We all say 'oui' in South Ken

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A CITROEN van was pulled up on the pavement, delivering coffee. In the playground hundreds of small children in long shorts ran in a delirium of excitement, shouting in French at the tops of their tiny voices in front of the playground urinals, totally open to view. Across the road copies of Le Monde and Liberation lay in the stands, proclaiming the latest round in the battle over the referendum on Maastricht: 'Mitterrand rend sa sante publique]'

The corner of South Kensington that houses the Lycee Francais Charles de Gaulle, the French Institute and the French Consulate is the French Quarter of London. French families who come to London for their companies demand large flats with bidets and within walking distance of the school. Not only does it look French, this area literally smells French, thanks to the cake shops and restaurants, not to mention the canteen of the Lycee, turning out its thousands of portions of riz au poivrons and oeufs durs mayonnaise (Egon Ronay once concluded that they were the best school lunches in London) and filling the nearby streets full of appetising odours daily.

Inside, Sari Anne-Laure was sitting with a class of other 17-year-olds learning philosophy. 'Je pense, donc je suis,' proclaimed the blackboard. Her thoughts on the Maastricht treaty were less philosophical than practical. 'I would vote 'yes',' she said. 'Most of us want to do jobs in communication, in languages - so a Europe with closer links will be important to us.'

In the playground Alice Leyraud, 18, and Berangere Castaing, 17, taking a break on one of the benches, said they felt the same. Berangere had lived in Belgium and Canada, Alice in Belgium and the Netherlands: both were in favour of the treaty, Alice having actually made arrangements to vote 'yes', by proxy.

'It's a good thing to have several countries helping one another,' she said. One parent was French, the other Dutch; she felt, she said, European. Berangere went further. 'I like all the European countries,' she said. 'I speak French, English, German and Italian. When we have no frontiers the European Community will be very important.' She intended to earn her living in this milieu as an international lawyer.

No mock poll has been carried out at the Lycee - its headmaster, Henri-Laurent Brusa, was not certain what the parents would have thought of such a thing - but if there were, the betting would be firmly on a vote in favour. These are Euro-children, clad in the international uniform of blue jeans and T-shirts, their youthful optimism untroubled by the background noise of European currencies crashing and Hitler groupies shouting their Sieg Heils in eastern Germany, not to say the south of France. They are the children of parents working for international companies and institutions, of marriages between parents of different nationalities, of English parents open-minded enough to want their child immersed in a foreign culture. Their backgrounds predispose them to a sophisticated European outlook.

That sophistication is, of course, supported by cash. Farley & Co, the estate agents on the corner of Bute Street, revealed that French clients for South Kensington lets commonly have pounds 600-pounds 800 a week to spend. At Confiture, a French-owned shop opposite the school selling clothes for small children, Dominique said Sonia Rykiel children's dresses, at around pounds 80 each, were popular with French mothers.

'The social classes represented here are very limited,' said Aymeric Dumas, 16, another supporter of the treaty. 'Before, I was at school in France in an industrial area, and pupils belonged to the lower classes - their fathers worked in agriculture or industry. They were,' he said, 'more true in their way of being.'

The way of being in some quarters of French agriculture is all too sadly known, with British lorries carrying lamb being blockaded and set on fire. The Common Market's agricultural system, like the European Monetary System, is only popular while it works to the host nation's advantage. In Bagatelle, the French pastry shop round the corner from the Lycee, Stephanie Le Blanc explained to me that the entire ingredients of all products on display were flown from France, including butter and eggs, to be beaten into shape by a French chef exiled in Wembley. 'I agree with Europe,' she said. 'I think a lot of countries need help. France can bring a lot of food.'

More than half her customers are French, drawn by the taste of their native land. In the shop window lay a rustic loaf: 'Le Vrai Pain d'Antan: The Bread of Yesteryear.'

By now it was lunchtime: as the franc came under heavy attack on the money markets, the older pupils were spilling into Bute Street for sandwiches and chatter, kissing one another, continental fashion, on both cheeks; flirting bilingually; rushing into the French stationery shop to stock up with proper French exercise books.

In the Librairie Francaise, Giselle Shaw, another French national, surveyed her stock. 'We have our culture here, and yet the pleasure of being here,' she said. 'I believe in Europe. But at home - some are so French, so insular. They are terrified of invasion.'

There was, it seemed, a taste of this insularity at the school. 'I like it here,' said Arabella Wolloshin, the one pupil I found who opposed the treaty - a 17-year-old Scot, one of the 20 per cent minority of British children there. 'But it can be a bit cliquey. That's the first impression everyone gets. My parents thought it would be good for me to learn another language, they want me to be European in that sense,' she said. 'But I am not in favour of monetary union. I think it is better to govern ourselves independently.'

Outside the Credit Lyonnais near South Kensington tube station, a group of Italians was staring in dismay at the notice that gave the day's new, and plummeting, exchange rate for the lira. 'All rates are liable to change without notice,' the sign warned in a major understatement.

All the reasons French pupils and shopkeepers had given me for voting 'yes' could be summed up in a phrase: 'Good for France'. If that perception changes, the Community will, overnight, for all of them become Le Vrai Pain d'Antan in every stale sense.

'I guess we are all Europeans,' Sari Anne-Laure had said. 'But we are first of all French.'

(Photograph omitted)