Living in a foreign country raises all kinds of questions, both practical and emotional: how do you define yourself and how are you characterised by your adopted homeland? This series relates, in alternating parts, the experiences of a British woman in Hong Kong and a French woman in the UK.
I have a friend, born and raised in London, who is half-British, half-French. He has never lived in France but, to his London friends, he will always be the “French guy”. Whenever he visits family in Paris, the same is true in reverse: he automatically becomes a Brit.
Only now in light of Brexit is he thinking of applying for a French passport, while his French mother, who has lived in the UK for the past 30 years, will soon have to apply for settled status. Not all of the UK’s 300,000-strong French community are certain they will stay, however.
In her latest “Expat identities” column, Nicola Nightingale wrote of the growing appeal of Hong Kong to French expats. It does seem that, for the past 20 years or so, France’s expat population around the world has grown consistently. Since 2000, three main French expat communities have established themselves in Europe — in Belgium, Switzerland and the UK, according to the French government — attracted by tax systems and flexible employment laws.
Since his election in 2017, French president Emmanuel Macron has promoted a “politique d’attractivité”, encouraging French expats to return home. While it is too early to gauge the impact of Brexit, the figures do not point to a clear trend of people moving from the UK back to France.
The Consulate General of France in London holds a list of registered French citizens in the UK. These numbered 147,000 in 2017, representing about half of the country’s total estimated French population. The registered expat figure has been falling, however, going down by 1,200, or 0.8 per cent, in 2018.
There had been an increase in registrations in both 2016 and 2017, in spite of the fact that many French citizens admitted to feeling dispirited by the result of the UK’s EU referendum in June 2016. According to the French embassy, a surge of new registrations came in 2017, just before the first round of the French presidential election in April: French citizens had to register in order to vote at one of the UK’s 54 French polling stations opened for the election.
When I moved to the UK in 2007, my sense was that the French expat community in London was well established, albeit insular. As an exchange student from Paris, I kept hearing about French Erasmus students spending a year in the UK, or elsewhere in Europe, only to form their own community. This meant they barely improved their language skills or forged any of the European connections that the EU’s student exchange scheme promotes as its raison d’être.
It was around this time that London acquired a new moniker from the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy. On a state visit to the UK, he claimed London was France’s “sixth city”, after Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse and Nice (Le Monde later questioned the claim, saying London was more like France’s 30th city).
Today, the number of French citizens spread around the UK is on a par with other established European expat communities, such as the Spanish. Yet the French continue to feel a special relationship with London. In South Kensington, the Institut français du Royaume-Uni, founded in 1910, is the oldest French landmark. Gradually, with Brexit looming, the institute has been promoting not only France but the values of communication and exchange fostered by a united Europe.
Claudine Ripert-Landler, the institute’s director, identifies such values in France’s support for diverse cultural institutions and young talent, both in France and internationally. “In the context of Brexit and tensions with the EU, the expression of emotions and human relations find a real echo in our cultural exchange, beyond the negotiations between institutions,” she says.
“Since the referendum result was announced, partnerships between the Institut français and British institutions have flourished, illustrating the greater need for collaborations between our countries.”
This year’s La Nuit des Idées, a cultural festival that takes place each January at the institute, included an evening of debate on the theme of “Europe Beyond Walls”, marking the approaching 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a symbolic milestone in more ways than one.
Since the referendum, individuals, too, have been seeking to confirm their European credentials: two-thirds of applications for French naturalisation through the French consulate in London in the past few months have been made by UK nationals; they represented only 7 per cent of all applications for French passports before June 2016.
You can read more articles from our Expat identities series here
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