LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
French Londoners -
François Moscovici and Claudine Provencher, with daughter, Valentine, and son, Jules
Date of photography: 3rd September 2017
François is French; his wife, Claudine, is French Canadian; settled in London for over a generation, they have raised their (now adult) children here in a typical London-French household. Great lovers of the UK and of the city where they chose to live and work, they combine a British and a European perspective on world events. The French President, Emmanuel Macron, described London as ‘the sixth largest French city’ and the French Consulate currently has nearly 400,000 French citizens registered as living in the UK capital - probably an underestimate. François sees himself as a Londoner, a European, and an international businessmen too; following the 2016 Referendum, he fears the consequences of the isolationist, introspective policies that his adoptive country may henceforth embrace. Indeed his business, influenced as it is by City activity, is already adversely affected and he is not alone. François comments: “Professional business circles in London were truly cosmopolitan, so if you were to ask me why I have enjoyed living in London for all these years, I would say to you: ‘yes, London is noisy, polluted, expensive (and wet) but it is the place where the world meets, and having people meeting from all over the world, in a buzzy city, is a very attractive setting for doing business.”
During a recent visit, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, referred to London as the sixth largest French city. London’s French Consulate currently has nearly 400,000 French citizens registered as living in the UK capital; however, given that the French here are EU citizens and that a very large number of them see no reason to register their residency in London, the actual number of French people living in London could well be significantly higher.
Whatever the actual number - and it is disputed - I will try, in this article, to explore briefly the lives of the members of one French family who have lived here for thirty years and who have raised their children here. They are François Moscovici, his wife, Claudine Provencher, their daughter, Valentine, and their son, Jules. I have known them for a number of years and I have been many times invited to their comfortable home in north-west London. The dinner parties we share are never dull, with the impressive quality of food and wine not infrequently matched by what is sometimes coruscating conversation. Such events might nowadays be characterised as mere gatherings of the ‘chattering classes’, but if such people do indeed constitute a discrete caste, they cannot be mocked merely for ‘chattering’, for this is one of the echelons of society whose members do not content themselves with discussion and debate; they are also doughty creators, contributors, and participators, and in many respects, it is they who make London what it is.
François Moscovici, a man with an impressive presence and a sharp mind, has an exceptional ability to analyse detail while simultaneously deploying an enviable capacity to keep in view the bigger picture. And this is just what he does in his life and his work, running a very successful management consultancy firm in the heart of London. He comports himself like the quintessential European he is, having been born in Paris to a French, Roman Catholic mother and a Romanian, Jewish father, who had arrived to Paris via Israël. His father had sprung from an enterprising, business background - his family had had a large department store in Bucharest, with over a hundred employees - and had started his own engineering business. However, in 1967, he decided to join his wife’s perfume shop business in Paris and together they made it highly successful.
François comments: “Because neither of our parents had been to university, my younger brother and I were strongly encouraged to study. I went through the French Lycée system and once I’d got my Baccalauréat, I moved to Ottawa, in Canada, to study Management and a number of other associated sub-specialities. After that, I moved to Montreal to continue with post-graduate studies. While I had travelled around Europe, including England, as a teenager, Canada was the first time I’d been away from my family, on a different continent. My original intention had been only to stay in Canada for a year, but that quickly became five - five years in what proved to be one of the most formative periods of my life.”
While he enjoyed life in Canada, François also missed Europe and, having studied mostly in English, he saw England, and London specifically, as a convenient and attractive stopping-off point on what he imagined would be his eventual return to living in France. I asked him to elaborate: “From my early days, I knew and loved London; I also had some of my family here. London seemed like a fun place to be at that time and also had some of the best jobs in my speciality. For me, London was an obvious choice as it meant that I could still be relatively close to my parents in Paris. So I became a management consultant, specialising in strategy for high-end businesses and large corporates. London had just the right concentration of potential clients in my areas of expertise and I have run my own business here successfully for over 15 years.”
