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9 April 2007

New Huguenots with a love of danger

Agnès Poirier explains why so many French have moved to London

By Agnes Poirier

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.

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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”

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