Christopher Nye finds out why the French love making SW London, especially Battersea, a home from home

London is now, officially, the sixth biggest French city, with some 400,000 French people living here. That makes it more French that Nantes, Montpellier or Bordeaux and twice as French as Toulon. There have always been a lot of French people in SW London. Maybe because it’s the first bit of central London they reach after the Channel ports and before Waterloo. Two good French schools have kept the families coming and today there are more French shopfronts than ever, more French accents and more French newspapers hanging up outside the newsagents. The French have added their own Gallic je ne sais quoi to the area: you sometimes have to remind yourself that pavement cafes, lingerie shops and gorgeous cookware are not a traditional part of the English high street.
Patricia Connell runs the website FranceinLondon.com, and says: “There has been a lot more French arriving especially in the past year.” There are two types, she says, the bold and the desperate. The latter are: “young people who can’t find jobs in France, so the minute they have a diploma they come over here, where they think the economy is going forward. They get disillusioned about France when they hear that it is the economic laggard of Europe. The others are the go-getters who want to start a business. It’s very hard and expensive to start a business in France, especially if you want to employ people. I would never, ever have started a business in France, like I did here.’

Webb's Road in Battersea is a popular haunt for London's French community

Deli Boutique on Webb’s Road is owned by Erwan le Bohec, who combines French and British cuisine

George W Bush may have once said that the French don’t even have the word for entrepreneur, but many of the French in the SW area have started businesses. Erwan le Bohec opened his first Deli Boutique on St John’s Hill in 2006, and another on Webb’s Road in response to high demand last year. It is opposite the Wix French school. He says that Londoners welcomed his new way of doing things, combining the best of French bread and patisserie – he makes baguettes on the premises – with the traditional English breakfasts: ‘I didn’t want to have a French flag up, and where a string of onions around my neck – we take the best of the French and put it with the English.’

But how about the French, are they willing to go native or do they just want the flavours and comforts of home? Erwan’s branch in St John’s Hill attracts a small number of French, but he says that the Webbs Road branch gets far more. This does seem to be the epicentre of ‘Little Paris’. Local estate agent Chris Lewis of Savills on Northcote Road says the French, like most nationalities, tend to stick together. He believes they comprise the largest number of his overseas clients. But what do they want? ‘Well, they don’t want a garden,” he says. “We have one large rental place and every time it comes on a market a French family snap it up. Because it doesn’t have a garden the British won’t touch it. But the French have usually come from a large apartment in Paris, well we don’t have large flats in SW so this is the next best thing.’ He says they favour modern, high-tech properties.

Webb's Road in Battersea is a popular haunt for London's French community

Webb’s Road in Battersea is a popular haunt for London’s French community

Patricia Connell adds that the presence of the French schools in Chelsea and Battersea inevitably makes them popular for the French, but since they been priced out of Kensington and Notting Hill, Battersea is more French than ever. They tend to choose French schools, she adds, because unlike the £6,000 per term English private schools, the Lycée is just £1,200, subsidised by the French government. And Wix is a feeder school for the Lycee.

The French, explained several of our interviewees, believe that everything French is best, from schools to bread to knickers. Indeed, they are helping to change the way local people do business. Amelie’s Follies, on Webb’s Road, is a French lingerie shop. Shop assistant Catherine Aubert, from the south of France explained that French women would never think of buying a pack of five pairs of cotton knickers from their equivalent of M&S: ‘Every little community will have a boulangerie and a lingerie shop, or two,’ she says. ‘British women will tend to spend more on handbags, that they can show their friends, rather than nice lingerie that remains hidden.’ Could it be that more people see a French woman’s knickers, I tentatively suggest? ‘No,’ replies Catherine.

Webb's Road in Battersea is a popular haunt for London's French community

Amelie’s Follies on Webb’s Road

The first reactions of most new arrivals from Paris, says Patricia Connell, is amazement that you can wear what you want. ‘People in Paris stick to a rigid dress code,’ she says, and surprise at the beautiful food in London. Not everything is like home – they find our cuts of meat distinctly odd – but can always comfort themselves with a shopping trip across the river to Zadig & Voltaire. ‘We’ll always have Battersea,’ as Bogart so nearly said to Bergman.