FRENCH IN­VA­SION TURNS CUL­TURE UP­SIDE DOWN

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - DEIRDRE MACKEN

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.

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