If Paris is, as Hemingway wrote, “a moveable feast”, then London is perhaps the place that it has been moved to. Often cited as the sixth biggest French city, London’s French neighbourhoods in South Kensington, Mayfair and Chelsea can feel like St Germain-des-Prés, with lunch at Aubaine and shopping at Bonpoint, before stopping for a macaron
at Ladurée on the Burlington Arcade. But as the first-round of the French elections loom on 23 April and Theresa May prepares to execute Article 50 to formally begin the process of leaving the EU, is la vie en rose set to change?
While in Paris, Benoît Hamon for the Socialist party and François Fillon for the Republicans battle it out against Marine Le Pen (National Front) and Emmanual Macron (Centrist), there is concern in London that the city may be a less alluring prospect to the discerning French than before. Since the Brexit vote last summer, Paris has been trying to lure banks with the promise of something better and there is talk that HSBC may move 20 per cent of its London banking operation to Paris.
“After Brexit I think the initial, perhaps impulsive reaction for those [French families] living here and working in the financial markets was, ‘Well OK, we’ll leave then’,” explains Matthew Harrop at John D Wood & Co in South Kensington. “But now that the dust has settled, it’s not that simple. They’ve put down roots here. There is a huge community of French families who have been here for more than a decade. Their children were born here and are schooled here, their friends are here, so there’s much more to it than just the job.”
Elliott Dumay at Dexters, Kensington, a native Parisian who has lived in London for the past eight years, also cites the frustrations of Paris; its complicated tax system and close-knit social structures, as reasons why many of his French clients left Paris and would not want to return.
“The market was just an excuse to leave Paris,“ he says, believing that Brexit won’t change much for those based here. “In truth it’s about preferring the lifestyle here; London is far more practical to live and work in. Moving back to Paris would feel like moving back into the dark ages. London is more vibrant, it’s still the capital of Europe.”
With the French population in London citing the energy of the city, its schools, varied architecture, the friendliness of the people and even the food as plus points, it appears London hasn’t lost its shine.
The cultural mix is key. “Only around five per cent of buyers in Paris are foreign,” says Roger Abecassis. “Whereas in London it’s something like 40 per cent. That affects the way the city feels and its ambience. London’s multi-cultural attitude, optimism and the sheer dynamism of the city makes it an exciting home, wherever you are from in the world.”
AREA BY AREA
Paris at 105.4 sq km, compared to London’s 1,572 sq km, could fit into a section of Zone One and still have room to manoeuvre. Yet there are similarities.
“Mayfair reminds me of our 6th arrondissement in terms of people and its historical elegance, while Kensington could be compared to the area of the 17th around Parc Monceau as it has a discreetly chic air,” suggests Beatrice Cabochel, who sells properties in both cities. Elliott Dumay agrees, “Mayfair is chi chi just like the St Germain quarter of the 6th. Perhaps the 6th is a little more bohemian, but it’s still old-money.” Chelsea’s traditional, chicly boho atmosphere has similarities to the sought-after, artistic 18th and 8th arrondissements, nestled by the Sacre Coeur. The newer ‘French’ areas of London such as Clapham or Wimbledon can be compared with St Cloud, which Dumay describes as “very family-orientated, full of big houses and green spaces”. Meanwhile, the edgy, up-and-coming areas of Shoreditch and Dalston in East London are similar in feel to Paris’ 11th arrondissement.
In terms of structure the two cities vary widely. “London is an enormous sprawling city with many different areas that each have a distinct personality, especially in terms of architecture,” says Laurent Lakatos, director at Databiens, the Paris arm of LonRes. “It has grown organically and that’s why there is such variety.” London doesn’t have a distinct centre in the way that Paris does, although both cities favour the central-west or south-west areas in term of prime property. Kensington for example, is best compared
with Neuilly sur Seine, an attractive, historically sought-after residential area just west of 17th.
“It’s extremely pretty, very quiet and has a traditional charm,” says Dumay of the area, which is just outside the borders of the central ville. “The Sarkozy family is from this area, all of the traditional aristo French families have houses here.” Many of those working in Paris’ financial district will live in Neuilly sur Seine, with a small percentage residing in the business district itself at La Defense.
“You don’t really have the equivalent to the residential area of Canary Wharf in Paris,” explains Caboche. “There are height restrictions when building in Paris and laws which mean the historical buildings along the Seine aren’t allowed to become neighbours with flashy new-build developments. “It’s a shame,” she says, “because Canary Wharf has its own residential community, whereas La Defense is purely a business district.” Dumay agrees. “La Defense is perhaps 80 per cent work, 20 per cent living in terms of property. Parisians working in La Defense are likely to live in the quieter 16th.”
Due to the city’s smaller size and more regulated structure, a typical, well-off Parisian family would likely live on the top floor of a large, well-maintained Haussmann apartment in a sought-after neighbourhood in the 6th, 7th or 16th. The coveted apartments on the rue de l’Université or rue Jacob in the 6th are a case in point, while
the minority opt for a larger
house surrounded by greenery, but outside the city centre. In London, the choice between the two is less stark.
“When the French first come to London, usually they’re looking for flats, they don’t necessarily think about asking for outdoor space or looking for a traditional house with a garden,” says Lakatos. “But then they realise that this is a lovely, traditionally English way to live. They can find a large three or four-bedroom house with a garden in South Kensington, Chelsea or Fulham that’s got good schools close by and it’s easy for them to commute into work. In Paris, they would have to make the choice between living centrally or having a large house with a garden.”
