Liberte, egalite, energie: London

It's swinging and the French love it
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The Independent Online
London's tourist board has just launched a new campaign, targeted initially at the US and France, to promote the city as the trendy capital of a thoroughly modern country. Already the campaign has been criticised for abandoning the very images that supposedly draw most tourists to Britain: rose-covered country cottages, beefeaters at the Tower of London and the changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.

From the other side of the Channel, however, it all looks a bit different: the tourist board may be not so much tapping a potential market as hesitantly nudging a wide-open door. For, mad cows or no, Britain, and especially London, are the flavour of this autumn. For young and not-so-young French people, the "swinging Sixties" are back in sleek, sophisticated, Nineties style, and Britain is where it's at.

Says who? Well, last week, none other than the usually austere Le Monde, allowing British home furnishing (Conran and Habitat), British pop music, British fashion and London restaurants to dominate a special style supplement. Where its headline on Tokyo breathed softly "East Wind, West Wind", and New York was labelled "Dizzy Heights of Luxury", London merited the headline: "Energy Frenzy".

"Liberated," the writer said, "Londoners are thrusting themselves once more to centre stage." She described the flurry of new restaurants as the "symbol of the current frenzy", and warned that even with 700 places, it was advisable to book if you wanted to eat at Terence Conran's new Mezzo.

Department stores, boutiques new and old, exhibitions - "not a week goes by without some trendy event" - markets... everything was new, fresh, creative, exciting. For this French commentator, London was "a hive, completely abuzz... a huge Culture Club rediscovering the attitudes and ideals of Swinging London... and looking to the year 2001." Le Monde, it should be stressed, is not prone to gushing editorial, nor especially to trend-setting. If this paper has decided that London is fashionable, it is doing little more than stating what is more or less accepted fact in France.

While the more traditional department stores of Paris, Galeries Lafayette or Au Printemps, can be almost deserted on weekdays, and full of tourists on Saturdays, French shoppers are to be found in droves at the Conran Shop or Habitat. British black humour - as in the films Trainspotting and Secrets and Lies - is all the rage. British pop music is back in fashion, with the stylish, uninhibited videos that go with it. The French have only to listen to a random selection of the British Top Twenty after a solid diet of French "pop" radio to hear something new and fresh.

Even the exclusive French fashion world has opened in Britain's direction, with the recent transfer of John Galliano to Dior and the appointment of Alexander McQueen, described as "another enfant terrible of London fashion", at Givenchy.

This is something different from the abiding penchant of a particular French class for the "English look" - all Burberrys and tweeds and Church's shoes and English muffins. It is, if not youth-led, then youth-dominated, and it has as much to do with a way of living as a way of looking. In summer last year almost half of all French visitors to London were between 16 and 24; another quarter were under 35. This year the proportion appears to be even higher. So are they just sneaking over (or rather under) the Channel to have a look, or do they really like it?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that for young French people, visiting Britain has attractions far beyond those advertised by the British tourist authorities, and owe much to the contrasts between the two countries. The first words mentioned by young French people about contemporary Britain are (as with the Le Monde writer) are energie and dynamisme.

The ethnic mix and bustling crowds on the streets have earned London the accolade the "Manhattan of Europe". To young Parisians used to a predominantly white and orderly city, or people from the run-down suburbs that surround the French capital who feel shut out of the mainstream in their own country, Britain seems unconstrained and, despite the racial tensions of recent years, healthily integrated.

For French young people, girls especially, who tend to be kept safe inside a close family circle until late in their teens, Britain also spells freedom: not in the lofty sense of France's liberte, but in the down-to-earth sense of being able to do what you want, when you want and looking how you want. In Britian, no one tells you to conform; no one says that you can't eat in the street, no one makes disapproving remarks about your T-shirt or laddered tights.

In restaurants, you won't go without lunch if you don't turn up before 2pm, and there is plenty to choose from if you don't want meat. The variety and inventiveness of the food is beyond most French people's imagination. Service in shops may be less charming and personal than in France, but that has its advantages. No one makes you feel embarrassed if you are just looking, and - wonder of wonders - you can go shopping on a Sunday.

More staid individuals on both sides of the Channel will doubtless feel that Britain could do with a dose of France's quiet, urban orderliness and social conformity. For many young French people, though, Britain offers a breath of fresh air, and if the trains are dirty and late, and the pavement less than spotless, they will be happy to practise being as laid back about it as the British.