Vive les pubs, la liberté et Londres! Britain's French connection

When Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in London this week, London's French expat community came out to greet him. Ed Caesar talks to the people who opted for life on this side of the channel
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There was crowd trouble in the City. Around 2,000 French ex-pats were there to witness the flying visit of Nicolas Sarkozy, the smooth-talking presidential candidate, to the Old Billingsgate Market. And, even with security men in black shades controlling the mob, this week's event was proving a crush. "Could everybody please move back 20 feet," asked apoliceman. Cue baffled faces. "Could we 'ave that in metres?" shouted one Gallic wag.

By anyone's yardstick, there are more French people in London than there have ever been - 300,000 at the last count, although some statisticians estimate there may be as many as 350,000. Driven to London by a more dynamic job market, the opportunity to learn English, and by the demands of their French employers, our streets are now clogged with a horde (a shrug?) of baguette-wielding Gauls.

Indeed, go anywhere in west London - particularly the haute middle-class boroughs of South Kensington, Chiswick, Ealing and Clapham, where the émigrés send their children to French schools - and one will see, or, more likely hear, a French person. Their bustling presence in London, though, is nothing new.

Since the persecuted Huguenots flocked to Soho and Spitalfields and Wandsworth in the 17th century, the French have had a special relationship with London. And this current boom in French expats has been boiling for some time. As recently as a decade ago, London was teeming with 200,000 French people eager for the London experience. The key difference is that now, fewer than ever are returning home. Why?

"In France," says Stephen Clarke, author of Talk to the Snail, "it's practically impossible to get a decent full-time job, because none of the 35-65s are moving. Plus, in the French system, you need diplomas for just about every job. If you wanted to be a waitress in Paris you'd probably need a diploma from the National School of French Waitressing. Young people therefore, have very little chance to get into the job market.

"Compare that to London. You could turn up at J P Morgan and they'd make you chief stockbroker or something, and if you were any good, you'd keep your job. Loads of French people are going over to London because they realise that at least someone will give them a chance to do something in life."

That was certainly the case for Valerie Janin, 26, who has lived in Ladbroke Grove for a year. Mme Janin now works in the international division of Rough Trade records, having found it impossible to find work in the music business in Paris.

"You almost cannot find any work in Paris at the moment," she says. "I'd always wanted to be in the music business and I worked for free in France for a long time. After a while I thought, 'I might as well go to London where at least I can learn English while I am working for free.' And, luckily, I got hired."

Of course, most of the expats who turned up to hear M. Sarkozy's pitch on Wednesday night weren't hip young things like Mme Janin. They were suits, lured to London by the great chests of gold that are swilling around the City and Canary Wharf at the moment. It is this group that forms the backbone of the French community in London - who send their children to the private Lycée in South Kensington, and who largely stick together.

Francine Joyce, who has lived in South Kensington for almost six years, is married to a banker at HSBC, and also teaches English part time. She never wanted to leave France, but now loves London so much "I want to stay here my whole life". When she's not teaching, or looking after her three children, Ms Joyce organises activities for west London's French community.

"It's great fun being part of the French set in London," she says. "We have all sorts of groups - we go to the gym at Imperial College together; we go to each other's houses to cook. I suppose my friends are about half French and half English. We all meet at Paul, the patisserie, in South Ken. But all the cafes around the lycée are always packed with French people."

Ah yes, Frog Alley, otherwise known as Bute Street. Turn up on a school day and one will find legions of yummy mamans drinking coffee and discussing the price of brie. Indeed, the French have effectively cornered this swish part of west London - "you must admit, South Kensington is a very nice place to have a ghetto", says Clarke - but the expat life is not for everyone.

Fred Leris, 46, came to London eight years ago with his wife, Sophie, to try to crack the London art market as a dealer. Now a carpenter living in Hackney, M. Leris says that he only has "a couple of very good French friends" in London. Why?

"I used to sell paintings to all those French bankers, but now I really try to avoid them," says M. Leris. "They don't integrate. They are always complaining about this thing or that thing that is not the same as at home, and they don't really try to be part of life here. For me, there's no other way to live somewhere than just to throw yourself in there.

"London was really easy to settle in. Compared to Paris, where everyone just stays with their own circle, England is much more open. Here, you go to a party, and everyone speaks to you, and you can meet an architect, a journalist, a teacher, and a carpenter all at the same event. That makes the place much more vibrant and interesting."