A chic apartment on the fifth floor would be considered the most enviable, due to its views and distance away from the main road. “When the limestone Haussmann apartments were built five or six stories high, the best floor used to be the second and it still is in areas like the Marais, where the streets outside are cobbled and pedestrianised,” informs Lakatos. “However, as most of these apartments are on busy boulevards, it’s now the fifth floor that is most coveted. By contrast in London you’d look for a penthouse apartment with incredible views or you’d choose a house with a big garden on a quiet, pretty street.”
Parisian apartments generally boast high ceilings and wooden floors, as well as being “better kept and with a uniformity which means that for €1,500 a week you could find the ideal three-bed apartment in central Paris,” explains Dumay. “London is far more varied. You’d get an average three-bed flat for £1,500 a week in London, but you could find a beautiful, small house with outdoor space for the same price and in terms of buying you’d definitely have more choice.”
As the stamp duty in London is now 12 per cent over £2 million, it’s undeniably cheaper to purchase a property in Paris. Paris properties have their own taxes: the Droits de notation, a tax to the state when you buy a new property, usually about five per cent on the whole market value; plus the Frais de notaire, which is the monopoly on registering new rights to a property when you purchase it with the state ministerial officer. The solicitors’ fee is included in this, which comes on top of the original five per cent, and usually these solicitors are appointed to you by the state. “This usually makes the overall fee six per cent, and this is paid by the buyer not the seller,” explains Lakatos.
As for Brexit, it’s hard to say at this stage how positive this will be for the UK market. “Until now, it has not affected the French or the UK market,” says Caboche. A weaker pound and potentially stronger euro is also an advantage for French Londoners who have been renting here and are now looking to buy. “The weak pound can be good for French investors,” adds Lakatos “and the approach of the French elections and the end of Hollande’s presidency seems to have created some optimism on both sides of the Channel.”
“When our French clients come to London the first question is always about the schools,” says Caboche. “Being in close proximity to a good French school is the primary concern.” As well as South Kensington, home to the original Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle, Fulham, Clapham, Chiswick and now Wembley, where the third French secondary school in London opened in 2015, are all well-catered for by French co-educational primary and secondary independent schools, whose fees are partly subsidised by the French government. The primary school satellites in Ealing (André Malraux ), Fulham (Ecole Marie d’Orliac) and Clapham (École de Wix), as well as the associated Collège Français Bilingue de Londres (CFBL) in Kentish town, offer children the French curriculum which leads to the Baccalaureat.
Robert Green, associate director at John D Wood & Co in Chelsea, whose French-English bilingual daughter goes to the Marie d’Orliac, where she studies one week in French and then one week in English, agrees that the location and quality of London’s lycées is a pull for French families.
“The Lycée system was cleverly designed so French expats
living all over the world could give their children the same education. You can’t really compare this with the few international schools in Paris.”
The state schools in Paris have a good reputation and are even considered better than some of its private schools. “French education is very highly regarded in Paris,” notes Lakatos, “but personally I prefer the British private schools. Here the imagination of the children is encouraged, it isn’t just about learning maths or engineering.” (His children go to St Paul’s.)
“As Paris is so much smaller, the commutes are usually much shorter,” explains Dumay. “To cross Paris on the metro would take 30-40 minutes at the most, generally a journey to a meeting takes 20 minutes max.” Such short commutes are unheard of in London, where the average is 74 minutes, according to the ONS. Plus the metro allows phone signals on nearly all routes, making quick post- and pre- meeting phone calls a possibility.
Ticket prices in Paris are around half of the Tube, but the metro has its downsides. “It’s less well-maintained than the Tube and doesn’t feel as safe,” says Dumay.
More Parisians prefer to drive, although the city’s notoriously bad traffic system has come under attack. “Many Parisians are surprised by how well the traffic flows in London compared to Paris,” says Lakatos. “Paris traffic is hectic and people don’t stick to their lanes. It’s always jammed.It’s actually a nightmare!” Although Paris has no congestion charges, Anne Hidalgo, the mayor, has taken steps, including closing the Quai de Seine to cars, but many feel that has only made matters worse. “I don’t drive here anymore,” says Abecassis. “It’s impossible now to get from east to west, you end up adding another hour each way to your journey.”
“Paris is famed for its wonderfully fresh produce and has far more local food shops that aren’t mega expensive, “ says Robert Green. “There are fantastic fishmongers and finding an excellent butchers just two or three streets away from your apartment is common rather than being the exception, like it sadly is in London.”
Paris’ café society seems to be in decline according to locals. “People do still go to their local bistros and there remains a culture of taking a proper lunch break,” says Lakatos. “You can get a good lunch for €20, maybe steak frites and a coffee, but these type of bistros are becoming fewer and people have started to eat at their desks.”
For the French living in London it’s the international flavour and cosmopolitan atmosphere they love. “Paris only got a cocktail scene around seven years ago and while it’s getting better, there isn’t the buzz of London’s nightlife,” explains Abecassis. Places such as SexyFish in Mayfair, which boasts the largest selection of Japanese whiskies in Europe simply would not exist in Paris. “It’s impossible to find a great Japanese, Chinese, Ethiopian, Venezuelan or Indian restaurant in Paris.”
For families both cities offer a wealth of green parks, although London wins hands down in terms of the number of family-friendly museums and galleries, nearly all of which are free.
Paris will always be the most romantic city in the world, but as somewhere to settle, does London have the edge over its French neighbour? “I don’t think Brexit will see people leaving. In terms of tax it’s easier to live in London on the euro at the moment and the French election isn’t bringing much optimism to our opinion of living in Paris,” concludes Caboche. “Brexit or no Brexit, people who have planned to come from France to London are still going to come here because of all the advantages London has to offer. Professional life is just easier here – life is easier here, and that will always outweigh the pull of Paris.”