Young emigrants a crucial constituency
Tens of thousands of educated young people are leaving France every year. Tempting them back has become a big political issue, writes RUADHÁN Mac CORMAIC
“LONDON HAS become France’s sixth-biggest city,” Nicolas Sarkozy joked when he crossed the English Channel for a campaign rally in 2007.
But there was nothing frivolous about his visit; it was the first time a French presidential candidate had campaigned overseas, and a sign of how a new generation of young emigrants had become an important political constituency.
“France is still your country even if you’re disappointed by it,” Sarkozy – running back then as a free-market liberal who stood for a break with old ways of doing things – told the crowd at Old Billingsgate market. He promised a new France of meritocracy and job opportunities, with lower taxes, less regulation and longer working hours for those who wanted them.
“To all the expats who are unhappy about the situation in France . . . I say, ‘Come back!’ ”
Not many did. Or at least, for everyone who did return, there was someone else who left. The French community in London, estimated at 300,000-400,000 people, has in a few years become one of the city’s most significant.
“In South Kensington, there are boulangeries, cheese shops, French butchers. You hear people speaking in French on the street all the time,” says Guillaume Kieffer, originally from the Côte d’Azur, who has worked for Microsoft in London for the past eight years. In the same neighbourhood, not far from the consulate, is the French school and a French-language bookshop.
But the flow of young people to London is only part of a larger story.
Despite coming from a country with little history of emigration, 50,000 young French people move abroad each year, and under-35s now account for half of the 2.5 million French citizens who live overseas.
It’s a global phenomenon; last year, Canada issued 18,000 temporary work permits to French citizens. About 100 French expats arrive in Hong Kong every month, and the figures are also significant in the US, Australia, the Gulf and the rest of Europe.
Kieffer had always wanted an international career, and the chance to perfect a foreign language. But there was a financial incentive as well.
“Eight years ago, the pound was worth €1.70, so I earned almost double in England in the early days,” he says over lunch in Microsoft’s Paris office, during a brief visit. “I used to come home to France for the weekend and I’d be laughing.”
Eve, a 31-year-old lawyer, did a masters in New York and had some work experience there before returning to Paris in 2008 to join an international law firm. “I didn’t feel I was coming back to Paris as much as coming back to Europe. That was my way of thinking,” she says.
In June, Eve is due to depart for London to take up a one-year posting, but she is dismissive of the notion that the move will necessarily mean longer, more intense working days.
“I work on average 10-12 hours a day, and I don’t know anyone who does a 35-hour week. I have friends in consulting who work even longer hours than me.”
When Sarkozy gave a speech at the French embassy in London during his 2007 campaign, one of the people in the audience was Fanny Ajamian from Bordeaux, now aged 30, who was working in the asset-management division of a bank in London at the time.
“Sarkozy said, ‘I want to tell you that we know you miss France,’ ” Ajamian recalls. “And we were laughing, thinking, We’re here because we don’t want to be in France.”
But far from turning her against home, Ajamian says her time abroad reminded her of things she preferred about France. “When we went to the pub, everyone would be talking about bonuses and celebrities. Here, it’s less superficial.”
She loved how international London was, and how people were less likely to be judged by their appearance, sexual orientation or ethnicity. “They’re ahead of us in that way . . . In London you can walk around in your pyjamas and nobody will look at you,” she says, laughing.
The experience left her with a more balanced view of her country, Ajamian says.
“People in France are always complaining. When you go to England, you see there are more flaws in the system, more inequality. In the end, you think, things aren’t so bad here. When I hear people complaining, I tell them, ‘Go and see how it is elsewhere.’ ”
Kieffer agrees about the better quality of life in France: “But I also see the bad side,” he says. “The bureaucracy is a huge machine, and it’s slow. They try to introduce a law and straight away there’s a strike. When I come back to France, I’m happy to see the family and go back to the places I used to go to. But after a week I’m bored.”
One of the assumptions about France’s young emigrés, particularly those in English-speaking countries, is that on the domestic political spectrum they’re overwhelmingly right-wing. All three recent emigrants interviewed for this piece said as much, and yet all three said it wasn’t necessarily true of themselves.
In the 2007 election, 41 per cent of the French in London voted for Sarkozy, while 31 per cent chose the socialist Ségolène Royal and 21 per cent the centrist François Bayrou. The frontrunner for the presidency this year, François Hollande, has made a point of including a trip to London in his campaign diary.
Experience of a different country inevitably shifts perspectives on politics back home.
Eve was reminded of the value of France’s social safety net, and the quality of its schools and hospitals. She has a big interest in culture, and was struck in New York by the level of private-sector support for the arts – which in many cases widened choice and (thanks to free entry to some galleries) access as well.
“In France the culture ministry plays an important role for many reasons, but it is a pity that most things that are on offer are ultimately decided by the state,” she says.
With just weeks to go before the presidential election, Eve has been following the campaign closely, but she can’t help noticing how little connection she feels to the candidates looking for her vote.
“I could understand that when I was 20, but now I’m 31. I think I should feel more of a connection to them. They don’t speak our language. They seem kind of remote.”
IRISH VOICES: COPING WITH A MORE FORMAL CULTURE
Claire Tobin Mercier, originally from Co Kilkenny, has lived in Lyon for 17 years. She is married with three young sons and runs her own consulting firm.
“In 2010, we moved to Ireland for a year. It was something we’d always wanted to do. After two months the IMF arrived. It wasn’t exactly the happiest time in the country, but on a day-to-day basis, people’s attitude was ‘don’t you just have to get on with it?’. That was so refreshing after being 15 years in a country where the glass is always half empty.
The big difference in business between the two countries is the ease with which you can set up. In Ireland I was able to go onto the computer, declare on the Revenue website and literally start working. Here, I have been to the Chamber of Commerce, I have been to an accountant, I’ve been to a lawyer. It has taken two months.
Also, the whole attitude towards doing business is so much more formal in France. You can be working with people for years and years, and you will always address them as Monsieur and Madame. In Ireland business is much more relaxed, much more informal, and as a result decisions get made faster.
Raising children is a very different experience in the two countries. The French have it right in terms of food. Children eat the same food as adults – there aren’t two menus. Children eat well, and they eat everything.
But in France they’re very demanding with their children. They expect them to be little adults very early. It was refreshing in Ireland to see how society generally was very happy to let children be children.
You don’t get cross faces looking at you at a restaurant if your children are kicking up at the table. In Ireland, the attitude is, ‘sure, they’re kids’.
The general ambience for children is nicer in Ireland, I think. It’s a more relaxed, happier environment.”