The most recent example of a successful French invasion of England was almost a
millennium ago – in 1066, to be exact. Every English schoolchild learns about
the Norman invasion, led by William (note the Anglicized name) the Conqueror,
who overcame the English (Saxon, actually) forces under King Harold, at
Hastings. Subsequent efforts, although mounted by much more powerful monarchs
who really were French and ruled the whole of France, were nevertheless
uniformly unsuccessful. Invasions in the other direction – of France, by the
English – also ended in failure, although that end took generations to be
reached (see “Hundred Years’ War”).
The net result is that the English
and French, while living in close proximity and despite being allies since at
least 1850, do not tend to intermingle much. True, there are many Englishmen
(and women) who retire to France, or at least own a holiday home there. But this
phenomenon is less prominent and probably smaller-scale than the parallel
English presence in Spain. There have also been, over the centuries, waves of
French immigration to England, notably by the Huguenots (French Protestants) in
the wake of the bitter religious wars of the early modern period. Indeed, the
descendants of some of the Huguenot families became prominent in the economic
and financial development of their adopted country.
But it is doubtful
whether, in the long and volatile history of relations between the two
countries, there has ever been a phenomenon comparable to that currently under
London – arguably now a different country from “England” and
certainly from “Great Britain” – is witnessing an influx of French money and
French citizens on what is probably an unprecedented scale. But although some
Londoners and many Englishmen, inured with the traditional anti-French attitudes
of their culture, regard this as a new invasion, it is nothing of the sort. If
anything, it is exactly the opposite – an exodus, now verging on
The seeds of the current development go back to the Thatcher era
in Britain. The policies pursued by Thatcher in the 1980s, notably the reduction
of direct taxation and the rolling back of state involvement in the economy,
stood in glaring contrast to those preferred by the first Socialist president of
the Fifth Republic, Francois Mitterand.
In both countries, the
traditional manufacturing sectors were hammered, but in Britain the rise of the
financial sector and of the City of London, coupled with the lower tax rates on
offer, attracted a growing number of bright young French graduates. The Channel
Tunnel, when it eventually opened, further facilitated the process by allowing
French expatriates in London to smoothly speed back to Paris on Friday evenings
and spend the weekend with their families in Paris.
Like so much else in
the global economy, small-scale developments a generation ago have matured into
massive operations. In recent years the flow of French capital, human and
financial, into London has swelled dramatically.
Now, with the
unprecedented leftward swing of the political pendulum in France – newly elected
President Francois Hollande has at his command an absolute majority in
parliament – the threat to the French moneyed classes is clear and pressing.
Those who have already made it perceive an urgent need to get their money out of
France, while those who are young and want to make it in the future see the
necessity of getting themselves out.
With entry to the US increasingly
difficult, London is the preferred goal for ambitious young French looking for
jobs and opportunities, as well as the primary target for French money looking
for a safe and solid home – typically, in the form of a house in an upscale
This is not a mere anecdote. In the context of a
crumbling European financial system and, above all, in light of the deep-seated
structural flaws that characterize the French economy and are hobbling its
performance, the growing flight from France is the strongest evidence available
that the next target of the rolling crisis is none other than France itself.
Italy may still become the next domino to fall, but it’s also possible that the
markets will prefer to skip it and advance directly to the core of the EU,
without further delay or dalliance in the periphery countries. Certainly, the
policy positions of Hollande and his party are making that possibility more,
rather than less, likely.
Thus as France moves toward Bastille Day and
then les vacances, assuming all the while that the world will allow it to
maintain its unaffordable lifestyle, the French elite are working under very
different assumptions. So, too, are French Jews, who have long realized that the
demographic and cultural trends at work in the country pose long-term threats to
them and their community. Now, the deepening economic crisis is exacerbating
these threats and spurring the efforts made in recent years by many
French-Jewish families to prepare their emigration. Most of them, however, are
not looking toward London, but rather expect to come to a neighborhood near you.
That may happen sooner than you, or even they, currently
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