A quick sweep through French history in London
The French have had a significant presence in London for at least one thousand years. The most celebrated arrival of French people to London came in 1066 when William of Normandy arrived on the south coast of London and defeated the men on the then King, King Harald, at the Battle of Hastings. From there William made his way to London from where he ruled the most part of England and Wales, which was split up into a series of baronies, managed by Norman barons. In London William built the Tower of London, the biggest building by far in London at the time, to strike awe and fear into the populace, and to provide suitable accommodation for anyone desiring to detract from his ambitions and position. With time Norman rulers married into families of the predominant ethnic group in England, the Saxons, so that the Norman nature of England began to evanesce. Nevertheless the Normans left a legacy palpable today, not least in the way that a whole range of French words and terms now form part of the bedrock of English language. Seven hundred years later, another wave of French men and women arrived on the shores of the British Isles, when Protestants fleeing murderous hordes of Catholics made their home in Spitalfields and Somers Town.
South Kensington: La Vallee des Grenouilles
Twenty-first century London is very French and becoming more so. During the twentieth century French diplomats, businessmen and bankers had started to colonise the wealthy suburb of South Kensington. It has been argued that the French are ubiquitous in the City, particularly in fields such as equity derivatives where the top-notch mathematical skills of graduates from France’s prestigious “Grandes Ecoles” colleges give them a competitive advantage. The French colonisation of South Kensington prompted the French government decided to base a private French speaking school, the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle in South Kensington. This trend continues in the twenty-first century. In the twenty-first century French people continued to invest in the area, especially following the financial collapse and the Socialist government’s decision to tax top earning French people at the rate of seventy per cent. In 2012 French investors were the second biggest group after the British in South Kensington. Estate agents Douglas & Gordon was said to be so buoyant they set up a special French-speaking office. Ed Mead, director of Douglas & Gordon in South Kensington, said: ‘The French have always loved this area but we are seeing more and more. They like the wide avenues and big apartments this part of town offers but also the quaint mews houses. To think some of these properties were built as stables for horses originally but they are now they are worth £2-to-£3million but demand is strong and now they are all being redone.’
The influx of French people into London has prompted the French government to open another French speaking school, in 2012 the Collège Français Bilingue North London opened in Kentish Town, offering another 750 places. The consequence is that anyone taking a stroll down South Kensington high street, might find themselves momentarily lost amongst a gaggle of French school children, a fraction of the four thousand French speaking students, returning home after attending the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle. Were they to stroll around the district they’d most likely pass by a range of French bookshops, a branch of Parisian florist Monceau Fleurs, patisseries and pavement cafes frequented as Lucy Ash of the BBC put it, by ‘chique chain smoking school-run mamans’, and the Francophone cinema. Subsequently, South Kensington has become known, at least to readers of French paper Le Monde, as La Vallee des Grenouilles, and to residents of South Kensington by the more pleasant moniker Little Paris.
Additional French immigration into London
In addition to the consolidation of haut couture londres francais twenty-first century London has seen an influx of a different type of Frenchman, men and women, of lesser means, into districts such as East London, less salubrious than South Kensington. Since the dawn of the twenty-first century and the opening up of the Eurostar service between Paris and London, hundreds of thousands of not so well heeled Parisians have entered London. The immigration has been of such an extent that it is now estimated that there are anywhere between three and four hundred thousand French people living in London, making it the city with the fifth biggest population of French people in the world, hence London’s new moniker as Paris on Thames.
Reasons for French immigration into London
French people come to London for a variety of reasons. Most of it is economic. First, many young French people are finding it difficult obtaining a job in France. The general economic climate of France is such that there is little economic growth and so few new or additional jobs are coming on to the market. The perception is that it is easier to find a job in London, a perception that seems to be evidenced by some peoples’ experience. Sandrine Tobelem, a senior quantitative analyst at a London-based hedge fund told Estelle Shirbon of Reuters, “My husband and I both lost our jobs during the crisis. The state unemployment benefit was 76 pounds a week which is a pittance compared with what you get in France. But we found new jobs really quickly whereas in France it’s much harder. There’s a lack of flexibility and dynamism there.” It is suggested that certain social classes have quite a tight grip on institutions and companies in France, and use that position to further the interests of their own class, even if that may be at the expense of the profitability or effectiveness of the company or institution. In London the suggestion is that there is more power in the hands of capital and employers, who can demand more and abandon anyone who doesn’t fit in with their plans, meaning that they are more prepared to take risks, which leads to greater innovation and experimentation, which in turn leads to greater efficiencies, discoveries and better services.
