Earlier in the year, London technically became the sixth largest French city – with a higher French population than Strasbourg, Nantes and Bordeaux. Current estimates from the French consulate say between 300,000 and 400,000 French citizens now live in the capital. French London even has it’s own magazine – ici Londres, and there are host of websites springing up to support the French expat community, amongst them franceinlondon.com and bealondoner.com.
So why are so many French people coming to live and work in London? As immediate neighbours, France and Britain could hardly be more different; and the historical antipathy between the 2 countries is legendary.
French London: a historical context
Of course, the fact that France and Britain are so different may explain why so many French people have looked to make a new life for themselves on this side of the channel or – should I say – La Manche! Beneath the surface antipathy, the French and the Brits have shared a long history, stretching right back to the Norman Conquest in 1066. French remained the language of the court for centuries after the conquest – Henry VIII – that quintessential English King would have spoken French. And London’s French population is hardly new.
In the 17th Century, many Protestant Huguenots – fleeing persecution in Catholic France – were offered sanctuary by Charles II, and moved on masse to the East End of the City of London as well as Soho in the West. Le Refuge – as it was known led to the English word “refugee”. Many French street names can be found in the East End: Fournier Street, Fleur de Lys Street and Nantes Passage. One hundred years later – after the French Revolution, French London’s population received a boost from a new émigré French community emerging in Soho and – a little further to the north – Fitzrovia, between Marylebone and Bloomsbury.
C’est l’économie, stupide!
There’s no doubt that there’s migration of French people in recent years owes a lot more to economics than the politics of their forebears. I’ve spent some time in France – on holiday mostly: my parents have a holiday home in St Jean de Cole – a fabulous village in the Dordognes. My lasting impression is one of contrast in approach. France has better roads and railways than us there’s no doubt. Arguably the lifestyle in France is better than the UK. There are certainly a lot of British expats living there, but they tend to be older Brits who’ve retired to more relaxed existence, and wanted away from the rat-race in the UK.
But here we come to the nub of it. French London’s population consists largely of younger people, who have come here because they believe it as offers more opportunity. In France, most people are employed by the state, and the country has a longheld reputation for high taxes, even before François Hollande’s 75% top rate policy. The potent mixture of French labour laws, social taxes and red tape make it comparatively difficult to employ anyone in France, and unemployment is at 11% a 15 year high. Although the economic garden in the UK is hardly a bed of roses, the perception remains that London is a better place to get ahead in life for many young, French people. It is certainly true that London enjoys a reputation for taking a risk on employing young people, giving them their head and promoting those with ability early in their career.
Interviewed by the BBC, Nadege Alezine, a French journalist from Bordeaux, who runs bealondoner.com makes the point in a nutshell: “If you want security and nice holidays you stay in France. If you crave adventure and want to get new skills, you come here.”
London: The World’s Coffee House
The perception that London continues to attract leading expertise from all around the world, and is the place to be has clearly made an impact with ambitious and adventurous French talent.
Olivier Morel, partner at Cripps Harris Hall LLP, who work with French businesses operating in the UK, told London Loves Business earlier in the year: “With or without the 75% tax, London’s various other attractions continue to draw in French talent and further cement our capital’s reputation as the “world’s coffee house”, where experts from all fields gather.”
The Sprit of Free Enterprise
The Coalition government in the UK has been keen to build on London’s spirit of free enterprise, reducing the top rate of income tax to 45%, and committed to reducing corporation tax still further next year. In contrast, France – even pre-Hollande – can appear to slightly sniffy about entrepreneurialism. It’s surely no coincidence that many French migrants have headed to Tech City in Silicon Roundabout – home to London’s technology start-up hub.
I’ll leave the last word on French London to French entrepreneur, Alain Afflelou (famous for his chain of opticians across Southern Europe) who announced in March that he was relocating to the UK, citing French taxes as contributory factor. Afflelou told the Evening Standard: “The young French, not even the ones with money, they want to come here. That’s the real pity: they are discouraged from being entrepreneurs. It’s not good for the image of France. London is now France’s sixth biggest city. Soon maybe it will be the fifth!”