food / travel

British, Broke & Single In France: Desperate Expat Ex-Wives

A dispatch from the new front line of expat rural life from Maria-Louise Sawyer, who came to the Charente region with her husband in 2002, only to find herself alone and broke nine years later.

Sèvre Niortaise river in Niort, Deux-Sèvres, France
Sèvre Niortaise river in Niort, Deux-Sèvres, France
Catherine Rollot

CHARENTE - When she looks out of the window of her dining room, Maria-Louise Sawyer could almost think that she is still in the English countryside. Endless fields dotted with a few farms, horses, and a mild climate. When they moved to Charente in 2002 from the UK, she and her husband thought they had found their own little piece of paradise: a green and pleasant land just like back home, made perfect by that French quality of life coveted by all.

A few years later, the dream turned into a nightmare. At the age 54, this native from the Devon county in southwestern England suddenly found herself without a husband or money, living alone in the small village Chazelles some ten miles outside the main town of Angoulême. After 26 years of marriage, her husband had suddenly returned to England – taking all their savings with him.

Despite her troubles, Mrs Sawyer is no ‘desperate housewife." For the last six months, she has been writing a blog addressed to other expats like herself, whose husbands have either died or left them to fend for themselves amid terrible financial and legal problems.

The success of her site called Waif (Women Alone in France) has exceeded all of her expectations. More than a thousand people have contacted her so far, most of whom are British women of all ages and now live alone in the heart of the French countryside. They are all keen to share their difficulties with her over the Internet or read the free advice given in the blog.

Maria-Louise speaks excellent French with a charming British accent and tells the tale of her reversal of fortune with humor. Like so many British people, she had always dreamed of coming to live in France. "I used to work in a big American company. I had a very stressful life. I wanted to relax and taste the French version of ‘la dolce vita,"" she says. She managed to convince her husband, who had already retired, to make the dream come true and move to France.

In 2002, the couple sold their house in Devon and bought what is known as a maison de maître - an elegant bourgeois village house - in the northern part of the Charente region. The first few months were idyllic and Maria-Louise started to work in real estate. Her specialty was English buyers, who were at that time attracted by the low house prices in France. "I would sell two houses a day," she recalls. But if business was going well, life at home was stalling: "My husband did not learn to speak French. He just stayed at home all day, and then started to be jealous of my success and the way I managed to fit in."

Things got really rough in 2007. The slump in sterling and the global recession hit British buyers. Houses were no longer easy to sell. When Maria-Louise came home one day in March 2008 she found a note saying: "I've left." Her husband had also taken all the furniture and all the money from their joint bank account.

The months that followed were hell. Maria-Louise could not sell her house or pay off her debts. Without any family, she had no one to count on but herself. In March 2010 she decided to sell her story to The Mail, an English tabloid, for 300 euros in order to pay water and electricity bills. The publication of the article elicited a huge response from the public. "The author of the article got in touch with me to ask me if I wanted to answer to all these people. I thought about it and came to the conclusion that it would be useful to give them all some practical advice.", Maria-Louise says. This is how the idea of launching a blog was born. Her lawyer, Jean-Michel Camus, a former President of the Bar Association in Angoulême, agreed to post free advice on the French legal system; a doctor who wishes to remain anonymous offers details about the very complicated French health system.

Based in Angoulême for the last 20 years and fully bilingual, Camus says a third of his clientele are British expats. And it would seem that Maria-Louise Sawyer's case is not at all exceptional. "The differences between French and English laws make divorcing a far more complicated matter. People are never sure of which legal system -- French or English -- applies in France. Financial implications are often unclear as well, because the English system does not recognize the same principles of spousal support or compensation as the French system", he explains. There are actually a lot of cases of uncontested divorce, for the simple reason that sometimes people leave without giving so much as a forwarding address."

Each day, Maria-Louise Sawyer gives online counselling to women who are often in great distress. The stories she hears are all different but they have one thing in common: isolation. Heaver Davey, 47, and mother of two, arrived in the region in 2007 with her partner. Two years later, she was single and broke. Thanks to Waif, she is now trying to get back on her feet, having set up a pet-sitting business in her home.

"The people who write to me need solid, practical advice, not pity about their plight," Sawyer says. She is not at all interested in all the marriage proposals or dating offers she often receives. Keeping a distance and strict confidentiality is a must; she never publishes any of the private advice she gives her online companions.

A few months ago, Maria-Louise managed to sell her house and buy a smaller one. Thanks to the odd English lesson and the all-too-rare jobs she gets, she lives today on less than 400 euros a month. With her three dogs keeping her company, she has also learnt to deal with solitude. She tries not to dwell much on the past. And nothing in the world could make her go back to the UK. "My life is here, there is nothing left for me over there," she explains, adding that: "There is this excellent French phrase which perfectly describes my situation: ‘un accident de la vie" (one of life's accidents)" or as you would say in dear old Blighty: just one of those things…

Read the original article in English.

Photo - Dynamosquito

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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