François was hardly London’s first French immigrant. The English Channel, or what the French prefer to call La Manche, is but a narrow strip of water, separating England from France, and it has been crossed countless times over the centuries - finally, it has been tunnelled! Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, William the Conqueror brought with him many francophone feudal lords who had lent him their support in exchange for estates in England. In the 16th and 17th centuries, French Protestant Huguenots fled across the Channel to England, especially to escape the persecution meted out by Louis XIV following the Edict of Fontainebleau; many settled in the East End of London. The French Revolution of 1789, the exodus of French aristocrats, and the subsequent expulsion of religious orders by the Third Republic brought in new waves of French migrants, making London’s French community one of the largest, distinct communities in our capital city.
During the Second World War, General Charles de Gaulle and his fellow representatives of Free France formed their ‘government in exile’ in London, from where they played a crucial role in the eventual liberation of Europe. And since Britain joined the EU, there has, of course, been a steady flow of people, particularly young people, from France to England, though the flow has not only been in one direction - I will touch on that later. It is a matter of fact, however, that the number of French people, often highly-educated and well-qualified, arriving to London has increased significantly over the last 20 years, partly coinciding with the rise in French unemployment. In 2014, 1.6 million expats were recorded by the French Foreign Ministry; some called it an ‘exodus’ and put the real number of French people overseas at 2.5 million, with the top five destinations being the UK, Switzerland, the US, Belgium and Germany. Luc Chatel, the Secretary-General of La Commission des Affaires Sociales, has commented: “The people who are the lifeblood of France are leaving because they have the impression that it is impossible to succeed. There is an anti-work mentality, absurd fiscal pressure, lack of promotion prospects and the burden of debt hanging over future generations.”
It would not be unfair to say that François sees these last decades, the decades of the great French exodus, as a sad period of decline; he observes: “François Mitterrand was elected in 1981. After a couple of years of socialist experimentation (initially, he had four Communist cabinet ministers) things settled down; the country embarked on deep reform and modernisation, and that was a real boost. After his re-election in 1988, Mitterrand’s illness became more aggressive and his judgement weakened. He totally missed the dynamics of the fall of the Soviet Union and reform stopped. Since Mitterrand, every president has been either weak or incapacitated by poor health or by economic crisis. So, from 1988 to 2017, the country has gone backwards while the rest of the world has moved on. I left France in 1981, so I witnessed all of this as an outside observer.”
Referring to France’s Employment Code, François continues with a wry smile: “This has evolved since Napoleonic times, acquiring over the years such layers of complexity that it’s now longer than the Bible itself. To employ someone in France requires real courage, because to dismiss them is almost impossible. Starting up a business in the UK and running it successfully is so much simpler and easier. Brits are not necessarily any better at business, nor are they more positive, and they are definitely poorer linguists, but in my opinion and experience, they are just more pragmatic when it comes to business.”
The post-Thatcher, neo-liberal, right-wing Tory politicians in Britain have been obsessed with the ‘Chicago School’ dogma of ‘shrinking the state’ and by that means lowering taxes, and they see this as the Holy Grail that will restore the nation’s prosperity. But like all dogmas, the result of this one-track thinking will undoubtedly prove to be pernicious, with very nasty long-term social consequences - some of these are already becoming only too obvious. Yes, French taxes are indeed higher than ours but as French immigrants to the UK are immediately aware, those services which they have taken for granted in France, are available here only to those who can afford to pay for them - if you cannot pay, you must do without. The hypnotic repetition by politicians of the mantra, ’customer choice’, sounds hollow indeed to those who are only just managing to survive, whose daily ‘choice’ may be between keeping warm and having food to eat.
Yet another factor may be at play here, one that should not be overlooked and that may explain why so many young French people manage to find work in London: unlike in France, where recognised qualifications are a must for most jobs, in Britain no-one bothers too much about such things, especially not for lower-paid jobs. The so-called ‘gig economy’ now employs millions of Britain’s much-vaunted ‘flexible labour force’, millions who are engaged on ‘zero hours contracts’ and who do not know from one day to the next whether they will have work or not, yet who may be barred from seeking alternative work with another employer - they are continually available to their employers yet they have no job security, nor do they receive any guaranteed income. France has a lot to learn from Anglo-Saxon, neo-liberal capitalist experimentation but that honourable nation should also observe and note what are the hidden (sometimes not so hidden) costs of this single-minded economic and political dogma.
