Olivia Palamountain discovers how South Kensington became a key destination for London’s French community
Everything sounds better in French. It’s the language of love – and for good reason; there’s not an English word I can think of that isn’t improved with a little va va voom. Except, come to think of it, Bute Street, which sounds terrible in a French accent (trust me, I’ve tried).
Annoying really, because this cute passage in South Kensington is the booming epicentre of French London and home to the largest expat population in the capital. The area has forever been a French haven, and fortunately for any Francophiles, the residents have established a slice of home. Wander down Bute Street and there’s more than an air of chic; immaculately groomed ‘ladies what lunch’ gossip over black coffee, the smell of Gauloises hangs heavy in the air, and you’ll pass languid teenagers, flirting in verlan (slang) during break time from the exclusive Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle.
A bona fide petit Paris, not only can you buy the finest croissant this side of the Channel, there’s a French bookshop, a bistro, as well as various bakeries piled high with baguettes and specialist produce. Just opposite Bute Street, and next to the Lycée are the Institut Francais (for all things French and cultured), and the Cine Lumiere where you can catch both art house flicks and Gallic classics.
There’s not much more an Anglo-French family needs to feel at home, but just why has London become the most popular destination for the French community?
Illustrator, wallpaper and textile designer, Venture de Saboulin made the move to London from Paris in 2008 with only a suitcase, a backpack, a laptop and €1,000 in her pocket. Like most of her compatriots, she ended up in South Kensington. ‘We spent a few days in London and I couldn’t believe what I saw when walking around in Camden: the people, the clothes, the fashion trends and the atmosphere…it just felt so exciting and liberating!’
Today Venture owns her own textile business, My Little Venture, based in Gypsy Hill. She agrees that the typical British view of a Parisian lifestyle is imbued with romance and style, but it seems the reverse is true for the French. ‘I feel much more connected to the rest of the world,’ says Venture, ‘and just by watching the news you notice the different perspective English have. The atmosphere here is very alive, trends change so fast; there’s never time to get bored really.’
With this in mind it’s unsurprising that London is considered France’s sixth largest city; there are said to be more French people in London than Bordeaux or Nantes. However as of April this year, this figure has come under scrutiny. According to Boris Johnson there are 250,000 French people living in the capital; other British estimates say 300,000-400,000. The figure that is quoted most often is 270,000, which is attributed to the French consulate in London. This would make London only the 23rd biggest French population, but this remains an impressive statistic.
There is, bien sur, a political dimension to these discussions, because healthy figures illustrate the idea that the UK’s capital is booming, both a hot-bed for entrepreneurs and brimming with jobs.
Venture found it a breeze to secure work in London: after working as a sales assistant for Bonpoint, she joined de Gournay textiles, and with this role came hand-on experience of business and sales in the luxury wallpaper market, as well as plenty of international travel. As Venture admits, ‘with a creative background in France there is no possible way to be given such an opportunity. This country pushes people to be proactive and you can start small without feeling stuck.’
According to Venture, life in Paris is all about following the rules of elegance and ‘bon gout’, especially in terms of fashion. ‘It’s certainly true that the French have a pretty good sense of taste’, she says, ‘but when it comes to dress, it’s almost like having to wear a uniform and everyone looks the same. It’s massively boring and it’s easy to feel bad if you don’t fit in. London fashion is experimental, no fear.’
Venture is soon to give birth, and I imagine she might be pining for home at this sensitive time. She disagrees, ‘I’m very excited to have a baby in London. In France pregnancy is treated a bit like an illness and they’re always looking for possible problems.’ So far so good, but there’s an element to life in France to which we surely cannot compare: food.
Despite London’s gastro-renaissance, I always assume that the French eat beautifully, with quality and provenance deeply embedded in their culture, especially when eating chez nous. Jerome Tauvron, head chef at French/Japanese fusion restaurant L’Etranger on Gloucester Road, and London resident since 1998, is well placed to comment. ‘Paris use to be the capital of gastronomy but not anymore,’ he concedes. ‘Our young talent has left the capital to practice elsewhere and London has snared many of the brightest.’
Sacre Bleu! Paris must be hungry. Jermome continues, ‘I hope it’s not too late to put Paris back on the map of great gastronomy; there are wonderful places to eat, but I’m not sure the younger generation respects our roots, where good food was a necessity.’
Although they both remain resolutely proud of their heritage, neither Jerome nor Venture have designs on leaving London in the future, and if the hype is to be believed, they will be joined by more of their countrymen imminently. Can South Kensington continue to accommodate the influx? Probably, but it might not have to as yet more expat communities are now burgeoning throughout other areas of London, from Wembley to Camden and as far as Hackney.
Wellington would quaking in his boots at this takeover, but it’s a most welcome change if you ask me: more croissants for everyone.