France’s sixth city: what does London offer the French?

Many of us have been shocked to read in the news recently that London has been dubbed “France’s sixth city”. We read on thinking that this must be some joke, nothing more than a twisted statistic. On the contrary, recent estimations have shown the number of French nationals living in the UK capital to top figures for important French cities such as Bordeaux, Nantes and Strasbourg. It is difficult to calculate an exact figure, but an estimated 300 to 400 thousand French nationals currently call London their home. The figure is so staggering that the French in London have won the right to elect a candidate to represent them in the French National Assembly. So what exactly does London have that encourages so many to make the move across the channel?

If you don’t know London well, you may be unaware that the French presence there is actually nothing new. Following years of persecution in their home country due to their protestant faith, the Huguenots were offered sanctuary in the United Kingdom by King Charles II. Large numbers of French migrants began to arrive in London in the seventeenth century. Often known as “Le Refuge”, this movement even led to the coining of the term “refugee”. Attracted by cheaper prices, the Huguenots converged in the east of the city, where their mark can still be seen in the area around Spitalfields market, with names such as “Fleur de Lis street” and “Fournier street”. Feeling towards these refugees was not entirely positive, with many feeling that the newcomers were depriving Londoners of work.

Several hundred years on, the French can be found in just about every corner of London. In the streets around the embassy in South Kensington, French “Londoners” flock to the finest patisseries and send their children to the posh “Lycée Charles de Gaulle”. The charitable “Centre Charles Peguy” in Shoreditch helps new French arrivals to find accommodation in London and demand has greatly increased in recent months. Surely it is not just the promise of familiar home comforts that entice more and more people to make the move?

Image via TJ Morris (Flickr)

In some areas of France, employment and family problems provide an incentive to leave. Department 93 for example is renowned for such problems. An abbreviation for the Seine-Saint-Denis suburb of Paris, department 93 is home to a high proportion of French nationals of African origin. Probably thanks to its high immigrant population, the area is synonymous to many with high unemployment, racism and discrimination. In France, job prospects can be harmed by the obligation to list such a postcode on your CV, as well as by name and skin colour. Fleeing the banlieues, many young French professionals see London as a land of promise, where their ambition might really come to something.

Looking closely at the demographics of migrants, it is clear that it is young professionals in particular that London attracts. They like the freedom that the UK capital offers, including its welcome escape from French bureaucracy and increased opportunities in the East End’s creative sector. Furthermore, many see London as a gateway to globalization. They are under the impression that once you come to London, the opportunities are endless (as long as you speak English!). Another reason for the recent increase in arrivals is of course the appeal of the Olympics, offering a perceived myriad of jobs. There is a definite case of the “bright lights syndrome”, which by definition can lead to disappointment. It is not unusual to move to France totally unaware of the expensive lifestyle, with housing often costing even more than that of Paris. Moreover, living conditions are often questionable and are particularly poor in areas such as the French-friendly Brick Lane.

Despite its initial appeal, it would seem that the French don’t always find life in London easy. Some claim that London is not for the faint-hearted and that those fond of their French food and holidays should stay put. London is an adventure. Wait to see if the risk pays off and you never know, it just might. One thing is for sure – a city with such a long history of French inhabitants isn’t about to give up its claim any time soon!