Second, it is said that immigrants, and Parisians from particular notorious districts in Paris, do not find it easy to get a good job. It is said that CVs are reputedly routinely thrown in the bin for having the wrong postcode or a North African surname. Unemployment among children and grandchildren of immigrants in the outskirts of French cities runs at around 60%. It is said that inhabitants of Paris’ Department 93 have trouble finding a job. Lucy Ash of the BBC explains that Department 93 is shorthand for Seine Saint Denis, just north of Paris – the French suburb which is home to many French nationals of African origin and a large immigrant population. To the average French person, it conjures up images of riots, bleak high rises, youth unemployment and racism. It is the most-discriminated-against postcode in France, although ethnic minorities from other suburbs have also had a tough time. Hamid Senni, a business consultant based in London, was one of eight children born to Moroccan immigrants in the south of France. A well-meaning teacher at his school suggested he change his name to Lionel. “Because of your name you will be discriminated against, because of your skin colour, and even the address on your CV can stop you from getting a job,” he says. “As for your skills and competencies – none of that counts in France if you don’t fit in the box – so I left,” he adds. It’s like my eyes opened up when I came here – I think the American dream is also present here in the UK”. According to Lucy Ash, ” Hamid now advises many French companies on how to diversify their workforce and he lectures at Sciences Po, one of the country’s most prestigious universities. But he says that in the early days it was much easier to get someone to pick up the phone, if he called from London than from Paris.” Cleo Soazandry who also moved to London from Paris said that seeing black presenters on British television made a deep impression as there were virtually none in France at the time. “It’s like my eyes opened up when I came here – I think the American dream is also present here in the UK.”
The discrimination is said to be part and parcel of Parisian and French life being highly codified, with many cultural factors being important to employers, in addition to one’s ability to do the job. Hamid Seny described to the BBC how, “In France you have to fit into the system, you have to fit into a box, you have to behave in certain way, you have to think in certain way… If you come from this neighbourhood then you will live there, you will work there, you will study there, everything is already designed for you, when you are in the UK you have freedom, what I call real freedom.” Pascal Grierson, CEO of French Radio London, said London appeals to the French because it is open-minded and less cliquey than “codified” Paris. Pascal Grierson, CEO of French Radio London, said in London, compared with Paris, “You’re not judged on what you wear, it’s just a much more relaxed atmosphere.” It would therefore seem that there is more acceptance of difference in London.
Third, those interested in switching careers find they cannot do that in France. This is said to be related to the fact that French employers find it more difficult to sack employees and so are less willing to take a risk on employing someone who does not appear to be tailor made for the job. Marine Schepens explained to Lucy Ash of the BBC that, “In France if you don’t have the experience per se, or you don’t have a diploma, then there is no way on earth you are going to get the job because there are less loop holes, if you hire someone on a permanent contract, you can’t fire them, whereas here people are more likely to give you the job, because if you cant do the job they can fire you the next day, its more easy…. I’ve changed carrer a year ago, and I would have never done that a if I was still in France, because I would have been much stuck to my job, and be happy to have one one….” Coraline Despeyroux, a 28-year-old student at London Metropolitan University, De applied to French and British institutions to study in media after having gained qualificiations in business studies. She said to Lizzy Davies of the Guardian, “In France, because they put people in boxes and because I had business and wanted to do media they were like ‘no’,” Davies explained that Despeyroux subsequently stayed in London, got a BA, and now has a place on a masters course at the LSE.
