Sitting in a pub in Bethnal Green and nursing a mug of beer, Vincent Drapeau is hard pushed to think of what he misses about his home country. “The price of wine in supermarkets,” he says. “The baguettes in the bakery every morning. The diversity of landscapes.” He runs out. There is no more. He is at home here, in a quirky corner of the capital better known for its greasy spoons and street-art than its pâtisseries and pavement cafes. “East London leads London and London leads Europe, and maybe the world!” he declares, chuckling. Even he seems a little taken aback by the zeal of his anglophilia. The 25-year-old is just one of an estimated 300,000-400,000 French people who have crossed the Channel to live in Britain and are now scattered all over the country and, predominantly, in London. He is far from being, however, a member of the fabled South Kensington set, the close-knit community of expatriates based in and around the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle, the Institut Français and the “Frog Alley” of Bute Street. For decades, the prominence of the enclave has caused it to become the symbol of the French community in Britain – much to the irritation of those who want no part of it. One woman, who lives in Kent, describes the south-west London district as an inward-looking “ghetto”- albeit one of wealth and privilege.
Now, in this double election year in which expats are being courted furiously not only for the presidential vote but also for the first ever election of MPs for overseas residents, the wider French community – from Bethnal Green to Belfast – has become the subject of unprecedented attention. And, while most find it hard to believe that the streets of South Kensington will swing any other way than right, the situation is less certain elsewhere. For Drapeau, at least, there is no doubt: he will vote for the left – and not with the weary resignation he has noticed in other Socialist supporters. “All the hopes and passion [of 2007] have gone after five years of [Nicolas] Sarkozy. Today the country is in total despair,” he says. “So [François] Hollande may win an anti-Sarkozy win, but I am more enthusiastic than most.” Crowded around table in a French bar in Clapham, a dozen or so young people study maps of the local area and listen as they are told the purpose of the evening’s door-knocking, or porte-à-porte. “The aim … is to find leftwing voters and to tell them it’s very, very important that they go and vote,” explains one man. Minutes later, pounding the surrounding streets in an effort to get out the vote for Hollande, Axelle Lemaire, the Socialist Party’s candidate for the parliamentary elections in June, says she believes the French community in London is “more diverse” than often thought.
“The only facts we can look at are the results of the presidential election [of 2007],” she says, “and in the UK in total the result was exactly the result in France, which in itself is more balanced that this idea of an overwhelming conservative vote by the French people who live in London.” She is up against it, however. The first person to open their front-door to her responds to her introduction with a polite but firm: “I do not vote Socialist.” The door closes. She walks on.