Perhaps, then, it is not just the lure of job opportunities that is driving the French from la patrie, but something deeper in the psyche. Could it be that the French have fallen in love with the English way of life?

Clarke certainly thinks so. "They may all claim to have oysters and champagne every day, but they secretly love hamburgers and pubs," he says. "Going to a pub and having a drink and a laugh and then going out into the street and vomiting - that's not fashionable in Paris. Also, the French still think the UK is Cool Britannia. The Blair effect still works over here. There's an enormous romanticism about coming to London, where everyone thinks they're going to get into the art scene and maybe set up a cool design company."

Can this be true? Phillipe Castaing, 32, a restaurant owner living in Brixton, thinks he is "turning into an Englishman". M. Castaing moved to London from La Rochelle 13 years ago not for money but "for love", as his girlfriend, Stephanie, had just moved here herself. Five years ago, Stephanie and Phillipe opened Opus, a café in Brixton, and last year, they opened the Upstairs Restaurant on Acre Lane.

"What I really loved, when I came to London, was the freedom," says M. Castaing. "London was so exciting. I had come from a small town, and I came to live in Ladbroke Grove. That was a culture shock. I remember walking up Portobello Road on my first weekend with all the stalls, and the music, and the spliffs, and thinking 'gosh, what is this town?'

"What I've done here - setting up a business - I could never have done in France. France is completely crippled by its academic records. Unless you study such and such, and have 15 years' experience, you can forget about doing anything. Here, I was the general manager of the Polygon restaurant in Clapham at the age of 23. That would be unthinkable in France - they would say 'who do you think you are?'"

So the French come here, incredibly, because they love our laissez-faire attitudes and thriving job market and our unflinching commitment to binge drinking. But there must be some things that they miss about home?

"Of course, the French bread," says Mme Joyce. Moi aussi, says M. Leris: "In Paris the quality of the food you can buy, and the easiness of buying it was amazing. Here, everything is expensive." What about our abysmal transport system? "Yes, that's true," says M. Janin. "The transport is completely rubbish. In France, yes, we strike, but at least everyone knows when there's going to be a strike and avoids the trains. Here, it's like a strike every day, except, no one's actually on strike."

That's better. From their voluble praise for London, it would be easy to think that the French had lost their famous spikiness. Too much time in Albion perfide, it seems, will do that to you. The question now is, will any of them go home? M. Sarkozy, who, on Wednesday, called London "a great French city", asked not only for the expats to vote for him, but to buy a return ticket as well. According to one Anglophile, he may be fighting a losing battle.

"England is one giant happy mess," says M. Castaing. "It seems to run without too many problems given the complete lack of efficient management. I think it is a bit like Marmite, you either love it or you hate it. I am not planning to return to France ... especially if Sarko gets in."

Where the French live...

South Kensington, or "the 21st arrondissement" as it is known, where the Lycée Francais educates the wealthy ex-pats' children. One Onslow Square resident says: "The French are everywhere. They tend to be bankers on three-year contracts, and they don't seem to mix very well with the rest of us." Other French enclaves include Chiswick, Ealing, Chelsea and Clapham.

Eat...

Racine, in South Kensington, where the Francophile Englishman Henry Harris will serve them their Tête de Veau. Didier, one regular, says it has "the best soup this side of the channel". The Michelin-starred Chez Bruce off Wandsworth Common is another firm favourite with the south London French contingent. Also One-O-One in Knightsbridge, where the French claim the fish is legendary.

Work...

In the City and Canary Wharf, where they hold high-powered broking or banking jobs. At the lower end, there are thousands of French in catering and hospitality jobs across the capital. "There are basically two types of French person in London," says Patricia Connell, who runs franceinlondon.co.uk. "Those who move here with big companies, and young people who can't find work at home - who'll do anything."

Drink coffee...

In the South Kensington ghetto, Raison d'Etre is a favourite on Bute Street - otherwise known as Frog Alley. The writer Marc Levy claims the café has "the best baguettes I have ever eaten". On school days, every café around the Lycée is full to bursting, but the South Kensington branch of Paul is another favourite.

...and watch sport

At the Bouchon Bordelais in Battersea Rise, Clapham. Here they can watch French football and rugby games on one television, while watching their French heroes Thierry Henry and Thomas Castaignede in the English leagues. The Bouchon is also a magnet for post-World Cup and European Championship victory parties. "Even when France loses, we never have any trouble," says Frederick, the manager.

Comments