Fourth, London is felt like a town of risk-takers, a place where the excitement of risk taking is encouraged and normalised, where France and Paris is a place of conservatism. There is a culture of playing it safe in France. This is reflected in the fact that in France there is less employment available but what there is comes with great conditions. It would seem that there is little spirit of entrepreneurialism in France. London on the other hand is considered to be a place full of people who are trying new things, taking risks, starting up new businesses etc. It is not just that London has the employment laws and the regulations and procedures for establishing a business, which make risk-taking easier. Its also that there is a critical mass of people taking those risks, which somehow provides more confidence to those who are thinking about taking those risks. Malika Favre, an illustrator, who came to London for a few years, after finishing Art School in Paris, but who has been here for seven years, said to Lucy Ash of the BBC, “I think people are much more optimistic about we can do things, if you want to do something you can do it, whereas when I was in Paris, when you want to do something, like a new venture of anything you always think of what is going to go wrong, it’s a shift in the way you think, and I used to think like that as well, I used to think people are going to try and prevent you from doing something or it seems much harder to set up a project.. I find the system much easier here when you want to do something or set up something you don’t need to do something, fill in these papers or fill in these forms’. Such is the desire to live in and amongst a culture of innovation and risk taking, that French people are willing to give up a comfortable life, a nice flat, a stable job and decent weather for the risk-taking innovative environment, squalor and cramped conditions of London. One woman said “Its very easy to be in France, I used to live in Bordeuaux, twenty minutes from the ocean, two hours from the sea, nice wine, nice food, yeh my life was really easy, and sometimes when its raining in London, I’m thinking whats gone wrong with me, but its true we are giving up something but at the same time I think you cannot come to London thinking that you are going to succeed or even just to have a nice life, thinking that its going to be easy, its not easy, we’ve all had bad times, difficult moments, missing home and stuff, but if you are really willing to give two hundred per cent, and give the best of you, then its going to work’. Another woman, “You know if you want security and then you want your holiday and you want something safe then you stay in France. If you have and trying something new, learning something new, skills, cultures, then you come in…’ So the big point here is that French people are not always coming here for an improved material life, they are coming here, to live the dream, of being creative, trying out ideas, of rolling the dice. Another woman, “You know if you want security and then you want your holiday and you want something safe then you stay in France. If you have and trying something new, learning something new, skills, cultures, then you come in…’ London, then, truly is a place of French Dick Whittingtons. One French expat explains, “It gets to a point where these people get so tired of being in a dead end of not finging a job, then they come to London, and then in the UK, its all about the job, no longer about the contract, whereas in France its all about the contract, and nothing about the job, and what is very funny is whats happening in that tunnel, when they cross the channel with the Eurostar, is it like some kind of mind cleansing? And that’s why people feel liberated when they come to the UK, during those twenty marvelous minutes when you cross the CHANNEL”.
Related to this is the fifth reason, that in London it is felt that the driving dynamic is making money and profit, and that to the extent that one is contributing to this objective, then one is awarded accordingly. A seventeen year old, called Adrian, who without a degree felt that his future in France, was ‘compromised’ as he put it, arrived in London, and within forty-eight hours had found a job in a restaurant. After two years in London, he returned to Paris, but again found few opportunities, end returned to London, where he ended up working as the co-manager of a wine cellar in Crouch End. He said, “Here, if we work hard they trust us. I do not have a degree and I manage a store A to Z while organizing private wine tastings. Here, you make more sales, the more you win!” Its all about the money Adrian. One Frenchman living in London said “In France if you make money you are seen as a traitor to the nation,” he said. “It is not a country that is pro-business – even with Sarkozy.
A sixth reason for why French people come to London is that they want to improve their English, because it is perceived that English is now the language of global business, and that to learn English will open up more opportunities, and London is the nearest English speaking city to France, although having said this given the general poor standard of English spoken by both London’s sizable immigrant population and its indigenous Brits, there might be better choices.
A seventh reason for why French people come to London is because they perceive London as being a gateway to global business, in other words the city is a hub through which hyper-rich, hyper-wealthy people, congregate, thanks to international air travel, international communications and through which consequently most of the world’s resources flow. Being closer to any of those hubs, which means London, for the case of Parisians, means being closer to that flow of resources.
An eighth reason given for explaining why more people are coming to London via France and Paris is the opening of the Eurostar sevice. This suggests that the Eurostar seemed to open up a possibility in peoples’ minds that somehow air travel did not. Perhaps this is something to do with the price of the Eurostar, a good deal cheaper than air travel would have been prior to its opening. It might have something to do with the presence of the Eurostar trains in Paris itself, which reminds people of the accessibility of London, in a way that seeing an aeroplane in the sky would not.0
The French experience of London
It is clear that lower earning French risk-takers are prepared to put up with a lot to live the London dream. One French woman moved to London because she felt it was somewhere she could make it. She explained to Lucy Ash of the BBC the life she endured on first arriving in London, “How many were we six, seven, if you count the boyfriend that hides in the bedroom, in brick lane, and we had rats, we had bed bugs, we had everything, it was cold, freezing cold, plus I was smoking and I had to open the windows, it was even colder, and I still thought oh god my friends in Paris they’ve got their own flat for the same price, and I could still hear the rats in the walls’.
French people, like may immigrants arriving in London feel a good deal of ambivalence with regards to their new home. True, French immigrants, like many immigrants, arrive in the Big Smoke, anticipating opportunity, excitement and stimulation. However these feelings mask a deep sense of uncertainty about their identify, belonging, future and their acceptability and desirability. It has been suggested that French people deal with their insecurities by telling themselves that they will only be in London for a few years, as if their relationship with London will never mean anything, will never be more than a fling, they will eventually return home to their true love. Furthermore they adopt the attitude that rather than them needing London, it is somehow London that needs them, or that somehow they had never asked to be in London in the first place. This results in an attempt to create a world within a world, a home from home. This can be seen in the remit of French Radio London who aim to accompany press review of French newspapers with a “heavy dose of nostalgic music” to give listeners a “sense of being home”. One Frenchman, Hamid Seny, living in London for ten years, noted how his compatriots and he would, when first arrived in London hold on to a “belief of le grandeur de la france, let us teach you savoir-vire let us teach you food, let us show you how great we are”. Furthermore French people would tend to not get too involved with Londoners, congregate together and speak in French with each other. Seny noted, “I remember we were speaking English in the workplace we had to and then outside we would speak French, and we would shout in French, like we are French were different were more sophisticated because we are French.”
