Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Psst...don't say anything, but London and Britain are much loved by the French

A brilliant photo of a boozer just behind Victoria station, taken by yours truly
How times change. Remember the Eighties and Nineties, when Ireland, and the Republic in particular, was all the rage among young French people? Quite the phenomenon it was, what with Irish pubs springing up all over France like four-leaved clovers and Guinness accounting for what must have been the majority of all liquid transported by ships plying the waters between Ireland and France.

Countless thousands of young French people made the almost obligatory pilgrimage to Ireland at that time, with most of them coming back to France carrying green 'Kiss Me I'm Irish' teddy bears and nursing massive hangovers to regale all and sundry with wide-eyed and breathy tales of how wonderful it was and how welcoming the Irish people were. Some of the praise was rather overly-gushing in my view, but I did manage to refrain from bursting their bubble with the rather more prosaic truth about the Irish, which is that, following the age-old principle of 'my enemy's enemies are my friends', the Irish love anyone with whom they can agree that Albion is a perfidious and treacherous kingdom.

All that seems rather quaint and long ago now though, and the number of young people visiting Ireland has withered and shrunk during the last decade, much like the Irish economy. Ireland? That's so passé dahlink, because today's must-visit destination is England, and London in particular.

Britain's appeal began during the monopoly money-driven boom of the Nineties, which saw Britain's economy outstrip that of France. It resembled a race between a rabbit and a snail, with a vibrant Britain creating jobs like there was no tomorrow whereas unemployment rates - particularly youth unemployment rates - soared to new highs in France. Students began to cross the Channel in ever-increasing numbers to find work in bars, hotels and restaurants, and they were welcomed by their British bosses because of their willingness to work hard and their knowledge of these sectors.

Sure, the contracts were (and still are) short term ones in the main, and it is much easier to sack an employee in Britain than in France, but that didn't and still doesn't deter them, seeing as a) it's all very well having solid work contracts in theory, but they mean nothing if there are no jobs to be had and, b), if it is easier to sack people in the UK, it is also easier to change jobs or find another one if laid off.

The Shard: it's big, it's pointy and it's shiny. (My pic)
At the same time French people began to believe that Britain is more dynamic than France. London is a very attractive option for younger people because it is much more exciting than French cities, which are more parochial in style and less exuberant in lifestyle. This is particularly true of Paris vis-à-vis London. Buildings spring up seemingly from one day to the next in British cities and it is by no means rare to find a black glass and steel structure next to, say, a church. France however does not work this way, and getting a permit to build even a garden shed, never mind a new office block, is almost impossible in Paris as well as some other places because of stringent planning laws designed to protect French historical culture and heritage.

One key element of Britain's appeal to French people is its social life, which young French people find to be very much more adapted to having fun and meeting new people than the rather more staid fare on offer in France. British pub and night life is renowned here for its animated and youth-oriented tendencies, which is why it is very favourably compared to the more reserved and restrained offer to be found in France. My French niece has just got back from a year in a college in London and she already misses the vivacity of life in England. She swears that she will go back to London next year to live, and for good. It's the same story for my god daughter, who has visited England twice this year alone and loved every minute of it. They both like the bustling streets, the cosmopolitan feel and, of course, British fashion and...boys.

As time went by word got around in France that Britain was the place to be for motivated young people who wanted to further their careers, and thus it was that the 'brain drain' of talented French traders, marketing personnel and others began, a trend that Nicolas Sarkozy once famously bemoaned as proving that France needed to buck up its economic ideas. It also became apparent that there was less racism in British business culture because of the idea that it isn't one's colour which is important, it's one's ability to do one's job. This explains why many talented people of Maghrebi and Arab origin got the message and left France for London, never to return. Did the economic crisis burst the bubble? No. On the contrary, it increased its size due to a very morose France which could not push home the potential advantage it had gained at the expense of Britain's monopoly-money services disaster after the effects of the sub-prime crisis reached European shores.

St Pancras welcomes me. Oh, and the rest of the world too
Then came the respective Olympics bids by Paris and London, and the whole process was a disaster for the image of France among its young people. Whereas Britain's campaign centered upon colour, energy, the future, youth and vitality, France's effort was more like a faded and almost sepia-coloured dusty old homage to past French glories and the Republic than anything else. This disastrous PR failure was largely relayed in the press, and many began to consider that France had now become passéist and 'vieux jeu' - old fashioned.

Finally, the last few years have seen a massive uptick in the numbers of French people buying houses and apartments in England, and more and more businesses are either domiciling themselves in the UK or basing their senior staff there, where salaries are appreciably higher.

The result is that the number of French people who have registered themselves with the French embassy in London and the many consulates in other cities has doubled since 2007, and London, with its 400,000-strong French population, is now the sixth-biggest city of France in terms of population. And there's even a cherry on the cake. French savoir-faire and expertise in sectors such as design, video, creative IT and many others are much sought-after, as is the appeal of the many French-style shops selling everything from croissants and baguettes made by French bakers to authentic-looking cafés, many of which have French owners.

Back here in France there are many blogs and articles in praise of what is being seen as British dynamism and its forward-looking approach, both of which are considered to be a welcome antithesis to a France which, by its own admission, seems to be afraid of the future and is tending towards an inward-looking mindset.

But it isn't all one-way traffic. So popular has Britain become with France's young that it is no longer possible to walk for 10 minutes in a city centre here without seeing at least a couple of examples of the Union Jack flag. Highly distinctive and brightly-coloured, it is to be seen on everything from T-shirts to jeans, earrings to handbags, mobile phone covers to diaries and everything in between. My local shopping centre recently organised what it called a 'British week', with a 'so British' slogan and British products were be seen everywhere. Food, clothes, accessories, you name it, if it's British it can be bought in France.

So there it is. The Brits are just as bad as the French when it comes to moaning about the state of their country, but the fact is that, for now at least, Britain has many fans here in France, and it can be safely assumed that after Bradley 'le gentleman' Wiggins' Tour de France win coupled with the successful London Olympics (that even the French press found praise for), their numbers shall increase and more shall cross the Channel.

This trend is to be encouraged in my view, if only because it means that I no longer have to ask friends and family to send me good old British bangers and quality cheddar by post. All I have to do these days is ask some French person I know to bring them back with them when they come home for their sun-drenched holidays in the sun, the one thing that Britain cannot offer them...

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