More Parisians are moving to Quebec seeking lower rents, jobs, and an easy cultural fit. But as housing prices rise, so does resentment among the city’s locals.
When Cecile Lazartigues-Chartier first visited Montreal, Quebec, it was not love at first sight. She and her husband, expecting their first child, were keen to leave Paris for somewhere “a little quieter,” so they spent three dark, cold weeks in Montreal. “It was not beautiful and it just seemed so American to me,” she says. Still, she was drawn to the city’s cultural mix, to the people from all over the world. She and her husband decided that they would try it for a year.
Twenty years later, Lazartigues-Chartier is something of an ambassador to people in that same situation. She now leads community groups with the aim of helping new French immigrants integrate in Montreal—a deceptively difficult task. Over the past several years, there’s been a significant increase in the number of French immigrants arriving to take advantage of the similar language, cheaper cost of living, and job opportunities. But while connections between France and its former colony have long been touted as lofty and enduring (sometimes even more so than the connection between Quebec and English-speaking Canada), the presence of these new immigrants has ruffled some feathers.
Across the city, Montrealers now complain about both snobbery and rising prices, as ex-Parisians flood once-affordable neighborhoods like the fashionable Plateau—now often referred to as “New France.” While tensions have long simmered, they now sometimes boil over. A popular Facebook group for Montreal apartment listings recently banned posts regarding vacancies in the Plateau, citing unjustifiably high prices and Parisians who are “used to shitting in 3-foot bathrooms with tiles from the period between the first and second world wars.”
And it’s not just real estate. In the marquee restaurant in Montreal’s casino, the recent decision to hand the kitchen to Frenchman Joel Robuchon over a Quebec-based chef has been widely seen as a slap in the face to the local food movement, which has long fought against the assumption that it is simply an inferior provincial version of “real” French food.
In September, over coffee at the Cafe Olimpico in Montreal, one young chef spoke disdainfully about “the death of the Plateau.” Prices have been rising for years for both residential and commercial rents—a persistent source of grumbling for almost two decades, long before the recent wave of French immigration—but, for the chef, the culprit was clear. “All of these people, they come from Paris and they think it’s so cheap here and they’ll pay anything,” she says. She noted the French karaoke nights, French brunches, French cocktail nights—all signs, in her mind, that French immigrants were insulating themselves, rather than attempting to integrate. Instead of the kinship assumed to be natural, some French immigrants appear to be fashioning themselves after the more notorious European and North American expats in Asia or the Gulf region, who spend money freely and float above society, rather than ever really engaging with the local culture.
The resulting tensions point to a number of things, including an assertion of Quebecois identity as distinct not just within Canada but the francophone world. But more broadly, they point to the resentments that can bubble up in any city with perceived scarce resources and rising prices to challenge newer immigrants—even those that have long been considered part of an extended family. Despite the fact that Montreal is a relatively low-cost city for rent in the broader North American context, stagnant salaries and slow economic growth have still created an economic squeeze for many.
Part of the issue is volume. Over the last several years, there has been a steep increase in the number of French immigrants arriving to Montreal. According to one recent report, the number of French citizens in the city has doubled over the past decade. French students are also arriving in greater numbers, with an increase of 50 percent between 2003 and 2012. And while local tensions are apparent to many, a premium is placed on accepting French-speaking immigrants who might aid Quebec in its efforts at language preservation—a sensitive issue for a small province surrounded by Anglophones. Last October, Quebec’s immigration minister announced that the province hopes to accept 51,000 immigrants in 2017, with a specific emphasis on French workers.
For many of the French immigrants hoping to make a new life, unfulfilled expectations are rife. “It’s like the American dream, but in French,” says Mathieu Lalancette, a TV producer in Montreal, who recently made the documentary series “French PQ” to explore this new influx. “But it’s really different and much more difficult than they expect. No one is more different than the French from Quebec and the French from France—the lifestyle, the food, interpersonal relationships, culture, everything. It’s much harder to integrate here than to just stick with other French people.”
Lazartigues-Chartier says that French newcomers are completely disconnected from the Quebec-as-North America perspective. “They think it’s like Europe because we use the same words,” she says. These expectations are also reinforced by travel articles and marketing materials, which often overplay this connection with headlines proclaiming Montreal “Half Paris, Half Brooklyn” or one of the “5 Most European Cities Not in Europe.” But Montreal is deeply rooted in a North American context, from its beloved fast food hot dogs to Brutalist architecture. “Montreal is more North American than French because all the historical, cultural, economic and social references are American,” says Lazartigues-Chartier, noting that Quebecers are less dramatic, and society less hierarchical and more entrepreneurial.
Lazartigues-Chartier says that she sees some resistance among newer French arrivals to acquaint themselves with Quebec society. “It’s so French to think you’re the best, that you have the best restaurants, the best bread, the best wine, the best schools, the best fashion,” says Lazartigues-Chartier. “It’s something people don’t want to lose here. But, to me, it’s important to both be proud of your roots and to become a part of this place.” She encourages new French arrivals to take a volunteer position to get a better sense of the unique social cues, and also to make a concerted effort to identify with Quebec culture. “If you come here for three years and you never read a local newspaper or go see Quebec movies, you’ll never develop a connection,” she says.
French immigration to Montreal shows no signs of abating, so the two groups will have to learn to make nice. But Lalancette believes that relations have already turned a corner. Ten years ago, he notes, he occasionally heard French immigrants and students being told to “go back to where you came from.” But as France deals with an almost 10 percent unemployment rate (versus 6.6 percent in Quebec) and uncomfortable new questions about the future of its workforce, Lalancette suggests there has been a certain humbling regarding the virtues of North American society: “Now that things are better here than they are in France, they’ve had to drop the attitude.”