When I was in London last weekend I had a couple of hours to spare one afternoon. I decided to find out more about the French community in the city.
I'd got interested a few weeks ago when I read Marc Levy's novel 'Mes amis, mes amours' which is set in South Kensington and follows two thirty-something, single-parent Frenchmen in their search for lurve. The novel portrayed South Ken as being rather stuffed full of French, which was news to me; I do remember lots of coach trips to the Institut Français there to see the latest French film when I was a student, but I've not been back to that area for years (bit posh for me, since you ask; I'm more of a Shepherd's Bush type).
A bit of research told me that there are now around 400,000 French people living in London. Wow. And that London is in fact France's 5th city in terms of its number of registered voters (they're even going to get their own deputé - Member of Parliament - in the next French elections). Let's put that into context: apparently somewhere around 300,000 Britons own houses in France - but a lot of those are second homes, and the number of 'proper' immigrants - those who live here full time - is largely unknown: there's no official means of collecting such information - even the census asked us only to tick a box saying we're of 'other EU origin', which I thought sounded a bit like a food ingredient.
So who are the French in London? Well, it's a very different demographic to the typical Brit in France, that's for sure. Whereas the latter tends (with exceptions, naturellement) to live in a deeply rural area and to be retired, the French in London seem to fall into two main categories. There are those in high-powered jobs, often in the financial sector, particularly banking, here on three or five year secondment (though more and more are, it seems, staying on); and then there are increasing numbers of younger people, often single, who come to improve their English, to get away from the restrictions and red tape that they experience in France where they find themselves in a difficult and closed employment market where (I quote) they need the correct diploma even to sell flowers, and just to experience something new. Favoured areas, particularly amongst the BCBGs, are South Kensington itself along with other suitably leafy, genteel parts of west London such as Chiswick, Ealing, Holland Park and and Barnes, with newer outposts in Kentish Town (where a new French school has just opened), Clapham and - um - Hackney.
As I arrived in South Kensington - known as the 'twenty-first arrondissement' - and wandered into Bute Street - known locally as Frog Alley - it was as if I'd come back home: all the shops, cafés and restaurants were French; I only heard French being spoken around me, so I too lapsed quite naturally into French. I stopped for a drink (ahhhhhh - first decent coffee for three days!) at a café near the French Lycée (4000 pupils) and found myself deep in yummy maman territory. It became very apparent very quickly that there is a real expat/immigrant community here (the kind of community that I do my best to avoid in Ariège - and that is often disapproved of here by many French people who see it as evidence that the British don't want to integrate! Hmm. Interesting, non ...?). There are magazines like Ici Londres, what seems like hundreds of internet forums to help incomers find their way round and make contacts, and even a local Francophone radio station, French Radio London. There are French doctors, dentists, pharmacists (who'll make sure you get French drugs!), opticians, plumbers, builders, therapists, computer experts; people who'll set you up with French TV and people who'll look after your children and make sure they speak French. And from what I can gather from my earwigging session over coffee there are also masses of groups, classes and clubs set up specifically so that the French community can interact with itself.
It was all very illuminating, and very fascinating. Most fascinating of all though was the abiding sense that I was left with that, just like the fabled Dordogneshire British expat community with its cricket clubs and English pubs, the French community in SW7 actually seems more French than it would be if it had stayed in France ........