A flood, a deluge, an invasion, bloodsuckers… we’re all too familiar with seeing immigrants depicted in such terms within certain elements of the British press. It’s perhaps surprising to find that journalists have used this language to refer to their compatriots who have migrated to France in search of a better life.
The phenomenon known as lifestyle migration is attracting a lot of academic interest, but we’ve all seen the TV programmes and the property magazines that sell the idea of a new life abroad based on getting more for your money property-wise. And yes, migration often fosters resentment, but resentment of the British abroad notably comes from other British people, in a kind of ‘us and them’ scenario. Comparable sentiments have been heard in Spain, Portugal and above all in France, where my own research (and that of Michaela Benson) prompted me to examine how it’s been portrayed in the media over the last decade.
I chose a method of analysis known as corpus linguistics, which computes patterns of language use across a collection of texts (a corpus), and looking at 34 newspaper articles featuring the British in France I saw some unexpected language use. Some of it seemed at odds with the ‘better life’ promoted in television programmes and property magazines.
The value of corpus linguistics is that it highlights word associations that are statistically significant in their frequency, so researchers like me aren’t simply cherry picking language to suit a hypothesis. For instance, the words British and invasion were shown to have a strong association.
Admittedly, the idea of a British invasion may well be tongue in cheek, especially considering past history, but repeated use of the phrase could have a cumulative effect on the reader. Together with watery metaphors such as a wave, a flood, a deluge, a swelling army, they represent British property buyers as a large, uncontrolled and unstoppable mass entity.
Many of the article writers were columnists who themselves lived in France. Writers often referred to other Brits as something to avoid and made vague attempts to categorise different expat types. But if being different comes down to making clear what you are not, then what exactly is the wrong type of expat? Well, it seems that the longer-established residents are perfectly acceptable, in fact described as not only welcome, but prized by the French.
But unlike those who came because they loved France, the more recent Ryanair crowd are said to be inspired by the cheap property they saw on TV. Moreover, there is reference to the British somehow having lost their famous spirit of adventure, because they listen to the BBC, make sausages and mash and drink too much wine. Come to think of it, my neighbours in Devon do all of these things, so what makes it so remarkable when we cross the channel?
Of course it’s not all negative portrayals, with the words ‘dream’ and ‘idyllic’ occurring frequently. However, the word ‘dream’ was more often used to suggest a dream that had little basis in reality, since it was only a half-baked dream that had now become a wake up call for the Brits who came over with little idea of what they were doing. Perhaps surprising were the number of writers who referred to the British living in ghettos, a word that traditionally means an isolated minority forced into a particular area. It seems to trigger a stereotype of Brits huddled into their cosy ghettoes and oblivious to the French community outside. Yet I could see no clear description of anything resembling this – the existence of British ghettos is simply presented by writers as a fact. In such ways are cultural stereotypes repeated across the media and ultimately replicated in casual conversation, as I have heard in bars and at bus stops.
If you read enough of these articles, you might conclude that underlying the British migration to the French rural idyll is a notion of conflict. Conflict between the original migrants who feel they enriched the dying French villages, and those whom they see as ‘suckered’ into buying unsuitable French property because their money goes further. Conflict arising from a distortion between dreams and reality once these dreamers start living there. And the repetition of invasion metaphors builds a picture of a force that’s taking over the French countryside. In fact, the British are described in the broadsheets using very similar language to that used in the tabloids to depict immigrants and asylum seekers to the UK, only this time the ‘us and them’ distinction is made within the same ethnic group. By identifying ourselves as different from the mass hordes, we strengthen our position and legitimise our own kind of migration, because, above all, we want to be seen as the right kind of expat.