Les Français sont arrivés

As more French emigrés settle in the UK than ever before, Bastille Day is being marked by a vote on which of their compatriots has contributed most to British culture. Jonathan Brown reports
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The Independent Online

It may come as little surprise to anyone who has strolled through the ritzier suburbs of London recently, where mannered Gallic voices can be heard on pavement cafes, but the French love affair with Britain is blossoming.

As President Nicolas Sarkozy takes the salute at the Bastille Day parade today, his countrymen on this side of the Channel will be marking the day by celebrating their own achievements in the backyard of the old foe.

London's 350,000-strong French community, who between them make up the seventh largest French city anywhere, a Francophone conurbation on a par with Nice, will be asked to take part in a poll judging the talents of those who have made Britain their home. Voting online, they will select the leading lights of traditional areas of French superiority such as gastronomy and the arts, as well as spheres where the country is an increasingly powerful world force, such as sport and finance.

The number of French expatriates taking up residence has grown spectacularly in the past decade. There are nearly 3,000 French-owned companies in London. The number of French students enrolling in British university courses is rising by 10 per cent annually.

Earlier this year, plans were announced for the fee-paying Lyçée Français, which has educated generations of diplomats' children, to take over the running of a nearby English-speaking comprehensive.

American news crews have descended on Chelsea's King's Road to report on the gallicisation of the shopping street. The opening of Parisian boutiques, patisseries and wine merchants has transformed the stamping ground of the Sloane Ranger.

In the London mayoral election, Boris Johnson took time out to court the French council tax-paying vote – and enjoyed the electoral rewards of his efforts.

Today's awards were devised by an investment banker, Laurent Feniou, 37, who has lived in the UK for 15 years. He had begun by organising events for the expatriate communities established in the so-called "21st arrondissement of South Kensington" and other well-heeled areas of the capital.

"Over time," he said, "I realised that a new French man or woman was emerging in a different field all the time. So I thought it would be a good idea to celebrate the talents of these people who were not necessarily famous in France but who had made their celebrity in Britain."

The Français of the Year awards were launched last year but were restricted to graduates of France's grandes écoles – the launching ground for the nation's cultural, political and economic elite. Some 3,500 people voted in the five categories with the writer Marc Levy voted the most influential artist, Pascal Aussignac of the Smithfield restaurant Club Gascon the top chef, and Wasps rugby club's Raphael Ibañez the leading sports star. In the world of commerce, EDF Energy's Vincent de Rivaz and Morgan Stanley's Franck Pettitgas were recognised.

In deference to their English hosts, the awards were monitored for fair play. Two men voted 3,000 times for the James Bond actress Eva Green, but their efforts were discounted.

This year, M. Feniou has added three categories to mark the growing diversity of French achievement in London – entrepreneurs, rising stars and talents. He has also been forced to add the model and actress Noémie Lenoir to the list after pressure from female voters.

This year's poll, the result of which will be announced at a ceremony at Club Gascon on 30 September, goes ahead at a time when Anglo-French trust has been put to the test following the murders of the students Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez. Newspapers in France warned that London had become a "city of blades" and told those considering living here to beware of "thugs, killers and drug addicts".

But M. Feniou believes the process of tolerance, which began when the Protestant Huguenots set up their silk-weaving looms in London's Spitalfields in search of religious tolerance, continues.

Britain's crème de la crème

Chefs

London now has more than 40 Michelin-starred restaurants, and the growing presence of major French chefs in the capital has helped galvanise the city's gastronomic renaissance. But the process started four decades ago. In 1967, Michel Roux followed his older brother Albert to London and they opened Le Gavroche, the first restaurant in Britain to earn first two then three of the cherished stars. Five years later, Raymond Blanc crossed the Channel, and worked his way up from waiter to open his own hotel-restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in 1984. More recent arrivals include Claude Bosi who opened Hibiscus in 2000, helping establish Ludlow's reputation for fine dining then moving to London seven years later. Paris's Pierre Gagnaire adapted his legendary cuisine for the menu at Sketch in 2003 while Joel Robuchon has helped turn his L'Atelier into a global blue-chip brand specialising in meals such as quail legs stuffed with foie gras.

