�tes, supported by the pupils of the Lyc�e Pierre-Andr� Chabanne, who welcomed visitors, served refreshments and offered a gift-wrapping service for purchased goods. The students had been researching various aspects of British life and culture: from the Beatles to Lily Allen, from greetings cards to the intricacies of cricket – an extremely broad spectrum of material.

The doors to the salle des f�tes opened at 7.30am with Mmes Noumet and Poux directing stallholders to their places and students helping to wheel in diverse exhibits such as antique bicycles (including a boneshaker dating from the late 19th century), a busby…part of a hat collection…and teapots in various guises (including one decorated with articles from the Sun newspaper complete with Page 3 girl draped in a towel…don’t ask) confirming our reputation for being a nation of eccentrics. Alongside these more unusual items was an array of stalls offering handmade cards, bags, hats, jewellery, cakes and English goodies. Other more unusual items included copper and steel artwork, abstract paintings, and oils for classic cars.

Riding highAnd thereby hangs a tale. Cara Samways and her husband Greg worked in high-pressured jobs in the oil industry in the UK before reassessing their lives and deciding to pursue a new, albeit still oil-related, adventure in France. Cara had grown up with classic cars and it seemed a natural progression to start up self-drive classic-car holidays.

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Their business has now diversified, the touring holidays being replaced with car-hire for weddings and receptions, car storage and the sale of specialist motor oils. As with many of the people I met, I was struck by the enterprising spirit of the Samways and how making one change (move to France) had sparked off other changes and broadened their life experience. "We feel we are fully integrated," says Cara. "We have around 300 French clients and we are also involved with Cadanses Folk, a traditional French dance and music association based in Flavignac. My husband plays hurdy-gurdy, bagpipes and saxophone in the group and I am secretary."

Louisa Smith is another expat who has settled in the area and whose life has branched out in all directions. An art and design graduate from Surrey, Louisa specialises in copper and steel metalwork, creating beautifully crafted pieces inspired by nature and the landscape. In England she was limited by space, doing "odd bits in the garage and occasionally borrowing someone’s forge". Now she has her own workshop and is enjoying the peace and tranquillity that surrounds her new home on the Charente border.

"There have been a lot of challenges along the way. It has taken a lot of hard work and determination but I think the key to survival over here is the ability to adapt and change to make it work, not just relying on one rigid plan." Louisa is definitely doing that. She is in the process of setting up a networking association for fellow artists and craftspeople (www.creativefrance.ning.com). She also has plans to produce metal centrepieces and jewellery for weddings and to offer summer workshops and classes. Work aside, Louisa feels her biggest achievement since moving here was to pass her driving test. "I was petrified but it has been the biggest confidence booster. Working alone, it is really lovely to be able to pop out for a coffee when I feel like it and my French improved dramatically through doing the code, even if my fellow students were rather bemused by the presence of an older slightly mad Englishwoman!"

The French are probably more impervious to our eccentricities and mishandling of their language than we think. Anne Druce, who was selling handcrafted bags and jewellery, informed me that shortly after moving here she proudly announced to her new neighbours that she was a keen gardener. After consulting the dictionary she realised that she had just told madame that she and her husband were flowerpots! But not an eyelid was batted.

Michael Druce, whose stall qualified as the smallest one in the hall and whose exhibit - a working model of a V 80 aero engine, all of 12 centimetres long, but which had taken two years of painstaking work to make - attracted a great deal of interest from a certain kind of male whose eyes light up at the mention of model, steam or engine; enough to prove that when like-minded people get together there is no language barrier.

Which brings me to another group of like-minded people, the MG enthusiasts, who were proudly displaying their BGTs, Midgets and Roadsters in the nearby car park. The group was started in February 2008 in St-Claud, just north of Rochefoucauld, and has grown dramatically from a group of six friends to a current membership of 86. Their aims are mainly social, with run outs and barbecues firmly on the agenda, but it is also a support network for MG owners offering advice on repairs, garages and restoration work.

