“When I first arrived, I only had schoolgirl French,” says Nancy Shorter, a property management agent based near Toulouse in south-west France. “I needed to learn the language to understand the news, understand correspondence, speak to French people, make friends and make a life here. I had five years of tuition, and I’m glad I did. I can speak, read and write French.”
Mrs Shorter, who is also the vice-president of the English Theatre Company, a local drama troupe, now has French residency. However, for newly-arrived British expatriates, their stay will now depend on their French fluency.
Earlier this month, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said non-European Union citizens will need to pass a language test to secure their carte de séjour, or multi-year residency permit. “Mastery of the French language will be compulsory,” he told the Assemblée nationale, although he added that this does not cover passport holders from other EU countries, including dual nationals.
The test, which would take place at a language school recognised by authorities, includes reading, listening, writing and spoken sections. Residency applicants must reach at least level A2 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which means managing simple and direct exchange communication on familiar topics and activities.
For French nationality, the challenge is harder. A passport is only granted to those who pass the CEFR B1 level, which includes a sustained French conversation. They also need to take citizenship classes on French values, culture and civic duties.
Nonetheless, some newcomers to France are concerned. Abi Hunter, a graphic designer who moved to Toulouse earlier this year with her boyfriend, says she has always struggled with languages. “I have tried to learn French, obviously, but it is hard,” she says. “I can usually get by here without much French, but that won’t be possible any more.”
British retirees seeking to spend their autumn years in EU countries often head to regions known for expats, like the Dordogne in France or the Costa del Sol in Spain. However, they then risk staying in a bubble where only English is spoken.
“There are two categories of Brits here,” says Jeremy Moore, who works in a foreign language bookshop in Toulouse. “There are those who want to get by just in English and those who want to learn language and culture. But those who want to just get by should know that the French really appreciate anyone making an effort in French. When you try to speak to them in their language, everyone benefits.”
Tony Lomas, the Area Dean of Chaplaincy of Aquitaine, says he welcomes the tests. “As a matter of principle, I think it’s a good idea for people to have, at very least, a working knowledge of the language of their host country,” he says. “But I also acknowledge the difficulty that some, especially older, ex-pats have experienced in building up this proficiency.”
Emma Nelson, founder of Jack in the Box, which offers English primary and secondary school classes in Toulouse says the test requirement is an inevitable consequence of Brexit. “That’s what you get when you vote away your rights – lots of obstacles in the way of what used to be easy,” she says.
Language schools say they are ready for British expatriates seeking to brush up their French. Marie-Mandarine Colle-Quesada, the teaching director at L’Alliance Française de Toulouse says there was already a surge in lessons after the 2016 referendum to leave the EU. “Most of the British, including those who work at Airbus here, already speak French at a reasonable level,” she says. “But it is good if they understand it better. It would be difficult to live your life correctly and comfortably here without speaking French.”
Lise Valadou, from the Langue Onze Toulouse school, agrees, saying people who come to live in France usually know some French. “Yes, the British don’t have a great reputation for learning other languages. But nor do the French,” she says.
France is far from the only EU country to set language or citizenship tests: some 22 of the 27 member states make language a prerequisite for citizenship, although they are less stringent with residency. Each country has different rules about naturalisation, including residency requirements, dual citizenship or family ties.
As for Mrs Shorter, the property agent and amateur actor, the test should help break British expats out of their bubble. “Many British people here seek each other out and don’t mix with the French because they can’t speak the language,” she says. “It’s often a matter of confidence though. I can tell you for sure that if the British try to speak French, the French knock themselves out to encourage and help. But if the British don’t try then the French do nothing.”