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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 adviceshe 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…

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Photo of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen

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