One member, Jack, told me that joining had jolted both him and his wife out of retirement and they had visited places that they would never have contemplated going to alone. The chairman, Adrian Goodson, was keen to stress that although their membership included only one Frenchman at the moment, they were very willing to welcome other French MG enthusiasts. They do not want to be seen as an exclusive Brit affair.

Food for thoughtFood, of course, is an international language and there were some delicious cakes and other goodies on offer at the British weekend. Anne Stapleton, a qualified caterer who has lived in Charente for the past seven years, was just testing the water with her fairy cakes. She hopes to be able to cater for weddings and receptions in the future. Teresa Denton had a splendid array of carrot cake, pecan tarts and brownies. "The French love anything that is chocolate flavoured," says Teresa, who regularly takes her wares to local markets as well as manning a tea-room at the campsite which she jointly runs with her husband at nearby St-Angeau.

But the most popular foodie’ stall had to be the fish and chip van which stood incongruously in the ancient market square in front of the church. Ex-policewoman turned chippy, Michaela Wallace, had 70 portions of fish to fry and the day was a complete sell-out. She told me that it was her new French partner who had encouraged her to start up the business after tasting fish and chips back in the Yorkshire Dales. Now she has her own circuit and also turns up at functions and special events. She has recently become an auto entrepreneur (sole trader), a regime that was introduced last year to encourage and simplify the setting up of small businesses in France. "The admin side isn’t difficult once you are in the system but it does help enormously if you speak French well," she observes.

But the person to see if you do need help in setting up a business is Debbie Bradbury. Wearing a different hat at le weekend (that of teapot collector!) Debbie has her own consultancy business in Chasseneuil. With 20 years’ experience of working in a French environment, in various fields ranging from property to legal matters, she now runs her own business helping others to integrate, set up their own businesses or just hand-holding’ to smooth the path of settling into a new country.

She has also recently started running treasure hunts to encourage expats to get out and about, explore and learn more about their adopted home. She sees this as a community thing. So many of the people I talked to mentioned time and time again how much they enjoyed the feeling of real community when attending local events; how all ages seemed to be able to enjoy themselves at the same time and likening life in Charente to (maybe an idealised) way of life now long gone in most parts of Britain.

So, what did most people miss about their new lives, if anything? Apart from the expected friends and family, it was that most basic of things - food. Salad cream, Bisto, Cheddar cheese, Cadbury’s chocolate (don’t tell them it’s now Kraft!) and a good curry. Maybe a small price to pay for the pluses that were cited: beautiful countryside, the laid-back’ pace of life, space, feeling part of a community, better social life…oh and of course the weather!

Top tips for starting a small business in France

Do your market research to make sure there is a real need for your business, to find the most suitable location for your premises and to work out a competitive fee structure

Find out how the French system works with regard to social charges, taxes, accounting, and rules and regulations related to your chosen profession, including the relevant government bodies that you need to apply to and any costs involved in setting up and running the business

Work out the strengths and abilities that you can bring to your business and seek help for any part that you are not able to do effectively yourself

Draw up a business plan, to make sure your business will bring you sufficient income to cover all running costs, social charges, taxes and other related expenses

Work out a good marketing strategy, so that your business is accessible - website, email, telephone - to all prospective customers and make sure that there is an efficient level of response to all enquiries

Did you know?

Facts about the auto entrepreneur regime:

Quick and easy to set up and run, it is a simplified version of France’s micro-enterprise regime, with on-line declarations, payment of charges and simplified accounts.

There are no registration fees or compulsory courses to be taken and no need for an accountant or end of year accounts.

Maximum turnover level allowed is €30,100 for services or €80,300 for sale of goods or materials, including services.

The business is not subject to VAT and cannot charge VAT or recoup VAT on expenditure.

Social charges and income tax are set at a fixed rate and are payable on turnover on a monthly or quarterly basis, but only if the business has earned any income during that period. There is no allowance for expenditure.