The accidental Englishman: France's other ambassador

Marc Levy is a Frenchman with everything: riches, glamour, literary success. But his real passion is for his adopted country. Now he has been honoured as a figurehead of France's growing diaspora in the UK. By Andy McSmith
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The Independent Online

When Louis Levy was small his father would entertain him with bedtime stories, as fathers do. Except that Marc Levy was not reading the stories out, or recounting old tales he remembered from his own childhood: he was inventing them as he went along. They became more and more elaborate, with a cast that grew to about 80 characters. He started writing down the details so that he could be consistent from one night to the next.

When Louis reached the age of nine, he decided that he was too old for bedtime stories. But his father, who had pursued two successful business careers, in computer graphics and architecture, rather missed telling stories, and began writing a novel for the young man he expected Louis to become. It was a romantic thriller that was supposed to tell him a bit about love.

That was in 1998. Today, Marc Levy is one of the fastest selling novelists in France, whose seven books have sold more than 13 million copies around the world. One has been turned into a Hollywood film by Spielberg's company, Dreamworks – a rare coup for a French writer.

Fame has provoked jealousy, of course – and he blames jealousy for an embarrassing rumour linking him with the wife of the President of France.

This week, he notched up another accolade, when the French community in Britain voted him winner of the writers' and artists' section in the Francais of the Year awards. The other winners, in a poll conducted on the internet, included Pascal Aussignac of Club Gascon, who beat other culinary giants like Michel Roux of Le Gavroche to win the Chef of the Year award, Vincent de Rivaz, of EDF Energy, who was named Dirigeant, or business tycoon, of the Year, and Franck Petitgas, of Morgan Stanley, who was voted financier of the year. Finally there was the Sportif of the Year – not Arsene Wenger, nor Chelsea's Claude Makelele, but Raphael Ibanez, captain of the French rugby team and London Wasp player. Speaking to an assorted group of Anglophile French and Francophile Brits, Levy explained why he was delighted to win the award. "It shows," he said, "that one can be French and live in London and that there is no contradiction there."

There are now so many French citizens living in this country that if they all crossed the Channel and congregated in one place, they would make up France's sixth biggest city. The size of the French diaspora blew up as a political issue a couple of years ago, when the Foreign Ministry expressed alarm at what seemed to be the biggest exodus since London's coffee shops were stuffed with French aristocrats escaping from the guillotine more than 200 years ago.

The number of French people living abroad rose by more than 40 per cent in the previous decade, to 1.25 million. The number officially registered as living in Britain went up from 46,000 in 1993 to 91,630 in 2005. That is only a fraction of the true figure, since most French here do not register with their consulate. The government implied that France was suffering a brain drain because of restrictive employment laws; the left said it was drumming up a scare story to attack the country's generous welfare system.

Laurent Feniou, an investment banker and organiser of the Francais of the Year event, who has lived in the UK for 13 years, explains that the capital has a particular draw for those arriving from across the Channel. "The number which is most in circulation now is that there are 300,000 of us. A big proportion is in London. The big increase came at the end of the 1990s, when there were fantastic opportunities in the banking industry.

"The other big source of jobs is linked to restaurants, or the food industry. Guys come to work here for a couple of years in food shops or a restaurant, then stay a lot longer because this is a town where you like staying."

Marc Levy is himself the perfect example of a Frenchman who has chosen to make Britain his home. He settled in London eight years ago, having decided that the energy and novelty that he associated with New York had crossed the Atlantic.

"I am in love with London. I'm not saying it's perfect here, but it's is full of colours," he says. "Paris is a beautiful city, but it's a beautiful museum city. Every time I cross the Thames I see so many sorts of architecture, including 21st-century architecture.

"I am in love with the English phlegm, the English humour that is so integrated in your culture that it has affected everything.

"A lot of things in London don't work. But people don't get stressed about them. Everything that doesn't work in France is a source of stress. Everything has to work in the right way and on time. Taking a plane at Heathrow, for instance, really belongs to the 19th century, but people take it as it comes."

Levy has had four careers, enjoying rapid success in each. In 1980, aged 18, he joined the Red Cross, and within three years he was regional director of the Western Paris Department of Emergency Relief. In 1983, he launched his first company, Logitec, France. The next year, he moved to the US, and created two companies specialising in computer graphics, in California and Colorado, but resigned in 1990 when he lost control of the group. He then launched an interior design company, which grew into one of France's leading architectural firms.

He devoted his spare time in 1998 to writing his first novel, Et si c'était vrai (If Only It Were True) to fill the hole left by the ending of bedtime stories. Early in 1999, his sister, a screenwriter, urged him to submit it to the French publisher Editions Robert Laffont. After a wait of just eight days came the phone call saying that they wanted to publish it. It was France's best selling hardback novel of 2000, and within a few years has become a Hollywood film Just Like Heaven, starring Reese Witherspoon. It never had much chance of competing with blockbusters like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but it quickly found a niche as a classy example of chick lit on the big screen, aimed at the same sort of audience as Four Weddings and a Funeral. For Levy it was an honour. "It's very unusual for a French novelist to have a book filmed by Hollywood," he says, "and I was especially lucky to have my first book bought by Spielberg".

There followed six more novels, the latest of which, Les enfants de la liberté (Children of Freedom) came out last May. In 2003, one of his books was France's bestselling paperback novel, and another was the bestselling hardback novel. He was France's bestselling author of 2004 and 2005. His sixth novel, London Mon Amour went straight into the bestseller lists, with 525,000 copies sold. His books have been translated into 38 languages. They have sold more than 1.5 million copies in Germany alone.

There is another story, well known to the French – this one concerning Levy himself. That, too, is fiction, he insists. It concerns the glamorous, unpredictable and indiscreet Cecilia Sarkozy, estranged wife of the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, who dazzled the crowd at last June's G8 summit, only to disappear without explanation, leaving her husband as the only unaccompanied head of government at the final gala dinner. Last month France's first couple announced that, after more than a decade, they had divorced. Levy's name was never far away from the rumours.

Earlier this year the President's wife was caught by a camera crew as she was returning to her car after a shopping trip in Paris. A journalist threw at her a question about rumours that she and Levy were lovers. She laughed, and announced that she had had lunch with him and had met Levy's "charming girlfriend".

Speaking from his Chelsea home, Levy insists the rumours were the product of an overexcited media and underhanded politicking in the run-up to the general election earlier this year. "This was completely stupid and crazy. It was one of the dirty tricks of the election campaign. It started because when Sarkozy came to London, he wanted to meet me, not to talk about any political issue, but to talk about books. We had a very pleasant conversation at the Savoy. One of his daughters liked my books, and Sarkozy said to me very kindly: 'If you would come one day for dinner, she would be very happy.' It was a dinner for about 25 people.

"That started a lot of what we call in France commerag – this is a word for when people speak behind the back of someone saying nasty stuff about people's private lives."

Meanwhile, if you spot a camera crew out in London today, filming actors talking French, they are probably working on the screen adaptation of London Mon Amour. It should go on release in the UK next year.

The British may have spent years flocking to Paris in search of the ultimate romance but the French are now falling in love with London. And now, it seems, they're here to stay.