A History of the French in London

A History of the French in London: Liberty, Equality, Opportunity
Edited by Debra Kelly and Martyn Cornick
Institute of Historical Research  516pp  £40

The French are visible all over London and not just in the South Kensington area, or ‘Frog Valley’ as it is affectionately known. One can buy French books in French bookshops, catch a whiff of freshly-baked baguettes drifting from French boulangeries, listen to French Radio London, watch French films at the Institut Français and read about French community life in Ici Londres. Indeed, according to estimates by the French Embassy, there are close to 400,000 French people living in Greater London, effectively making it France’s fifth or sixth ‘largest city’ in population terms, although this is slightly misleading, as it counts only those living in French city centres and discounts those in the suburbs. 

A History of the French in London is an extensive, complex study that aims ambitiously ‘to explore and provide elements toward a history of the social, cultural, political [and] economic presence of the French in London and to examine the many ways in which this presence has contributed to the life of the British capital’.

The book starts with the arrival of French Protestants in the 16th century and continues through to today’s London French; across this period two trends stand out: continuity and visibility/invisibility. Continuity, in Soho, where one can enjoy a French patisserie in Maison Bertaux, founded by the Communards in 1871 or read, on Lisle Street, in the doorway of the Chinese restaurant that has since replaced it, the name of the Hôtel de Boulogne, which was frequented by the Free French during the Second World War. Likewise, reasons for coming to London in the 19th century still ring true today. As Michel Rapoport writes, French people ‘generally came because they were attracted by a very open, labour market, with [...] the prospect of professional and social success that would not have been possible for them in France’; others were sent by their families for training in finance and commerce or to improve their English. Rapoport also explains how in the late 19th century the French ‘colony’ in London did not become involved in the political struggles that divided French life. Political opinions tended to remain in the private sphere. The French were united by a strong sense of patriotism and desire to defend the French language, culture and interests – albeit not to the detriment of the Entente Cordiale – and by a reverence for the Crown. Today, as Huc-Hepher’s and Drake’s study observes, there remains still a ‘united set of perspectives’ and ‘unity in diversity’, despite their huge ethnic, professional and socio-economic diversity.

However, at the advent of the Second World War a crack emerged in the cohesion of the colony. As Rapoport explains, members of the French colony were forced to make choices that were ultimately divisive: they could stand by the legal French Vichy government, rebel and join those backing de Gaulle or other resistance groups, or support England.

This change also introduces a second key question raised in the book: that of the invisibility of the French during various periods. The history of the Free French in London is in many ways very visible (think the blue plaque and statue of Charles de Gaulle in Carlton Gardens) and well-documented through the published memoirs of de Gaulle, Colonel Passy and Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac. However, the history of many during this period remains forgotten. What of those French who were already settled in London but were not necessarily part of the Free French during the war? Debra Kelly’s essay attempts to make them more ‘visible’. However, as she explains in her conclusion, the very concept of the Free French was in many ways an imaginary one and therefore represents an imaginary space. According to Crémieux-Brilhac, one of de Gaulle’s most powerful weapons was his appeal to the imagination: ‘Free France was simultaneously a reality and a myth, and he was the knowing artisan of both’.

As Huc-Hepher and Drake also highlight, today’s London French are not all upper-class Parisians from the 16th arrondissement who attend the Lycée Charles de Gaulle. Their study reveals that many French have come to London to escape prejudice in France, be it racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, conservatism or elitism. Many French in London also avoid the elitist French education system opting instead for the British education system, which is often seen as being more confidence-building, inspiring and encouraging of students’ creativity – and they live all over London. The most French-speaking borough is not Kensington and Chelsea but Lambeth. Younger French migrants tend to move to more affordable areas and, interestingly, as Huc-Hepher and Drake point out, to Brick Lane and Richmond, the same places chosen by the French Protestants on their arrival over 400 years ago.

Kathryn Hadley is a freelance writer and translator, and co- author of Dans le Secret des Archives Britannique: L’histoire de France vue par les Anglais, 1940-1981 (Calmann-Lévy, 2012).


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