Virginie and Ronnie’s apartment is perched at the top of a long and narrow spiral staircase. Located in a popular Paris neighbourhood near the Gare du Nord train station, it is mansard-roofed and tiny. A painting is soiled and the walls are mouldy. A visitor is struck by the three posters the tenants have pinned to the walls. Like a bowl of fresh air in this contained space, they depict the open space of Quebec. Written in French, a slogan in the centre of the posters reads: “Make your life in Quebec.” For the young French couple, it is their new mantra to escape the banality of their Parisian life.
Virginie is a 24-year-old business school graduate who could only find a job in Paris as a waitress. Ronnie has an undergraduate degree in English but dreams of becoming an illustrator. They want to abandon a country they think has no future. Or rather that has no future for them, professionally.
Next September, they will take off for Montreal, the economic capital of Quebec, to try their luck, as so many of their French compatriots did before them, in French-speaking America. Their ticket is one-way. They hope to resettle in the Canadian province of their dreams though neither has ever been to Quebec before.
Each year, 3000 to 4000 French decide to emigrate permanently to Quebec, according to the figures of the Quebec Immigration Ministry. Moreover, 7000 others arrive with temporary work visas and 5000 more as exchange students. But the dream of Quebec sometimes turns into a nightmare since hundreds of them come back to France every year.
Is it failing or succeeding?
There is a debate about the exact return rate. The Délégation du Québec en France, the institution in charge of recruiting and assisting French immigrants, says that 18-20% of the French will come back within five years. This figure is really underestimated, according to demographer Marc Termote.
“One French out of two who decides to emigrate to Quebec will return to France within eight years,” says the University of Montreal demography professor, who based his study on the 1996 and 2001 censuses. For Termote, the Délégation’s figure are low because of the method used to account for this phenomenon. Indeed, it is based on the change of address of the person’s health insurance card.
“Those who leave Quebec must give their card back in theory. However, rare are those who do it,” says Termote. “Even my son, who returned to Europe this year, forgot to do it.”
Virginie and Ronnie are aware of the debate. They both know there is a relatively high number of returns. But this does not seem to discourage them.
“When we leave, we will be finally free, finally well. In France, there is always someone to put sticks in your wheels. This depressing way of life, we just can’t take in any more,” sighs Virginie.
Montreal is the principal non-European destination of French expatriates. There are more than 40,000 French living in Montreal (of a total population of approximately 2 million inhabitants) who are registered at the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs’ Maison des Français à l’étranger. That is twice as many as in New York or Los Angeles, and nearly four times more than in Sydney, although these three cities also have a high concentration of French. And Montreal is the only one in which French is the city’s dominant language.
The percentage of French in Montreal has increased by 47% from 2000 to 2004, according to the Maison des Français à l’étranger’s figures. In comparison, the percentage of French in New York grew only 8% over the same four years.
Valerie Lion, a journalist with the French weekly magazine L’Express, reported on the affinity the French have for Quebec in her book Irréductibles Québécois. She explains the attraction this way: “A new generation of French emigrants is trying the adventure. It’s often personal; a love of Quebec or of a Quebecker, or quite simply this notion: Quebec offers a French-speaking space where all is still possible and where the immigrants are welcome. It brings also a puff of oxygen to citizens disappointed by the stagnation and failures of French society.”
Even the former French Prime Minister Alain Juppé chose Quebec to teach for a year in 2005 after he was convicted of corruption in a political funding scandal, though he too has returned to France.
Web refuge for the disillusioned
Why do so many French immigrants abandon Quebec after a couple of years? The Internet is full of reasons. Check out ImmigrerContact.com, a site which has more than 6000 active members, including many French people who did not find what they were seeking in their attempts to resettle in Quebec. Some are quite bitter. One rants about a woman-led society (“Féministan”) with defective infrastructure (“Kébekistan”). The Quebeckers are depicted as “intolerant racists,” speaking an out-of-date and incorrect language, basking in their ignorance, and suffering from an inferiority complex which pushes them to hate the “Maudits Français” (damned French).
Yann Takvorian is the founder and administrator of the site. He has been living in Quebec for 11 years and managing Immigrer-Contact.com for three. He is not surprised by its popularity: “Those who take part in the forum are disillusioned by Quebec or already on the return. They can really say what does not go well with Quebec whereas they are generally censored on the other sites. Immigrer-contact.com is the black sheep site which gives a right for people to express themselves.”
Francoise, about 50, is an active member of the site. In 2005, she moved with her husband to Quebec City.
“It was an old dream of ours to go to live in Quebec. I had been there a few times, but it was not enough to get a feeling of what we were going to live thereafter. We regarded Canada in a very romantic kind of way.”
The troubles started after their arrival in Quebec when Francoise started looking for work. Though she had been employed as a sales trainer and manager in France, she was only offered sales positions in Quebec.
“It is absolutely necessary to have experience in Quebec to hope to find an interesting job over there. You can’t imagine the number of qualified foreigners in Quebec who cannot find a job.”
And because employment is the “nerve of the war,” her husband and she chose to return after 15 months in Quebec to their native Aquitaine in France. “We had sold everything in France before leaving: the house, the car… and we repurchased all that in Quebec. On our return to France, we resold at a loss. We lost so much money.”
The Délégation du Québec en France comes in for much of the web criticism. In informing potential emigrants what to expect in a move from France to Quebec, they’re not fully candid, according to Takvorian.
“We really feel misled by the Delegation which gives out a sales leaflet full of false information,” he says. “It is a true swindle.”
For instance, he says that he was not made aware of the poor quality of the health system.
“The only similar point between France and Quebec is that there is a medical card. But in Quebec, you sometimes have to wait the whole day only to see a doctor. People are even waiting in hospital corridors to get care because there is not enough resources,” says Takvorian.
