“When I was a teenager, I only ever listened to British bands and I actually used to wear Union Jack flag-printed Converse,” says Antoine Leclerc, who grew up in Bordeaux in the 2000s. He was in a band during these years, citing The Libertines drummer Gary Powell as his idol. “I think it was a way of expressing a want to be cool. British bands have always evoked a don’t-give-a-fuck attitude, which is attractive when you’re young. Also, French music was pretty mediocre in the 2000s.”
Antoine wasn’t alone. The UK in the 2000s – NME’s “Cool Lists”, raucous behaviour and a boom in new British music festivals – unexpectedly charmed French teenagers. To them, British culture was characterful and creative. It might seem odd today in a post-Brexit landscape but to French millennials, their British counterparts seemed unbearably and unfathomably… cool.
According to Tomas Charbonne, a 28-year-old originally from Paris, the teenage school trip to London was a rite of passage. “I went in 2010, and visiting Camden was at the top of everyone’s list. We’d all descend upon the market and spend our money on The Beatles T-shirts and London Underground [fridge] magnets.”
“I remember seeing photographs of Pete [Doherty] around Paris and thinking, ‘Wow, this guy thinks we’re cool?’” says Tomas who cringes explaining that he wanted to be as famous as Noel Gallagher. Whenever his teen band played British indie songs, the crowd would go wild. “We [French teens] had this idea that the UK was the mecca for such music.”
And so the obsession developed. French youth spent their adolescence learning English swear words via Libertines lyrics. Teens were literally speaking like Yorkshire men as les rockeurs anglais Arctic Monkeys broke records in France by selling 360,000 albums in one week.
Considering France is known for its fashion, their appreciation for our three-buttoned Topman t-shirt is, in retrospect, shocking. “A friend went to London one time, and brought us all those t-shirts from Topman…” Tomas laughs today, “You know the ones I mean? Alex Turner was always wearing them back then, and we wanted to look like him.” High fashion followed: In 2010 French fashion brand, Longchamp, collaborated on a collection with Kate Moss, before fellow it-girl, Alexa Chung, became the face of the company in 2013.
Music and fashion aside, there was a growing bond with other aspects of Franglais life. In 2008, the Eurostar saw its busiest year between Paris and London. “Taking the Eurostar to London felt luxurious,” says Agathe Getz, a 29-year-old originally from the Parisian suburbs, now living in the British capital.
“As a teenager, I remember visiting with my family, red bus spotting, trying fish and chips. As a teenager, the train was exciting because it proved just how accessible each country is to one another. It made me realise I could probably live there one day, and now I do.”
In fairness, the feeling was mutual. In the years leading up to 2016, Britain –and particularly its youth culture – returned admiring gazes across the English Channel.
It began in 2001, when Amélie hit British cinemas. Photos of Audrey Tatou, bright eyed and hair bobbed with a micro fringe, were ripped out of glossy magazines and shoved into the hands of hairdressers and an iconic 21st century hairstyle was born. In 2003, Jarvis Cocker decided to settle in Paris with his French wife, the same year a record number of Brits were also heading to France to settle in the country. Just as teenage Tomas lusted over visiting London, the school trip to Paris was a rite of passage for many British teenagers.
Around the same period, Pete Doherty began paying homage to French chic by dressing as a shabby version of Albert Camus, cigarette in mouth and trilby on tête. He was often photographed flailing around Paris, and in 2008, a gallery in Montmartre showcased paintings created using his own blood. By 2010, marinière (stripy) sweaters became a style staple on British shores, considered à la mode thanks to the likes of Pete’s partner in crime at the time, Kate Moss, and her obsession with Paris.
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” observes Isabel Mercier, a French millennial who moved to the UK in 2015, the year before the infamous Brexit referendum. “I think the 2000s illustrate the cultural imitation between both countries, and how innocent it was – we genuinely thought you guys were cool and you thought we were – but that’s certainly changed.”
In June 2016, French people living in London attempted to keep this cultural connection alive in the most French way possible: free croissants. Days before the Brexit referendum, “Operation Croissant” took over London’s King’s Cross station.
