One cultural community in Montreal is so obvious that it’s hard to make out - migrants from France. No, this isn’t another hackneyed article about the “Paris of North America” (pass me a bucket) or an overwrought guide for les fraîchement débarqués. We’re definitely not going to get into the interminable, repetitive and boring discussion about language differences. Many commentators will talk about the “French influence” in Quebec, but they’re carrying on about ancient history. Honestly, Old Montreal is lovely, but it doesn’t make us European.
It’s easy to enjoy a taste (figuratively and literally) of modern life in l’Hexagone as the past ten years in particular have been extremely strong in terms of arrivals from that country, with the French consulate reporting an increase of the registered number of its citizens - to the order of 75% in Montreal and 92% in Quebec City - during that period. Indeed, while the French obviously do settle across North America, Canada is blessed with 150,000 of them, and an overwhelming two-thirds of these néo-canadiens choose the City of Montreal. You can say what you like about the French, but you can’t say they have bad taste!
Students and younger people (often on a Working Holiday Visa) tend to settle in the Quartier-Latin, the vibrant and energetic yet faded and gritty area around Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), or if they’re looking for la totale expérience nord-américaine, they’ll go for the West End of Downtown Montreal (anything from a 70s cinderblock tower on Fort Street to a genteel home in NDG à la Auberge espagnole.) The leafy borough of Outremont, longtime epicentre of the French-Canadian elite, is recognized as a favoured destination for executives expatriated from Paris or La Défense.
France offers its workers an advanced economy with developed high-tech industries and a strong tertiary sector. So what is the attraction of Quebec? “Without being perceived as El Dorado, Montreal is seen as a city where obtaining a valuable professional challenge is still possible and as a decent choice for candidates disillusioned with the European employment market,” reckons Eric Sicotte, who has deftly specialized his recruitment agency towards French-speaking migrants. “Montreal seems to offer working environments that are less hierarchical, thus offering more possibilities of advancements for young professionals hoping to fast-track their career in more valuable roles.” Canadian businesses seem quick to snap them up too: Sicotte says that similarities in the quality of education and the existence of bilateral labour mobility agreements means the French have a particular advantage in the job market. Demand is so strong that Sicotte Recrutement will soon be relaunching its website with portals specifically for France and for Belgium.
French professionals definitely come across as bursting with energy, if the networking events organized by the Jeunes de la Chambre de commerce française au Canada (Young Entrepreneurs of the French Chamber of Commece in Canada) are any indication. Anthony Arquin, President of the youth section, believes that the province’s pivotal position position between Europe and English-speaking North America is the major factor that drives them here. ”Quebec is perceived by many people as an open gateway to the rest of Canada and North America, a stepping stone towards many professional and personal opportunities,” he said in French. In the best of French tradition, the soirées happen at the most elegant of Montreal addresses, but thanks to the energy of the participants, they’re free from any European stuffiness. Aside from enrolling in a class at any one of Montreal’s universities, they’re definitely the easiest way to go about meeting les Français au Canada.
The French evaluate Quebec within an international perspective, rather than with a colonial mentality, according to Arquin. “Other factors also place a primordial role: Montreal’s bilingualism, as many French people are aware of the importance of speaking English as the economy globalizes, the recognition of many French diplomas and qualifications thanks to bilateral France-Quebec agreements, the relative ease of obtaining work visas for young French people compared to other sought-after destinations such as the United States, and the prestige of a large number of local universities and educational institutions, such as Université de Montréal and HEC Montréal,” he noted, also acknowledging that fact that the large existing community was in itself an attraction. You can find his original statement in French here.
Now that we’ve covered savoir-faire, let’s talk about savoir-vivre. After work, while there are a few “France” themed bars around Montreal, they appear to have all the charm of an Aussie bar in London. Whether you call it a “Cinq à sept" or an "apéro" then, early evening drinks are celebrated à la québécoise. Dinner, however, is a different matter. There are many restaurants that service in the grande tradition française, but by far the best value is the late, late menu offered at Leméac in Outremont - $25 for two courses after 10 pm. If you can’t wait that late, don’t! Finally, if you’re lucky enough to be out and about on the Sunday preceding a public holiday, you can go to “C’est Extra" at La Tulipe - it’s French music night cabaret style, and it’s wonderful. Don’t miss the Gigi l’amoroso mime at midnight.
Food is undeniably an area where the French influence is both great and good. In addition to the garbage that you find anywhere in North America, supermarkets in Montreal stock an affordable and wide range from healthy, basic items through to the sophisticated treats you would expect to find in the Rhone Valley. The Government of Quebec’s prohibition era liquor monopoly (SAQ) is also making attempts to satisfy the demand for the vast and inexpensive range of wine that France offers.
Indeed, it seems the only aspect of culture that the French struggle to influence in Canada is fashion. While it’s true that Quebecers favour tidier, more shapely cuts than those found elsewhere on the continent (retailer Simon’s amusingly had to adapt its range to enable expansion into Alberta, if you’ll excuse the pun), rue Sainte-Catherine is definitively not rue Saint-Honoré.
In addition to the full range of fashion mags for ladies, the Une parisienne à Montréal blog offers a few tips when it comes to French couture for femmes. For Monsieur however, there doesn’t seem to be anything. Ironic, because although France’s leading men’s fashion magazine Sport et Style loves Quebec (published by the stoic and ultra manly L’Équipe - this is no translation of GQ), you can currently only get it par avion, sur abonnement. You might find some of les musts they showcase in Montreal, but otherwise, there’s always New York (6 hour drive) or Paris: 7 hours of club class on Air Transat will set you back about $1200, taxes included.
Do you have any recommendations regarding French culture in Quebec?
Images, from top to bottom: Griffintown by Mary Soderstrom, Outremont Park by Pierre Chatelois, Victoria Square - the heart of Montreal’s Quartier International business district - by “martigae”, La Tulipe by Cru Studio, and finally, some typical Montreal hipsters by Katzecat. Please help that man!