Sportsmen

It was hardly the best of seasons for Nicolas Anelka, not least when his missed penalty let his club Chelsea slump to defeat against Manchester United in the Champion's League final in Moscow, but the former Paris St Germain striker has become a fixture here. The same can be said of Strasbourg's Arsene Wenger who bought the young Anelka to Arsenal in 1997 and who endured a similarly frustrating 12 months with his talented north London side, captained by fellow countryman William Gallas, a graduate of the French football academy at Clairefontaine. The French international Patrice Evra, has just signed a deal keeping him at Old Trafford until 2012. The Rugby Union star Lionel Faure, a prop for Sale Sharks, has won a place in the French team at this year's Six Nations.

Performing artists

As the most famous ballerina in Europe, Sylvie Guillem has been the principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet since 1990 and thrills audiences with stunning performances. Gothic actress-model Eva Green set up home in Primrose Hill in 2005 after making her name in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers and starring with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. Laurent Voulzy, one of France's best-known singer/composers, lives in Surrey. Renaud, aka Renaud Sechan, a long-time critic of his home country, moved his family to Britain in 2007.

Bankers

As the owner of Centaurus Capital, fund manager Bernard Oppetit boasts an estimated fortune in excess of £80m, much from the takeover of Dresdner Bank by Allianz in 2002. Emmanuel Roman shared a £1bn bonus with colleagues after his hedge fund GLG Partners joined the US stock exchange. Benoit Savoret is chief operating officer, Europe and the Middle East of global investment bank Lehman Brothers, and Yoel Zaoui is a prolific Goldman Sachs dealmaker, recently replacing brother Michael as one of Europe's most influential financiers.

Chief executives

Jean-Francois Cecillon announced he was standing down from EMI last month. The veteran music industry boss made his name signing Robbie Williams while running the label in the 1990s. As head of Unilever, Patrick Cescau gave the go-ahead to the acclaimed Dove "real women" advertising campaign re-establishing the company's reputation for social responsibility. Andre Lacroix is head of Britain's largest motors group, Inchcape whose showrooms stock luxury brands including Jaguar and BMW. He recently led the £350m purchase of the Moscow-based Musa Motors Group and hopes to be selling £1bn worth of cars in Russia by 2010. In eight years at the helm of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Jean Lemierre claims as his greatest success the emergence of a new middle class in the former eastern bloc countries as his defining achievement.

Entrepreneurs

Nicole Farhi raised eyebrows when she went to collect her CBE this summer, accompanied by her husband, the left-wing playwright David Hare, and her former lover, Stephen Marks, with whom she founded French Connection in 1972. Marie Bejot grew up in Senegal and, like her father and grandfather, trained as a doctor. She set up her own beauty products company, Oenobiol, in 1985. Once called the world's sexiest chef, Jean-Christophe Novelli is well known to TV audiences as well as serious restaurant-goers. He lives in a 14th-century manor in Bedfordshire. Arnaud Vaissie has already been awarded the Legion d'Honneur for his humanitarian work founding the emergency medical group International SOS. London-based Corinne Vigreux, who brought sat-nav to the masses with TomTom, is, with her husband, worth £1bn, according to The Sunday Times Rich List.

Rising stars

As a disciple of the legendary Alain Ducasse, Helene Darroze arrived at the helm of the newly refitted Connaught Hotel this year, sporting two Michelin stars. When people asked how London was attracting talent allowing it to outstrip New York as the world's financial centre, many pointed to Olivier de Givenchy's move to the UK. He manages billions for JP Morgan's richest private investors. And fashion designer Roland Mouret is back in London after a spectacular bust-up with his backers, armed with the financial muscle of Simon Fuller. He is working with former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham. Thomas Seydoux is a head of department at auction house Christie's, and Thierry Tomasin made his name front of house at la Gavroche and Aubergine.

Talents

An eclectic new category that includes a wide range of talented French men and women. Among them is the singer Anne Brugiere, artist-painter Anne-Francoise Couloumy and editor Laurence Colchester. Also included is South Kensington institution, The French Bookshop, run by Robert and Laure Zaigue. Other names listed are theatre director and producer Marianne Badrichani and Olivier Cadic of Cinebook.

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