“We laughed about it because we didn’t think it was something we really had to be doing,” says Anaïs Blanc, a French product designer who took part, hoping to convince Brits to vote Remain. “I guess it’s like when you fall out with your partner and come home with chocolate in an attempt to make up because that usually works. But this time it didn’t.”
The disappointment around Brexit and the leave vote is still strong among young French people, particularly those currently living in the UK. “It was like, we wanted to make it work, but you just weren’t interested,” says Isabel, 27. “I moved to the UK because of how prestigious creative industries are here. There’s something unique and eccentric about British arts that we [French people] have always admired. You’ve never wanted to keep things classic, you’ve always wanted to experiment, but maybe that need for individuality and independence is what pulled you away.”
London has a larger population of French people than France’s own sixth biggest city – and that population is mainly of millennial age and have been particularly impacted by Brexit. Sonia Bensoltane, a 25-year-old from Lille, who lived in London before and after the Brexit referendum, says, “I wanted to move to London because of how free and open-minded British people were compared to the French. It felt like a place where everyone was welcome as they were.”
Today, British tabloids use hyperbolic language to paint the French as anti-British in every possible way (which is certainly not true) while reporting on an ongoing tale of fish wars between the two countries. Marks and Spencer stores across France have been forced to close down as deliveries have been halted due to border issues. Even the Eurostar has only recently been saved after struggling financially since the leave vote. The French youth, just like their British counterparts, are left deeply disappointed by the discontinuation of the Erasmus scheme.
“The 2000s showed us how connected young people on each side of the English Channel were, via music and the arts, from Harry Potter to British indie bands. My generation admired the UK,” says Isabel. But not even a magic spell could heal this rift. “The relationship has thawed due to Brexiteers – who are often boomers, not millennials or Gen Z – wanting to be proud and independent. It sucks and it’s really impacted my future.”
Will young people be permanently fooled by tabloids and unnecessary political tension? Enzo Robert, a 26-year-old originally from Paris, now working in London as a sound engineer, doesn’t believe so. “We’re so close in distance and we’ve always looked over to the UK with a wandering eye because you were a bit different.”
“Any Anglophone culture is still seen as ‘cool’ in France” says Lore Richard-Mouquin, a 25-year-old who works in a Parisian record shop. “Listening to music in English implies you’re worldly in France, which is why it’s popular amongst young people. I can’t see that dying out – despite attempts from French patriots at destroying that idea.”
While some remain positive, for many others, there is only ambivalence. In Lyon, a city filled with students, everything has changed, according to 22-year-old Alex Henri. “The way we now perceive the UK, politically and culturally, it seems a sad place. I think I’d rather move to another European city such as Berlin.”
When I question Clara Martin, a 16-year-old from Paris, on her knowledge of British artists, she’s bemused. “I have no idea who Arctic Monkeys are,” she explains. “I don’t really feel much of an affinity with British music of that genre or even British music in general. My friends and I listen to the likes of Blackpink and EXO. I think the rise of South Korean groups is what’s cool among my generation at the moment.”
As Lili Charbonne, Tomas’s 17-year-old younger sister, points out, French teenagers won’t be able to skip school to see up-and-coming British bands in the post-Brexit, post-pandemic era.
“There’s rules on their ability to tour freely, right?” she says, referring to the new regulations needed for British artists to travel and perform within the EU. “I only hear bad things about the UK. I don’t really have much interest in it. I’d rather listen to BTS than Babyshambles.”
In 2016, just after Britain voted to leave the EU, The Last Shadow Puppets covered the 60s French classic “Les Cactus”. It was meant as a sad homage to the joie de vivre of French life but the French lyrics of Jacques Dutronc’s song translate to, “In their hearts / there are cactus / in their wallets / there are cactus”. They accidentally described the UK’s new relationship with France: nonsensical, spiky and all about the money.
Millennials, at least, can be relied on to keep the flame alive. “In times of growing nationalism and disunion, it’s great that we can reflect and celebrate times of togetherness, shared values and cultural heritage,” says Isabel. “The UK might have closed the door on us French, but my own heart will never leave.”