French families in the UK: 'It's just so expensive'

What with train delays, drunken youths and the price of cheese, moving to Britain can be a shock. Julia Stuart meets two French families who are adjusting (slowly)
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The Independent Online

With more than 3,200 pupils, the London Lycée is perhaps the most visible outpost of the capital's burgeoning French ex-patriate community. What better place to sound out the views of our Gallic guests on life in Britain?

Gilbert Brunet, who has two children at the school, brought his family over from Paris in September 2001, when the electricity company he works for offered him a job in London. The family had already spent five years in China.

"It was easier to accept the difficulties in China because we knew it was a completely different world," says Gilbert, 47. "When we came here we thought France and the UK would be the same thing. But it was an awful shock - the food, transport, the cinema, all the activities for children are very expensive and the prices aren't justified," says Gilbert. "And the variety of food isn't so wide. Cheese is very expensive."

Then there were unreliable workmen and delays on the Tube to get used to. "I was late for work because of the Underground. I was surprised that the English just carried on reading their newspapers and waited. In France people would have been shouting," he says.

His wife Suzanne, 48, a former nurse, says she was initially shocked by the contrast between the rich with their vast houses and the poor living on the streets. The state of British hospitals also horrified her. "I saw a television programme about English hospitals and frankly I thought it was like the Middle Ages, with communal wards and waiting lists."

The couple were both stunned by the sight of young people drinking alcohol on the Tube. "Here, everything is in excess - drink until you are drunk to forget. You get the impression that young people aren't very happy," says Suzanne. "I was surprised. I realise now that France needn't envy its neighbour. But overall there are a lot of positive points."

The Gilberts appreciate the free museums, the parks, the pavements being largely free from dog dirt, and our manners. "The English are very polite. If they bump into you, they say sorry," says Suzanne. The couple only have one English friend - their landlady, which explains why Suzanne still prefers to speak in French.

Their youngest child, Capucine, aged seven, who attends an English school, is now fluent and almost accent-free. "It stinks in France. I prefer England. There are more playgrounds and more fun things to do," she says.

Pierre, 17, and Clémence, 14, have both settled well into the Lycée, which Pierre says is better than the one he was attending in Paris. He is enjoying life so much in the UK that he has applied to attend a British university.

"I love the international side of London. I like the fact that London feels safer. When I was going out in Paris, I had to be with friends in case there were problems."

Over in the appropriately named Montpelier Street in Knightsbridge, Hélène Rivoalen, 16, is having supper at home with a group of friends from the Lycée, none of whom is English. Her father, Philippe, 39, who works for an oil company, brought his wife and three children to the UK in April last year after he was offered a post in the company's London branch.

"It was a chance to get out of France and see something else," says Philippe. But he and his wife Anne, 40, were also staggered by the cost of living. "The price of a garage here is the same price of our four-bedroom house in Normandy," says Philippe. Fortunately the rent of their five-storey house - £1,400 a week - is covered by his employer.

"At the beginning, I was saying, 'No, it's too expensive.' Then, after a while, you just buy what you need," says Anne. "I do not like England. I have to live there so I try to make the best of it. Life is very expensive and we are used to living in the countryside; we had a garden. I just never really liked English people. They are very cold. It's difficult to establish relationships with them. They are very different from us."

While Hélène and her sister Emmanuelle, 14, have settled in well at the Lycée, the youngest, Anne-Sophie, who is aged 10, has had bad marks for her work. Her mother wants to take her out and put her in an English school. "I wanted to come here because it was a good opportunity for my husband, but also for the children to learn English. The problem is that they are not learning English at all as they speak French all the time," says Anne.

But despite Anne's reservations, she believes their stay will be a positive experience for all. "We will come back to France enriched," she says.