It remains to be seen if France’s recently-elected President, Emmanuel Macron, succeeds in turning around the Gallic ship of state without the risk of running it aground in the long term. François is cautiously optimistic: “If President Macron manages to get a window of opportunity to reform the country’s labour laws, the balance of power between London and Paris might be reversed, especially if the current anti-EU rhetoric is allowed to poison trading relationships. I feel that France has been sclerotic for over 30 years. Yes, London has the benefit of language but if London is plunged, post-Brexit, into a deep recession, while at the same time France reforms, that may create a great opportunity for Paris to rise and for France as a whole to thrive once more.”
François continues: “When I arrived here in the eighties, London was the land of opportunity. Of course, the crash of October 1987 caused major disruption but the overall tenor of business in London remained positive and the City generally continued to espouse a very ‘can do’ attitude. London was where the global ‘MBA kids’ gravitated towards and where they put into practice the theories that they’d learned. Professional business circles in London were truly cosmopolitan, so if you were to ask me why I have enjoyed living in London for all these years, I would say to you, yes, London is noisy, polluted, expensive (and wet) but it is the place where the world meets, and having people meeting from all over the world, in a buzzy city, is a very attractive setting for doing business.”
“Milan, when I heard the final result of the Brexit Referendum last year, I felt physically sick. I asked myself, why would you throw away this very positive, exciting environment, so beneficial to Britain, on the basis of an internal struggle between conflicting battalions of the blue-rinsed Tory brigade? Ever since that dreadful day, and during the long-drawn-out period of uncertainty that followed, with its regular exchanges of bile across the Channel, for me, everything has been thrown into chaos - my personal life, my own business, the Financial Services industry associated with my business, and many of my clients too. Of course, as a true European, I was always aware that Britain maintained a sort of distance from the EU (the British establishment has always chosen to paint the EU in colours that I never recognised) and Britain opted out of so many things that, in the end, there was hardly any point of sitting at the top table - by opting out of so much, Britain relinquished its ability to influence change in the EU, change which the Brits (and not only the Brits) felt needed to take place. And ironically, from a trading perspective, Britain has benefitted more from its EU membership than any other country in Europe, perhaps with the exception of Germany.” British political rhetoric about the EU has almost always been hostile and, over the last 40 years, extremists on both the right and the left have become gradually more vocal and more powerful. And, over the same period, the anti-immigration propaganda of the right-wing media, and UKIP, has fuelled the flames of nationalism. After 40 years of systematic brainwashing, the dire outcome of the Referendum might perhaps have been more easily predicted.
François is not just British, he is a European and an international businessmen too, and he fears the consequences of the isolationist, introspective policies that may become the hard reality for this country. I asked him if, as many businessmen seem to be, he was or is thinking of leaving: “Milan, as I have permanent residency in the UK, I can, of course, continue to live here as long as I please, but you must remember that the City of London, the principal base of the UK's financial services sector, contributed £71.4 billion in taxes in the year to March 2016. This figure is £4.9 billion more than in 2015 and is equivalent to 11.5% of total UK government tax receipts. If much of that business were to disappear, my own business would go with it. I also have to consider the hard fact that since the Referendum, the value of my assets has fallen by over 30% and might go lower still. Obviously, I don’t want to sell these assets while they are worth so much less than they were and this ties my hands rather. It might be tempting to leave but setting aside my own losses, that would also mean all my staff would be without jobs too. These are dark days and one looks for a light on the horizon, though at this moment, I’m afraid I can’t see one.”
The UK’s exit from the EU is not just a worry to French Londoners; many thousands of Brits live, work and study in France, and have done so for a very long time indeed. In the popular (‘gutter’ sometimes seems more apt) press, the Brits are traditionally represented as givers (ie they purchase property, they support the local economy, and they bring money to spend in France) whereas the French in Britain are characterised as takers (they are escapees from high taxation and from socialist policies that stifle business, and having arrived here, they take British jobs, they occupy housing, and they use up local services, like schools and the NHS). Rarely are the French seen as the net contributors to the British economy that they truly are. It might be interesting to reflect on the fact, recently indicated by the French Consulate in London, that more than 3,000 French businesses employ almost 400,000 people in Britain.
