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Vive la différence-published in The Irish Times 13th Feb 2010

ALLIANCE FRANÇAISE: Thousands of Irish are in Paris today to support our rugby team as they prepare to do battle in Stade de France. But th traffic is two-way. We go there, they comje here – and some even stay for good. JONATHAN DEBURCA BUTLER asks French ex-pats about life in Ireland

THERE HAS BEEN quite a bit of toing and froing between Ireland and France over the years. Occasionally they would give us a bit of a half-hearted dig out with the British, and in return we sent thousands of our young men to fight under their colours on the battlefields of Europe.

They inspired us with ideas of liberté, égalité and fraternité and we inspired them with Beckett, Joyce and . . . Enya.

We sent them John Lynch, whose sons and grandsons established the famous vineyards of Lynch-Bages and years later sold their produce back to us.

We reciprocated, if we are to believe the ads, by giving them bucketloads of Kerrygold, which, when they visited us, they always seemed surprised to find in our houses. “You have zis in Ireland too?” asked those rugged French fishermen. And as the butter melted on our TV screens so did the women of Ireland.

But, as with all passionate relationships, there have been a few bumps along the way. De Gaulle, in an effort to keep the British out of what was then called the EEC, kept us out for years as well. There was the little Lisbon Treaty scare. And then, of course, relations went completely pear-shaped when Thierry Henry played basketball in the Irish penalty box last November and assured our exit from the soccer World Cup.

The French Embassy has 8,616 French people registered as living in Ireland, but it estimates the actual numbers are more in the region of 25,000 to 30,000. They will be among us today, in our houses and our pubs, as our Brian and his charges go to Stade de France seeking some kind of redress.

We spoke to six of them about life in Ireland, “Henrygate” and today’s match – a game in which you can use your hands.

Marie-Georges Bena (38), translator and interpreter 

“Well one thing I didn’t like about the whole Henry thing was coming back into Dublin airport and seeing that Paddy Power advertisement saying ‘Welcome to Ireland, unless your name is Thierry’,” says 38-year-old Parisian Marie-Georges Bena.

“I know it was meant as a joke but I didn’t really like it,” she says with a laugh. “I think it was pushing things a little far, making a bit of a national issue out of it. But it was fine.”

The freelance interpreter and translator came to Ireland in 1994, having done a Masters in Irish history. Growing up in Paris, she says that no one really knew much about Ireland. “The only thing we saw [on television] was about things in Northern Ireland, occasionally,” she says.

While studying English in the Catholic University in Paris she had to write a paper on a topic of history and, having seen a documentary on French TV about Northern Ireland, she decided to do it on “Propaganda and disinformation of the British government and army in Northern Ireland”.

It was a subject she says that really affected her. In her final year, Bena was still working on the paper when she was offered a teaching post as part of her course. She chose to come to Ireland and ended up in St Mary’s secondary school, Baldoyle.

She has been here ever since and has lived in “loads of different places around town”. Now, she lives in Stoneybatter with her nine-year-old daughter Lucie.

“When I got here it was just at the start of everything,” she says. “This whole Celtic Tiger thing. So I got to see the tail of what Dublin was like in the 1980s.”

She says that Dublin has been good to her and thinks that most of the changes have been positive although she thinks that the traditional Irish friendliness might just get tested.

“One big thing that I have noticed is the diversity of nationalities,” she says. “When I arrived here the French community was the biggest and it was literally a white country. Going back home, the first people you’d meet at the airport were black people or Arabs and now here it’s different, and it’s a good thing. There was a need to shake that Irish blood a little bit.”

She believes that it is an interesting time for Ireland and that some of the old clichés are being tested just like they have been in many other European countries.

When not at work or picking up Lucie from her Educate Together school in Glasnevin, Bena likes to spend her Wednesday evenings swing dancing.

“Yeah, every Wednesday at the Q Bar,” she says with a smile. “It’s growing but we definitely need a few more male dancers.”

Henri Hedou (55), potter and owner of Terrybaun Pottery 

Parisian potter Henri Hedou moved to Ireland 37 years ago. Hedou runs the successful Terrybaun Pottery, tucked away in a quiet corner of Mayo called Pontoon, with his Dubliner wife, Fiona.

“When we were first married, we lived in a bit of a cowshed,” he says in a remarkably strong French accent. “There was no running water and no electricity. We used to call around to people’s houses more, and stay up playing cards till three or four. No one had television back then really, but we kept ourselves entertained.”

