Fearful of returning to France, French bankers sit it out in South Kensington

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Don't believe the stereotypes

Things are not going well in France. Michael Hintze, founder of hedge fund CQS, has pointed to a recent spate of car burning as a leading indicator of French social unrest. A report from the Pew Research Center found that the French were particularly dispirited within Europe: 91% of them say their economy is doing badly. French bank BNP Paribas is doing the unthinkable and warning of significant job cuts in France. France is plunging into an 'abyss of gloom', concluded the Washington Post last week.

In London, escapee French bankers are sanguine. "Most French people in London are very happy to be here," a French banker turned hedge fund manager told us. "No one's doing as well out of working in banking as they used to and a few people have gone back home - but most of us are here long term."

French bankers in London gravitate to South Kensington, drawn by the French Lycée (a French language school) in Cromwell Road. William Hughes Ward, sales manager at Kensington estate agency Marsh & Parsons (and a former employee of Deutsche Bank), said there's been no waning in French financiers' enthusiasm for the area. "Anything from 15% to 25% of our buyers are French," said Hughes Ward. "Most of the houses around here cost £3m," he added. "-That's the nature of the market in this area and is what French customers are interested in."

Les Trois Oursons, a French-English nursery in nearby Gloucester Terrace, told us it still has a "very long waiting list" for anyone inclined to raise bilingual children. "There has definitely not been a decline in the number of French people using our nurseries," said Sophie Day, team leader for the one year olds.

It's not very glorious in France

Alexis Dognin, a director at French derivatives broker Newedge, said the French diaspora in London is maturing and is less clustered around South Kensington than it once was. "When I arrived in London in 1997, everyone French was living in South Kensington. Now a lot of people - like me - live a more local life."  Dognin lives in South London, but didn't specify whereabouts exactly.

Most French people living in London would need a significant incentive to go back home again, said Dognin. "It's not very glorious in France right now," he said. "The new political order is trying to repair the damage that's been done, but trust has already been lost."

The wife of one French banker who formerly lived in London and returned to France when her husband lost his job, said French bankers are happy to stay in the city as long as they're paid very well. "It's ok as long as your husband is earning good money, but French bankers in London are often used to spending heavily - they have a property in South Kensington, a house in the South of France and a ski chalet. That's an expensive lifestyle and they can't save any money - it causes problems when they become unemployed."

Bruno Iskil, Fabrice Tourre gave French bankers a bad name

Unfortunately, the French don't have a reputation for hard work - especially in some U.S. circles. In February, Maurice Taylor, CEO of Titan International, a U.S. tyre manufacturer, criticized employees at a French plant for laziness. "They get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three," complained Taylor in a letter to the French industry minister published in Les Echos.

Dognin said this version of French working habits is unfair: "It's simplistic to say the French don't work hard. If you look at the statistics, productivity per hour in France is better than a lot of other developed countries," he said.

However, the French hedge fund manager said his time in banking had taught him that French bankers are often at the bottom of the hierarchy. "If you work for an American bank, you get a lot of junior French people working in quantitative roles, but fewer in senior positions. The Americans are on top, followed by the British, followed by the Italians, followed by the French," he complained. "If there's a programme of redundancies, French people are often hit hardest."

U.S. banks would disagree, pointing to French bankers in senior roles. French national Isabelle Ealet is co-head of the securities division at Goldman Sachs, for example. At J.P. Morgan, Isabelle  Seillier was recently moved from France to London to head the Financial Institutions Group. However, infamous French traders like Bruno Iksil and Fabrice Tourre, involved in respective scandals at J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs, have had a hand in tainting the French diaspora in London and New York.

One French headhunter who specializes in placing people in derivatives roles - an area traditionally dominated by the French - said French financiers often live  in London full time until they reach very senior roles. "All the junior French bankers up to vice president level live in London, but as soon as they get big bonuses they move their families back to Paris and commute to work in the City during the week.

"90% of the senior French people I know do this. The Eurostar is full of them on a Friday and Saturday night," he added.

Bruno Iksil was a weekday commuter while he worked in the Chief Investment Office (CIO) at J.P. Morgan - living in London between Monday and Thursday and working from his home in Paris on Friday according to reports.  Iksil is now back in France full time. As jobs disappear in London, other French bankers are facing a similar move. "People hang around in London trying to find jobs, but Kensington and Chelsea are expensive when you have no income. In Paris you can at least get good unemployment benefits," said the headhunter.

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