The educational system is also a point of contention. “The Délégation says it is the same between France and Quebec but I have never heard one French parent say the Quebec schools were good. Children are learning almost nothing and the teachers are making language mistakes,” he argues.
He’s also concerned about work opportunities for the immigrants. “The French do not manage to find in Quebec the same level of employment that they had in France.” Diplomas don’t seem to matter, he says, and people have to change fields to find work. To work as a doctor, an engineer, a dentist, an accountant or an architect, for instance, French applicants must pass examinations, takes classes or redo parts of their studies in a Quebec institution.
The Quebec Immigration Office responds that they are totally above board on what someone moving from France can expect in Quebec. During their information sessions, they purposely discuss how migration affects professionals, according to Eve Bettez, the person in charge of conducting the sessions. She notes that a form must be filled out by people whose professions are regulated in Quebec. ”
“They must sign it to attest that they know that there is indeed a professional board in Quebec for the type of employment they seek, she says, adding that the form has to be signed for the visa to be obtained.
For Bettez, the problem comes with the idealized expectations French immigrants have before they leave France. When one has a dream that is held dear, she suggests, “he hears what he wants to hear. It’s just human,” Bettez says. “Moreover, the Delegation meets only 25% of the French candidates for immigration.”
According to her figures, only 6% of the French immigrants in Quebec are unemployed. That is less than the Canadian national average of 8% and even less than the French average of 9%.
“We always hear more about those who complain than those for which everything is fine in Quebec. They speak louder,” ensures Bettez. Moreover, according to the Delegation’s data, employment is not one of the main reasons for the return. The desire to start a family in France remains the first rationale for going back, followed by the difficulty spouses have in adapting, and, eventually, the roughness of the winters.
It is for her family that Johanna decided to go back to France after living in Quebec for almost seven years.
“Being so far away from my family is really what I found the hardest in Quebec. It is also necessary to completely rebuild your life, your address book, find friends whom you can call at 2 o’clock in the morning,” says the 29-year-old toxicologist who returned to Paris last November. She quickly found a job in an environmental institute, but she is still looking for an apartment. Last year, she finished her PhD. dissertation left a Quebecker spouse and was thus at a turning point in her life.
“Before going back to France, I made a list of pros and cons. There were simply more elements in favour of returning to France,” she recounts. “But in spite of this decision, I know that I will always be divided between Quebec and France. I do not rule out going back to Quebec.”
Johanna sees her stay in Quebec as a youthful life experience abroad. Her return to France is not a failure, but a stage of her life. Many young French people also treat their move to Quebec as a sojourn, she thinks, not necessarily as a permanent life change. According to her, Quebec should not be alarmed by the phenomenon of French coming for a period and returning to France.
There’s no France in America
A culture shock almost always awaits the French who arrive in Quebec to live. The common language they share with the Quebeckers does not prepare them for it. Many expect to find “France in America” rather than “French-speaking America.” And not even the same French. The Quebeckers have an accent and a vocabulary rather different from their “cousins.” They have their own language office, the Office Québécois de la langue française (OLF), and decline to follow the dictates of the prestigious Académie française, the equivalent in France of the OLF.
Johanna acknowledges, a few months after her return to France, that she has adopted some expressions typically Quebecker. “I ‘sacre’ (swear in accordance with Catholic precepts) and I say ‘Bienvenue’ for saying ‘you are welcome.'”
To some, Quebeckers do not act French enough. “I am sorry to say, but I find that the Quebeckers are very…Anglo-Saxon,” Francoise laments. Though Quebeckers may be the most “European” of North-Americans, they are, above all, North-Americans. They have a right-wing vision of the economy despite having a protective social welfare system, she says, and a different culinary culture though inspired by their French origins.
Workplaces in Quebec are less hierarchical than in France. One addresses a boss with the familiar “tu” rather than the more formal “Vous” and one enters his boss’ office without an appointment. As in the United States, workers are generally promoted on merit rather than by seniority, she says. Though the employment rate is lower than in France, employment is more precarious.
Even relationships with friends have different cues. “Quebeckers are, in their social relations, less spontaneous than the French,” according to Johanna. They call you eight days in advance to you ask you if you are free to come supper… and ask you to be there by 5 p.m,”, that is to say, three or four hours earlier than when the French typically eat.
Yann Rocq, a young computer specialist who recently settled in Montreal, and author of the humorous blog mauditfrançais.com, thinks that not enough French who emigrate to Quebec really know the province. Before deciding to resettle permanently in Quebec, he had already spent more than a year in Montreal, as a foreign student.
“When I decided to immigrate, I was done with idealizing Quebec and I knew what to expect. I was realistic: I did not come to look for woodland caribou, ” Rocq says.
According to him, the French who are disappointed with their immigration in Quebec is initially those who had never stepped there before their arrival. “People do not inform themselves and trust blindly what the Delegation from Quebec tells them. When one decides to leave France, the stakes are high and the pressure enormous. It is really necessary to have spent time here before making such a decision.”
Rocq is the brother-in-law of Virginie and Ronnie, the young Paris couple who will leave for Montreal in September. Though he supports their decision to emigrate, he believes they are making the typical errors of those who arrive ill-prepared in Quebec. They have never been to Quebec and they are fleeing France because they hate it.
“We realize that we leave France without knowing what it will be like in Quebec,” admits Ronnie.
“We perhaps never went, but we prepare ourselves. We read books about Quebec and we visit every day Radio-Canada’s website. ”
Ronnie knows that he will experience cultural shock sooner or later with his new country but it does not frighten him. Quite the contrary: “I want cultural shocks. When they occur, it will be proof that I indeed left France. Finally.”