Hedou believes there has been more change in the past five years than in the previous 25 and he is concerned about the social fabric of the countryside.

“I think maybe people lost the run of themselves,” he says. “I don’t blame the banks necessarily. It was people themselves, they lost the plot. So hopefully it’s going to come back down to a more down-to-earth level and way of life.

“People are going to have to give more time to each other because the past few years people have been racing and racing. Don’t get me wrong though, this is still a great place to live.”

Hedou thinks that the whole profile of the country has changed. By moving forward economically Ireland has lost a huge part of its own identity. And, naturally enough, it’s the west of the country that he is most concerned about, particularly the landscape.

“Building has been done with no sense of integration,” he says with a hint of anger in his voice. “And it’s so sad to see little towns completely destroyed, with huge housing estates that nobody is going to live in.”

Surprisingly, the recession and its inherent evils have not visited his own company, which is a testimony to the quality of this passionate Frenchman’s pottery skills.

“Things are going okay,” he says in an upbeat voice. “Surprisingly well, given the climate. I think that last year was my best financial year, in fact. The main thing for me is to keep a certain type of lifestyle.”

And although he will be shouting for France today – “in the pub of course” – he feels very much at home in Mayo.

“I’m totally absorbed here,” he says. “In the culture and the craic, the closeness of ties I have with people here. It’s really home. Sometimes when I go back to France I feel like I’ve been on Mars. I’m totally lost.”

Renaud Hutin (27), sales executive, National Concert Hall 

“I’ve always been a bit of a rugby fan,” says 27-year-old Renaud Hutin. “So the first time I heard about Ireland was through the Five Nations really. Later on, I read some Wilde and knew that he was Irish but I didn’t know so much about the place.”

That was until 2006 when, after seeing Ireland scrape past Italy in a Six Nations match in Croke Park, he met Caroline Enright from Cratloe, Co Clare. The two began to see each other, travelling to India together in 2007, and eventually Renaud took the plunge and moved here a year and a half ago. Henry’s infamous handball nearly ended it all, however.

“Caroline was out that night. And I got a text saying ‘don’t come home’,” he laughs. “I got quite a slagging.”

Hutin, who hails originally from Reims in the Champagne region, northeast of Paris, says that he doesn’t know a single French person here and happily admits that most of his friends are Irish.

“It is a cliché but it’s true, the Irish are very welcoming and I think they are very curious. The fact that you can go in a pub alone and end up talking to three or four different people about anything, that’s a great thing,” he says.

But one thing we do fall down on for Hutin is public transport. “Well, it’s only a comparison to what I know,” he says. “It’s a bit expensive and it’s not as good as France. If I compare Dublin to Paris, in Paris there is the diversity of buses, trams, the metro, the network is great and it’s very much affordable.”

When he’s not booking tickets for the patrons of the National Concert Hall, Hutin likes to chill out in the Iveagh Gardens or the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. He is a big fan of the pub scene here and, with his girlfriend being a Clarewoman, he regularly visits the west of the country. He finds Connemara “magical”.

Since arriving in Ireland Hutin has also fallen in love with a priest.

“I love Father Ted,” he says. “And I’ve introduced it to a few friends, and now a friend of mine has the ambition to introduce it in France with subtitles.”

And the match? “Because you guys are the champions, everyone will want to beat you,” he says. “Had it been the first game it would be have been more difficult, but with a bit of momentum, I think we’ll do it.”

Stéphane Claude (36), piano tuner 

Stéphane Claude, from Angers in northwest France, got into the piano-tuning trade through his old English teacher.

“Her husband was a piano tuner,” he says, from his home in the IFSC in Dublin. “And when I was about 16 we had to do this kind of work experience for a week or two. And I really liked it, so when I finished I decided to serve an apprenticeship.”

Claude spent three years in Le Mans, where he learned his trade, and another four years working in a shop in Cholet, a town of just over 50,000 people in western France. It wasn’t until he was 29 that he decided he wanted to see what another part of Europe had to offer. So when most people his age were thinking of settling down he decided to take off.

“I had been to Belgium and Germany,” he says. “But French people don’t travel as much as Irish people do – that’s something you do a lot.”

Claude arrived here seven years ago and he admits that some things were tough to get used to at the beginning.