However the reality for French people arriving in London, for many who arrive in London, is that whilst they think they might be staying for a couple of years, they end up spending the rest of their life in the city. The melting pot of London, the familiarity gained of their new lover, breaks down those defense mechanisms, and there is a slow realization of the fact that they are becoming a Londoner. Seny, speaking to Lucy Ash of the BBC, comments, “Because we were there just for two years, so we could be arrogant, but because this is home, I see people being low profile, because we are to stay here for five years or ten years, and we want to make friends and coming across as arrogant is not going to work”. He added that, “…we would shout in French, like we are French we’re different we’re more sophisticated because we are French. I don’t see those people shouting anymore, I don’t see those people showing off their Frenchness, you don’t notice them as much as you used to.” Seny, in his interview with Lucy Ash of the BBC, added, “Ten years ago we were all young french kids thinking we are learning English getting a little bit of work experience and then we can go back to France, and now I see people married with kids and settling here buying houses and that’s it, we are immigre, we are foreigners, we are expats, but that’s it, we are home, this is home England is home”.
Some French people talk about feeling freer in London than in France. Patricia Connell, 49, owner of the website, France in London, reported that in France, “you are judged by how skinny you are, what you wear, what you look like, the university you went to and the area in which you live…. Once you become a Londoner it’s difficult to go back. Londoners are a very different breed: more open, more friendly, less judgemental.” It is felt that French people are able to learn a great deal about self-depreciation in London, not a quality that the French are well known for. Pascal Grierson, CEO of French Radio London, noticed, “The French are very good at taking the piss out of others, but not so good at doing so to themselves, and by hanging out with British people they learn a lot about self-deprecation, which can be an endearing quality.”
Some have described as feeling a greater sense of belief in what they can achieve in London. According to Lucy Ash of the BBC, “Cleo Soazandry, a young French national with African roots, moved from Paris to London said, “I was really pushed by my teachers here,” she says. “Suddenly I realised I could actually become somebody here, be ambitious.”
Not everyone succumbs to London though. The moniker Paris on Thames, is not just a suitable metaphor for the size of the French population in London. It is also a good metaphor for the preservation of French social networks in London, which appear to be encouraged by the fact of a critical mass of French people, allied to technological advances, which allow French people to stay in touch with the mainland relatively easily, and which are reinforced by the provision of French services by private concerns and the French government. For example London now has its own French speaking radio station, 80% of the tracks have French lyrics, that’s a larger percentage than on most radio stations based in France. Genevive Roberts, writing for the Independent noted, “For those happiest creating a Cockney-tinted Paris, websites such as Chanteroy online and French Click sell such gastronomic comforts such Camembert, saucisson sec and Béarnaise sauce. And just as Anglophones can find English-language services in Paris, the equivalent is available in London, from French vets who will talk to sick pets in their native tongue, to a French dentist who travels in from Paris for a few days each month to treat Francophones in the British capital, advertising through the magazine Ici Londres.” The French state subsidizes private French schools in London, by sending French teachers. The French state allows London based French expatriates to participate in presidential elections, the consequence being that in the last presidential election in 2012, Nicolas Sarkozy was said to have have bombarded expatriates with emails promising more places in French schools abroad, and Francois Hollande went electioneering on the streets of London, with teams of London based campaigners, door knocking and delivering leaflets, in what had effectively become a French constituency.
- Lucy Ash, The French East End, May 2012, BBC Radio 4.
- Genevive Roberts, Bienvenue: France’s expats get their own radio station, The Independent, 15th November 2010
- Leon Watson, London set for property boom in wake of French and Greek elections as rich buyers flood to the UK to escape euro crisis, This is Money, 5th May 2012
- Estelle Shirbon, London calling: France, get your head out of sand, Reuters, April 20th 2013.
- Lucy Ash, London, France’s Sixth Biggest City, BBC News, 30th May 2012.
- Lizzy Davies, French Elections: how will London vote? The Guardian, 13th April 2012.
- Harriet Alexander, Sleepless in South Kensington as London’s French community agonises over vote, The Daily Telegraph, 1st April 2012.
- French Radio London