When it comes to the Brits in France, accurate and consistent data aren’t easily come by but the statistics recently published by the National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies in France (INSEE) help to challenge some of the ingrained myths so beloved of the UK tabloids. Contrary to popular notions of most Brits having settled in ‘Dordogneshire’, Paris in fact ranks as the single most popular location for British expats living in France. Of the 153,000 Brits registered as living there full-time, around 8,500 have their permanent home in or close to Paris. The rest of the Rostbifs do have houses in the beautiful French countryside, but only around 7,300 of these have settled in the Dordogne. The precise number of Brits living in France is hard to quantify but the official figure is probably an underestimate; this is simply because those who live in their French homes for so many months per year don’t have to be registered as being resident in France. That British homes in France are mostly owned by middle-class retirees is a myth too, because of the 70,000 Brits in France who are over 55, many continue in full-time employment. Indeed, 55,0000 of these ‘expats’ are thought to be between 25 and 54, with 11,000 aged 15-24 - many are couples with children. Those in receipt of pensions represent only 22.5 % of the total number of the Brits who live in France. It is worth noting that a great many of our fellow countrymen who settle in France do so in order to escape Britain’s rat-race and to enjoy a slower pace of life in attractive homes they can actually afford to buy. On several occasions, former President Jacques Chirac referred to the important role that British settlers played in keeping many French villages alive.
By now, François and his family are all Londoners themselves, of course. They love London for what it offers: for the diversity of its peoples, its varied culture, its huge range of foods and cuisines, its parks and open spaces, and the way we all manage to rub along together, to coexist. I therefore ask him if he fears that Brexit might change London. “Milan, as I’m sure you know, London is not England; it hasn’t been for a long time. A very large proportion of its people are immigrants drawn here from all over the world. They are not all going to disappear; they will not vanish; indeed, many have nowhere else to go. So I am not concerned about London. It is the rest of the country that might feel the change most, and not for the better either - its provinces have become a millstone for modern Britain, damaging it for everyone!”
I ask the same question I put to everyone who is an alien here in London: I ask François if he has ever felt that he has been discriminated against. “Other than occasional jokes about my accent and my British friends’ refusal to support a French sports team under any circumstances, I cannot say I have encountered any discrimination. My only observation is that Britain has a number of informal rules for promotion that apply to all minorities. As a result, in the large professional firms where I have worked, there were virtually no French partners in the UK and definitely no German ones at all. This is also the experience of friends who work in other firms.”
At this point, we were joined by François’ partner, Claudine, an elegant woman in her late youth; always chic, she radiates intelligence and joie de vivre. I took the opportunity of asking her a few questions about herself and her experience as a French Londoner. “I was born in Montreal to French Canadian parents. My family was quite unexceptional: my mother had had to leave school at the age of 13 and my father worked as a laboratory technician for BP. However, he was also a man who was very keen on culture and who had wished very much to go to University himself, though his circumstances were such that this had not been possible. There were two children in the family and both my brother and I managed to get to University and we both became successful students. I feel that my humble parents did extremely well; they nurtured us and made it clear to us that we were to continue our education as far as we could. Happily, fees were low in Canada and I worked part-time as well as during the Summer vacations; this helped me to avoid having any debts when I finished at university. I had gone to school locally and had progressed from there to McGill University, to study Economics. After that, I went on to do my MBA, also at McGill, with the first part of the programme in Canada and the second part in Paris, at the Ecole des Hautes Études Commerciales - this was my first time away from home for any length of time. I was 24 and life felt good.”
“It was at McGill, during the first year of the MBA, that I met my husband to be, François. I moved to Paris for the second year, while he stayed in Montreal, but when he got a job offer in London, he asked me to move there too and I was crazy enough to follow him! I had visited London with my parents, as a teenager of 17, and from the moment we arrived, I fell in love with the place. When I returned in 1984, I fell in love again; then in 1987, I moved there with François.” Claudine beams an irresistible smile. “France might have been my mother country, theoretically, well, the country of my forebears anyway, but from the outset, I felt that there was a marked difference between France and England. In France, as a principle, people take you for an idiot at first and then it is up to you to prove them wrong; unlike here in England where, as a rule, people will give you a chance, the ‘benefit of the doubt’, so long as you don’t mess it up. If you behave, if you play by the rules, then people here seem willing to give you your chance.”
