Sorry, Sarkozy – you won’t entice me back to France

The London Evening Standard - 06 November 2009
One disconcerting aspect of being among London’s 300,000 French expats is hearing Nicolas Sarkozy constantly implore me to return home.

The President did so when he came here in January 2007 to woo expatriate French voters.

He still insists that London has no right to be one of the largest Gallic cities in Europe, claiming the same prospects are available on the other side of the Channel.

Exactly halfway through Sarkozy’s five-year term of office, it is abundantly clear they are not.

As a French Algerian originally from one of Paris’s less salubrious suburbs, I can see that the much-vaunted “Sarko Revolution” has done nothing to revive meritocracy.

Instead, claims that “equality” is still a cornerstone of the Republic were hilariously exploded by Sarkozy’s recent attempt to parachute his 23-year-old son, Jean, into running La Defense, the French capital’s equivalent of the City.

While my CV in “colour blind” France was regularly scrutinised for an undesirable postcode and links to radical Islam, I’ve barely had to provide one during my time in Britain.

Interviewers have concentrated on what I can do, offering me, in the past two years alone, a contract to produce a Channel 4 documentary and a teaching post at Oxford University.

Invitations to discuss current affairs have come thick and fast from major news organisations, including the BBC – something that would be unheard of in a French media dominated by white, middle-aged men and women from the upmarket Paris arrondissements.

While younger members of this circle like “Prince Jean” get the career breaks in Paris – as well as places at the Grandes Ecoles that educate the ruling elite – London has an admirable record for giving all-comers a chance.

The city’s deregulated economy and liberal approach to accumulating wealth naturally attracts financiers, but everyone from French journalists to restaurant staff can benefit from its can-do approach to employment.

Meanwhile, Sarkozy displays his personal approach to integration by hiring and firing a succession of token ethnic-minority figures such as the much-maligned former justice minister Rachida Dati so as to create the illusion of a “rainbow cabinet”.

At least Sarkozy’s reputation as “Le Top Cop” remains intact, with thousands of working-class youths – and especially Muslims and those with African backgrounds – corralled in bleak housing estates, where the unemployment rate among the under-30s often runs at 60 per cent.

Our celebrity First Lady, Carla Bruni – described last week as France’s new Marie-Antoinette – comes up with her own gimmicks too, setting up a foundation ostensibly aimed at bolstering equality. To date, its workload remains as light as Carla’s.

What is certain is that the hugely privileged “Bling Bling” lifestyle of the presidential couple bears no relation to Sarkozy’s election pledge to create a France for those who “get up in the morning and work hard”.

Perhaps the only real improvement to come out of Paris since Sarko’s election in May 2007 is the even faster Eurostar service, which now takes 20 minutes less to get here.

London may be overcrowded, dirty and expensive but as far as ambitious young French people are concerned, it’s a destination that remains as popular as ever – and one from which we’re not likely to return any time soon.

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