FRENCH INVASION TURNS CULTURE UPSIDE DOWN
AN alternative history of Australia would have the French captain Jean-Francois de Galaup La Perouse turning his ships into Botany Bay on January 24, 1788, instead of waving at Captain Phillip as the First Fleet took off for Port Jackson. Imagine the flaky croissants, sexy movies and train strikes we might have inherited from French colonisation. It’s a little late but there is a French invasion happening, although it’s so orderly you may not have noticed it’s getting easier to practise your French in downtown Australia.
We noticed it at our local cafe, which is a training ground for French arrivals. Others have noticed it in bars, IT outfits, tourist resorts, hairdressing salons and nanny playgroups, where tracksuits are now only for bebe. But it’s most noticeable in the statistics for short-term arrivals. The French apparently have abandoned the idea that they live in the best country in the world, because in the first three months of this year, 26,000 of them arrived in Australia for a short stay — that’s more than twice the number 10 years ago and one-third higher than five years ago.
Short-term arrival figures are a rough guide but across time they give you an impression of who’s coming, who’s going and what sort of flavour the Australian melting pot is developing. And it shouldn’t surprise that the youth unemployment crisis in Europe is sending a new wave of economic migrants.
The European invasion, of course, includes the Irish — their numbers are up from 12,000 to 16,000 a quarter — but also the Italians, up from 11,000 to 17,000, and even the Germans, whose short-term stays are up from 33,000 to 40,000 a quarter. But it’s the French arrivals who pique most interest, if only because they have long protested that they are reluctant emigres. They are, after all, a cultural superpower, purveyors of the good life, defenders of the French language from English incursions and largely uninterested in foreign soil, except as colonies. And they were even choosy as colonialists. We should remember that even though La Perouse was sitting off Botany Bay in the days before Phillip and his rabble stumbled ashore, the Frenchman had no desire to hoist a flag. He was busy writing his journal.
There have been signs the French are rethinking their Australian connection, not least the fact that Bill Bryson’s book Down Under sells well across France, and Australian tourists in France are grilled endlessly about life in a country that has prix fixe menus, jobs and, OK, crocodiles too.
Australia isn’t the only port of call for the French. They are making tracks into Britain, Germany and the US, and the odd actor has even found his way into Russia. But while the elite of France is fleeing high taxes, the youth are escaping unemployment — and they have clearly discovered they have to go to the ends of the earth to do so.
A few weeks ago Angela Merkel told Europe’s unemployed youth — 5.5 million and rising — they should migrate to where the jobs are (she was thinking of Germany, but we know otherwise). And the French President took to youth radio to bolster spirits. Evidently he didn’t impress listeners when he responded to a graduate’s decision to move to Australia by saying, ‘‘ But this country loves you.’’
Love, however, won’t feed the French (that’s as effective as telling starving peasants to eat cake). But Australia can feed the starving students of Paris. We will give them jobs, teach them the till at the local cafe, show them how to bodysurf and provide them with joie de vivre while their country is mired in malaise. As a cultural coup, the arrival of Europe’s youth is worth crowing about. We are getting Europe’s future, if only for the short term. We are showcasing a life down under to Europe’s educated elites — a life that could prove more permanent with a job, marriage or a bit of visa shuffling. The bottom-line benefits to us are obvious but the psycho-social boost is fantastic for a country known for its cultural cringe. Who would have thought we would become a destination for refugees from the First World? The world has turned upside down and down under is on top. The next generation of Europe is pouring out of the Customs hall, just across the bay from where that French captain sat idly by while the convict ships dropped anchor.