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[August 30, 2014]
EXPATS' VIEWS: Job prospects make London the city du jour for French workers
(Observer (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) On the fourth plinth in London's Trafalgar Square the statue of a giant cockerel stands proud in its bright blue plumage. It is the work of a German artist, but the joke among bloggers on the Twitter feed of Axelle Lemaire, recently elected France's first member of parliament for northern Europe, is that le coq was put there by a French patriot - a symbol of the republique in the heart of the UK, defiantly sharing a stage with Nelson's column.
Dubbed France's MP for London, Lemaire represents one of the largest populations of French nationals outside France. Some 270,000 of her compatriots are now roosting in the capital, according to estimates by the French consulate. Mayor Boris Johnson quipped that the British capital was now France's sixth-largest city. In fact, it is more like its 20th.
After last week's political turmoil across the Channel, Lemaire has been reassuring Twitter followers that although it may not be business as usual for Francois Hollande's administration, work continues. "Merci pour les tweets," she posted on Tuesday. "Each message is an encouragement to continue, to build, to dare. It warms the coeur." Many residents of Paris-on-Thames are graduates of elite schools and universities, working in banks, City law firms, hedge funds, private equity houses and management consultancies. Lemaire worked as a researcher in Westminster - for former Labour MP and Europe minister Denis MacShane - before being elected in 2012. She is now secretary of state for digital affairs in prime minister Manuel Valls's government.
"The UK has a more open, flexible and dynamic job market than continental Europe," says Nicolas Ott, who was posted to London by France's national telecoms firm, Orange, six years ago and now works for broadcast telecoms company Arqiva.
"The selection of managers and senior people is much more based on their personal competencies as illustrated by what they have delivered in the past, rather than where do they come from, what school [they went to]. The perfect example is the governor of the bank of England - he is a Canadian. Would you ever imagine the governor of the bank of France not being French?" Many of his compatriots feel they same, judging from the growth in the expat population in London. The French Lycee in South Kensington, known as "the factory" because of its size, now has primary feeder schools in three places. A second building for secondary students is being refitted in what used to be Wembley town hall.
That Lemaire is a socialist may seem surprising: many would assume that wealthy refugees from President Hollande's 75% tax rate would return a rightwing deputy. But London also offers young people the first jobs they say they cannot find at home. Au pairs, waiters, artists and chefs are now treading its rain-soaked pavements. Many come hoping to improve their prospects by learning English, a prerequisite now for employment in France.
"I definitely have noticed a lot more French people the last two or three years literally walking the streets of the Square Mile," says Genevieve Rich, a solicitor at City law firm BLM. She came to the UK to teach French law at Warwick University before retraining. Britain offered a paid apprenticeship. In France, she would have spent a year working for free before qualifying.
"A great difficulty for young people in France today is securing permanent contracts," says Rich. "The law is so protective to employees that employers will do everything they can to avoid giving people contracts. There are many people on temporary jobs who have difficulty finding somewhere to live." Juliette Garside (c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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