“I have now been associated with the London School of Economics (LSE) for nearly 19 years. I did a master’s degree here, in Organisational and Social Psychology, and followed that with a PhD in Social Psychology. I have been employed at the LSE for over 10 years and now head LSE LIFE which is a unique programme designed to meet students’ various needs and very much to be a place where students and academics from all over the world can meet, learn and do their research.”
I ask Claudine if she had ever suffered discrimination in this country: “I have always been very conscious that I was not a 'real' Brit and that my roots would always be in Quebec. But that is more a personal issue than the result of any discrimination from colleagues or from people around me.” Indeed, Claudine here touches on a most fascinating issue, on our sense of belonging or not belonging, which would make a fascinating study on its own.
I then ask Claudine how she feels about Britain waving goodbye to the EU. After a pause, she responds: “On the day the result of the referendum came through, I felt distraught. From a personal point of view, I had the feeling that for 29 years, I had lived under the illusion that British people were basically accepting; on 24 June 2016, I had a big slap in the face and months later, I still feel hurt inside. It almost feels as if a place that I really, really loved is now telling me that people like me are no longer welcome. Ironically, as a Canadian citizen, I had decided to exercise my right to take up UK citizenship by choice and now, almost overnight, this choice is seen as irrelevant - once again, I am perceived as an undesirable alien. Of course, most Londoners and 90% of the people I work with, and associate with, don’t think like that at all, but as soon as I go out of London, it is made obvious to me almost instantly. There is also a part of me that feels I must accept the truth, the reality, that 52% of the population has decided that they don’t want people like me to be here, so who am I to tell them off?”
“Milan, it would be seriously tempting just to pack up our belongings, sell up and move out. But we are now in our fifties and London has been our home for three decades; our marriage has been in London and our children have been raised here. Yes, we are both bilingual, we hold three citizenships between us, and we could move to Canada, to France or, as EU citizens, to any country in the European Union, but at our age, it would be difficult to start a new life somewhere else. My son, Jules, is just about to do precisely that, by moving to Portugal, but he is 23, with his whole life ahead of him. After all, he is only doing what both François and I did when we were in our twenties.”
“We often travel to France but every time I come back to London, I am conscious of this buzz, this vitality, the sheer energy of this amazing city; it is always a joy to return here. However, I do fear that all this could change if England becomes more insular, and it certainly seems on the way to becoming so. Even if we don’t lose all the foreigners from London - it’s hard to imagine how the city will cope without them - the young, the most talented, the most energetic, and the most enterprising will in future think twice before coming to a land which has become demonstrably hostile to outsiders. If one combines the effects of such negative signals with the fact that London has also become an almost unaffordable place to live, I fear that it will become a city I shall fail to recognise.”
Claudine continues: “As I mentioned before, both of our children were born in London and both have now flown the nest. Jules is 23 and works in publishing. He went to a small French school nearby and then went on to the Lycée, here in London.” François interjects at this point: “I am against private schools in principle, as I feel that they are mostly socially divisive. I also feel strongly that everyone should be entitled to the same high-quality education provided by the state - it should be a universal right!” Jules continued his studies, reading Philosophy at University College London (UCL) and he speaks three languages fluently. Having followed a broadly similar education path to Jules, his sister, Valentine, is currently in her final year, reading Classics at the University of St Andrews, in Scotland. One could say that Jules and Valentine should be seen as the future for Britain: they are both highly educated, talented, multilingual young people, and both hold three passports, but following the Brexit vote, neither of them wishes to stay here in Britain. Do I dare to suggest that they are too cosmopolitan, too outward looking, to be constrained by the vision of a new Britain that has become xenophobic and introspective? Can we honestly expect them to feel sympathy with the needless and unappealing process that we have foisted upon ourselves, a process that might best be summed up in that noxious phrase, ‘getting our country back’?
Text Edited: 23rd September 2017
Page modified: 17th March 2019