New Huguenots with a love of danger

Agnès Poirier explains why so many French have moved to London

Let's agree with Jacques Attali for a minute: yes, France is exceptional and the French are different from any other people. Yes, Paris, the 19th-century capital of the world, still fascinates 26 million visitors a year compared to only 11 million for the so-called capital of the 21st century, London.

Now let's face reality: London has become the seventh biggest French city, and the French, never émigrés before - at least not since 1789 - have become the new immigrants. Even if only a small proportion of the overall population has left French shores - 3.3 per cent compared with 12 per cent of Italians, 8 per cent Japanese and 6 per cent Germans - the trend over the past few years has picked up at a rate never seen before, especially among the young.

There are now more than two million French citizens settled abroad and 30 per cent of them can be found in the UK, London in particular. According to the Office for National Statistics, 15,000 French people settle in Britain every year. Historians such as Gérard Noiriel even talk of "the third French immigration wave". The Huguenots were the first to leave en masse after the French wars of religion of 1562 to 1598, followed by royalists fleeing the revolution of 1789. We now have what we could call la génération Londres.

Who are these new émigrés? There are the usual suspects - billionaires escaping the taxmen, businessmen hungry for deregulation. But there are also many young people - the average age of the 150,000 French people living in London is 29.

I've been one of them. A born and bred Parisian, I didn't leave Paris so much as choose to go to London. When I saw Chirac's face appear on my TV screen at 8pm sharp on 7 May 1995, I knew my fate was sealed. At 22, a patriot but not a masochist, I refused to live under his rule, knowing that our many social and economic problems would be left to fester. In 2002, we even had to vote for Chirac to keep out Le Pen. I remained in London and so did many I knew.

For many young French people, London stands for dynamism, excitement, audacity, the idea that everything is possible. Protected and looked after from an early age by the mother state, French youth has never been used to living dangerously. In London, and Britain in general, they can take risks, perhaps because they don't have the choice. They play a new game, the survival of the fittest, and they love it. Most hold a job that just pays the bills; they mostly work in the services industries where they try to improve their language skills. They learn how to live à 'anglaise, sharing flats into their mid-thirties.

The culture shock feels intense and elating. For some, it proves too hard. In 2004, the French consulate had to help repatriate 300 young French people who, according to one official, "couldn't adapt to the harshness of the Anglo-Saxon lifestyle".

The City has attracted another group of young French, mostly graduates, looking to earn a small fortune in no time. According to the consulate, 34 per cent of the French living in London work in the Square Mile. To them, London is the face of globalisation, the centre of a neocapitalism that is purely speculative and financial. But they don't care; they have embraced this mantra with the passion of new converts. London is the landscape of their dreams come true, where people drive Jags and pay £150 for a meal.

The question is: will these pioneers ever go back to France and disseminate their new found energy back home?

Agnès Poirier is a correspondent based in London and author of "Touché! A French Woman's Take on the English"

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, France: Vive la différence?

Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times