Where To Be French In London

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 22 months ago
Where To Be French In London

There are tres tres many French people in London (anywhere between 66,000 and 400,000). It's no (quelle) surprise, then, that there are a whole lot of French things to get up to in the British capital — restaurants, music, festivals, the lot. Whether you're an avid Francophile, or a real-life French person who's fresh off the ferry/Eurostar, we've called on some hip French people for their tips on where to go and what to do.

Miss Pompette invites you to get tipsy with her (in French).

Why are you here in the first place?

Elise Lefay, classical and jazz singer, whose alter ego is Lily Zazou  (from Angers in the Loire valley): I feel free to be who I am here, probably because of the cultural diversity. I never feel trapped. I can always find what I want, it is only a matter of how far I am ready to commute and whether I can afford it. But it is never a case of ‘no, London does not offer that’. If I need chaos, I go to Soho, if I need countryside, I hide in Greenwich Park. As simple as that.

Marcel Lucont, flâneur, raconteur and bon-viveur (from Roubaix, in the north east): Despite the London accent, which is to language what a dog is to a lamp-post, one can be assured that a French voice will quite frequently waft through the air, like perfume through a sock. Also, with the right contacts, one can find acceptable cuisine. I have been to rural England — its culinary ways are often as terrifying as its locals.

Nadia Brahim, one half of the duo behind Brick Lane's Chez Elles Bistroquet, along with Lili L'Hôte (from Reims in Champagne and Perpignan respectively): We have been here for years and we LOVE London for many reasons. The first one is definitely the open minded people! Even if it's a big city, most of the population is pretty relaxed. We love the multicultural aspect, especially in east London. We love the events all year long, the fashion (better than Paris), the pub attitude and the parks in summer.

Miss Pompette, host extraordinaire of Soirée Pompette, a zany pop-up French language cabaret show (we're not entirely sure where she's from but she sounds very French): There's a bit of everything everywhere and the French touch is all over, mainly in the form of food and drink but also in nostalgic design. I've counted four different Citroen HY food vans this summer.

Cyril Blondel, press counsellor for the French Embassy (from the western suburbs of Paris): One of the great assets of London, especially for someone with small kids like me, is the fact that there are so many green spaces right in the centre of the city, making it unlike many other big cities.

Olivier Bertin, elected by the French people living in the UK to represent them at the French consulate. Olivier also co-founded a nursery school and recently, an art gallery (from Besançon, near Switzerland and Burgundy): I love the sense of liberty, tolerance, the British fair play and the opportunities for business. I really appreciate the capacity that London has to integrate foreigners from all over the world. I am not a big fan of Cameron's recent views on European immigration.

Cyril Blondel loves London so much he's lived here four times.

Are there any parts of London that remind you of home?

Elise: One of my favourite walks is along the Thames between Hammersmith and Putney. This part reminds me of the Loire area near Angers. The light is beautiful and I forget the hectic side of London when I am there.

Nadia: That could have been South Kensington but not anymore. East London for the last two years is very French. A huge number of French people moved to the area. We noticed it at the restaurant — 50% of our customers are French!

Cyril: This is the fourth time I’ve lived in London so it feels a bit like home in a way. On a more general note, London is actually interesting for a French visitor because, even though Eurostar makes it very accessible from France, it’s also very different.

Olivier: Not really. Maybe some Waitrose displays (fish and meat) or the Brixton farmers' market. I am living in Brixton for the last 20 years. There is definitively a continental feeling in the area.

Nadia (à droite) and Lili from Chez Elles.

Where in London do you hear the most French being spoken?

Miss Pompette: People used to say South Ken, but I've heard Frenchies in Brixton to Dalston. Not forgetting the broader Francophone community. I got a parking ticket from a Senegalese traffic warden in Westminster. Speaking French didn't get me off.

Elise: South Kensington remains the place where you hear more French speakers, because of the Consulate, Lycée Charles de Gaulles and Institut Français. You’ll also hear many French tourists in Camden Town and all obvious tourist spots… we are everywhere now!

Marcel: There seems to be an enclave in the west, around Ealing. Certainly many French people have been present at my shows in that locale. That said, the last time I was there was for a book festival where I was reading extracts from my oeuvre What We French Think Of You British… And Where You Are Going Wrong, which may explain the disparity.

Cyril: Historically the French community has tended to live in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It’s still true today, but it tends to be less concentrated.

Benoit Viellefon's Orchestra at this year's Bastille Day celebration. Photo by psyxjaw, in the Londonist Flickr pool.

In what ways is France better than London?