“In the winter, the darkness really got to me,” he says. “You know, the whole five o’clock and it’s dark thing, that was tough, but now I’m used to it, so it’s not really a problem. And, I suppose, like most French people I missed the food. I still miss it a bit even though the choices have improved over the last few years.”

On the work front, things have gone well for him, so much so that two years ago he was able to go out on his own.

“In France I probably wouldn’t have been able to,” he explains. “But in Ireland there is a bit of a shortage of piano tuners so I decided to give it a try and work for myself.” He is optimistic about the future, and is even about to put down some roots in Ireland.

“I met Emma three years after coming here,” he says. “Just randomly, it wasn’t through friends or anything, we met in a nightclub. We’re getting married this year. Two parties. One in Ireland and one in France. It will be good.”

Julie Rossi (21), waitress and student 

“I came here for something a little different,” says 21-year-old Rossi, from Versailles, over a cup of coffee in Café en Seine on Dublin’s Dawson Street. “I needed to improve my English, but I had been to London before and I just thought that it might be more authentic here. You know we have this sort of Celtic image of Ireland; it’s all green and everything.”

Rossi, who has lived all over France due to her father’s military career, says she wasn’t under any illusions though. She didn’t expect to arrive into Dublin airport and get a horse and cart into town, but she hasn’t been disappointed.

“I love it here,” she says with an extremely impressive Irish lilt – her English is impeccable. “I like the way Irish people are so open because in France people are sometimes a little cranky. I’ve never really felt that comfortable in France, I don’t know, maybe it’s not my country.”

While she is studying for her degree in art history and classics, which her college in France lets her do long-distance, she works as a supervisor in Café Boulevard on Baggot Street. It’s not too far from her apartment, where she lives with her Irish fireman boyfriend, Stephen.

Amazingly, not even the weather fazes her. “I love the weather,” she says in that Gallic tone which suggests you should have known something all along. “And I lived in the Caribbean for three years, so I know all about that kind of weather and it’s not for me. Anyway, you know, in Paris it rains all the time.”

Rossi is happy here, although there are one or two notable differences that took a while to get used to, including the Irish relationship with alcohol.

“It’s sometimes a bit alarming,” she says. “You see a lot of women getting drunk. In France, you know, that would never really happen. But I think I’ve got used to it now. It’s in your culture.”

And what about Henrygate? “Well I didn’t get much feedback on it at all,” she says. “Maybe it’s because I am a girl or something and I’m not that into football. I heard about a bit of slagging but I think the French agreed that it was unfair.”

Max de Laloubie (35), restaurateur 

“When French people complain about the weather, I say ‘come on, you did not come to Ireland for the weather’,” says chirpy, blue-eyed Max de Laloubie, from sunny Montpellier in the south of France. “Irish people have the sun in here,” he says tapping at his chest.

De Laloubie came to Ireland in 2001 with the intention of staying for six months. Starting out as a kitchen porter in the old Baggot Inn, he worked his way up through the ranks in various different restaurants in Dublin until he had gained enough experience and know-how to go out on his own.

“When I was younger, about 12, I spent a few weeks in Cork and that was a good experience,” he says, sitting on a bar stool in the large smoking room of his recently-opened, second Chez Max restaurant, on Dublin’s Baggot Street. “I really came to improve my English but then things just kind of started to move a little. For most people, it’s the American dream; for me it was the Irish dream.”

He is in no doubt that he was lucky with his timing, but one glimpse of his rough hands tells you he is no slouch, and judging by the amount of late-lunch diners in his restaurant, he is doing something right.

“Chez Max opened four years ago with already recession prices,” he says. “But that was before the recession. Some restaurants – I won’t say any names – they cut their price now, but only now.”

His facial expression tells you that for him this was clearly illogical and he goes on to point out that although other places might be getting customers now, Chez Max has built up a loyal and regular customer base.

De Laloubie estimates that about a third of his customers are French, the rest are Irish. All his staff are French and that, he believes, gives his restaurants a sense of authenticity, something he sees as key. When he socialises, it is mainly with French people, a community he feels is still very strong in Dublin. “You may not see them as much as Italians because they are quieter than Italians,” he laughs. “But they are still here.”

For de Laloubie, Dublin is the perfect place to live. Being, as he says himself, “a country boy”, he feels he wouldn’t have been comfortable in a big city such as London or Paris. But there is one thing that he thinks we are missing: “The markets. You are beginning to get some but it’s not like France. Even in Paris there are lots of markets and it’s cool.”

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