Marcel: France is a country, London is a city. France has the Loire, where one can catch salmon, London has the Thames, where one can catch salmonella. France has a flirtatious relationship with alcohol, London more an abusive one. For €150,000 one can buy a three-bedroom house in Provence, overlooking woods, wildlife and mountains, or a bedsit in London overlooking hoodies, fried chicken shops and mounting societal ennui.

Elise: The first (and only?) thing that comes to my mind is the health service. In France, if you have a little ‘bobo’ you’ll easily find a doctor who will take you seriously. Over the last 10 years in London I have only have had dreadful experiences with the NHS and was never allowed to see a GP. Hot water and rest should not be the cure for every illness.

Cyril: Life tends to be a bit cheaper in France.

Olivier: No doubt that France is better for skiing, frog legs and wines.

Miss Pompette: The mythical 35 hour working week?!

Marcel Lucont may need to hone his tube etiquette.

How do you feel when you encounter other French people in London?

Nadia: In our position, it feels really good, we feel part of a community! We meet French people everyday at Chez Elles and they are more relaxed than the French in France — pretty fun actually! When you live in London, you become a Londoner and start to act like one, you go out more, enjoy life more and things seem more simple.

Miss Pompette: It's interesting to find out how long they've been here and what brought them. You have people who have been here for years, are married with bilingual kids and then there are lots of young people who are here to learn English and experience London. It's fascinating to hear their impressions.

Marcel: Which specific French people do you mean? An old flame — felicitous. An old foe — querulous.

Photo by Michael Goldrei, in the Londonist Flickr pool.

What's the best French show in London?

Elise: I really like Soirée Pompette, a crazy French cabaret with bingo in Clerkenwell (hang on, that sounds familiar...). It is embarrassingly French and you never know what to expect. I have seen pretty amazing and weird acts there, always in French.

Nadia: I know a London-based promoter called 2 For The Road Events which often puts on French concerts in London. We follow the events and try to go every time we can. We went to see M, a French singer at Koko and it was fantastic!

Marcel: Do I genuinely need to answer this? I shall be touring again next year...

Where should a non-French person in London go to learn about French culture/speaking French?

Elise: The most obvious is The French Institute with its Cinéma Lumière and its French language classes. Dieu merci, there are fun and innovative nights out too, like the comedy night Excuse my French or L’apéroblog, where French bloggers meet up and drink a lot. It’s always worth listening to French Radio London and checking out French Ici Londres, Be a Londoner, and France in London.

Marcel: For those wishing to better themselves I can recommend Alliance Française.

Olivier: Every month I organise a walk in the countryside with a lunch in a pub. Most of the participants are French but we welcome walkers from everywhere. It's a good occasion to speak French and socialise.

Lily Zazou does her thing at a church in Hampstead.

Where do you go to eat to be reminded of home?

Elise: A galette Bretonne and a good cider (by good cider, I mean French cider) is what makes me feel home. A very French night out would start with a galette on Exmouth Market. Dominique makes the best buckwheat.

Olivier: As my mum was not a great cook, any frozen pizza from a supermarket could remind me of home. I regularly have a galette in Senzala creperie in Brixton Market. It reminds me of my holidays in Brittany when I was a kid.

Nadia: Because we spend most of our time at Chez Elles, that 'll be the first place. But we love to discover new places. We are regulars at Androuet, the cheese place in Spitalfields and Casse-Croûte in Bermondsey.

By the way, earlier this year, Londonist told you where we like to eat French-style.

Olivier Bertin at St Pancras, London's gateway to France. Photo by Valérie Bernardini

What's the best annual French event in London?

Cyril: The best annual French event in London is actually a Franco-British event! Under the patronage of Sir Quentin Blake, the South Ken Kids Festival has gathered the crème de la crème of French and British children’s book writers and illustrators every November since 1997.

Miss Pompette: Bastille Festival at Borough Market. It's a big day out in the environs of the market with lots of free activities like art portraits, street performances, face painting, snail racing, pétanque, live music, a local business waiters' race, rosette making and loads more.

Marcel: Bastille Day, without doubt, when London’s cuisine actually gains some flavour, and loud revelry fills the streets, preferably as close to Buckingham Palace as possible.

Elise: I’d say Voilà! at the Cockpit, because you’ll find all sorts of great shows there and it is quite new. It's a fast growing bilingual festival, showcasing the work of French creative people who live in London and importing shows from France.

Nadia: For us, because we are in the food and drinks industry, I will say Le Beaujolais Nouveau. This year was really fun. It is never about the wine quality but more of a tradition! Lots of Frenchies were here to try the wine and eat specialities from Lyon. The main thing was the good spirit and atmosphere. French and English were having fun together.

Got your own tips for being French in London? Tell us in the comments.

Last Updated 14 October 2016