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Drawn by a cultural and economic openness they can’t find at home, many young French people have fallen in love with Quebec

Laurier Avenue, a commercial and residential area known for a large population of French ex-pats, in Montreal.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

In 2009, when the Parisian financier Roland Lescure was preparing to move to Quebec – as tens of thousands of his compatriots have done in the past 20 years – he received a prescient piece of advice.

Be careful, Roland, a friend in Toronto said: They’re not French people who live in America. They’re Americans who speak in French.

It’s a slogan that could hang in the arrivals hall at Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, for the exodus of French expats venturing boldly, and sometimes blindly, into the New World.

The mother country has sent so many of her sons and daughters to its former colony lately that the Montreal area has become home to the the largest community of French expatriates outside of Europe. One neighbourhood, where the sound of French accents and the smell of French bread waft through streets formerly associated with Québécois joual and baked beans, is now nicknamed La Nouvelle-France.

Drawn by a cultural and economic openness they can’t find at home, many young French people have fallen in love with Quebec. While Canadians in the rest of the country tend to see the province as relatively European – with its bike lanes, walk-up apartments and large state – the French see it as almost Californian, a land of swimming pools, friendliness and jobs.

But while American-style living is part of the draw, it can also be a culture shock, at least to those less well informed than Mr. Lescure (who is now a deputy in the French National Assembly representing expats in Canada and the United States). Despite the common language and their best intentions, some members of the diaspora are still having a harder time integrating than they expected. It turns out Quebeckers eat like Americans, drive like Americans and socialize like Americans, too.

If the French have rediscovered Quebec, more than 250 years after the British conquest, it’s a little different than they remembered.

The size of the Gallic migration to Quebec has been gathering momentum for years, like a well-launched boule on one of the province’s many pétanque courts. The number of French citizens registered with the country’s consulates in Montreal and Quebec City has nearly doubled since 2005, to more than 75,000. But registration is voluntary, and the true size of the French presence is likely more than double that again, said Sophie Lagoutte, the French consul-general to Montreal.

In an attempt to answer the question that many Montrealers have been asking in recent years – namely, who are all these French people? – University of Sherbrooke researcher David Pavot, a native of Nice, co-wrote a study for the website The Conversation about the demographic makeup of his immigrant community. The upshot is that they are, on average, young urban professionals: aged 44, employed, with left-of-centre politics, mostly living in Montreal. These are not your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. Many French immigrants – and the so-called PVTistes, named after a popular working holiday visa – are seeking a lifestyle upgrade, not a flight from hardship.

That dynamic can reveal some surprising aspects of life in Quebec. For one, how rich it seems. To many young French people, Montreal seems like “an El Dorado,” Prof. Pavot said. The sheer abundance of life in Quebec can look shocking from across the Atlantic. The unemployment rate is consistently a couple of points lower here, and money stretches further compared with impossibly expensive Paris. The province is full of space and domestic water use is cheap, so everyone really does seem to have a swimming pool. The first thing many French arrivals notice as their flights circle the Montreal suburbs are endless dots of chlorinated blue, according to the sisters Irène and Marielle Lumineau, authors of Icitte, a popular guidebook for the French in Quebec.

The number of French citizens registered with the country’s consulates in Montreal and Quebec City has nearly doubled since 2005, to more than 75,000.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Of course, the winters can be a blast of icy disillusionment, but the first word many French immigrants use to describe Quebec is not “cold” but “open.” They mean it in every sense: culturally, economically, temperamentally, geographically. Natives of France are even surprised by the lack of shutters on Montrealers’ windows, the Lumineau sisters write.

People are friendlier and more casual, in contrast to the stereotypical French froideur – less likely to use the formal pronoun “vous” to address strangers and more likely to greet them with genuine warmth, said Élisabeth Robinot, a French-born professor of marketing at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and co-author of the immigrant study. “When you go into a shop,” she marvelled, “people say, ‘How are you?’ ”

Most importantly, the Quebec economy feels more open, with fewer restrictions on hiring, firing and starting businesses. The French labour market is famously rigid, whereas in Montreal, a philosophy grad can make a living writing video game scripts or baking bread. That can leave French immigrants raving about their new home, like starry-eyed refugees disembarking at Ellis Island. In Quebec, Prof. Robinot said, “everything is possible.”

New France didn’t always seem so enticing to residents of the old country. The trickle of settlers arriving on the shores of the St. Lawrence to trade furs and till the soil slowed to a drip after the British victory on the Plains of Abraham in 1759. In the following century, an average of just 15 French migrants came to Quebec every year, said Paul-André Linteau, a professor emeritus of history at UQAM, as the fates of the two societies sharply diverged through revolution on the one hand and conquest on the other.

The current wave of migration began to take shape in the years after the Quiet Revolution, when Quebec became a more self-confident, secular society, and devolved federal powers gave it more control over immigration and more independent diplomatic relationships, particularly with Paris. The result, Prof. Linteau said, was that more French people than ever started coming to Quebec, even as European immigration to the rest of Canada dried up.

Quebec has welcomed more French immigrants in the past 20 years – almost 38,000, third most of any country in that span – than it is believed to have done during the entire colonial period. According to numbers from Quebec’s Immigration Ministry, a steady stream of thousands a year in the early 2000s spiked to new heights after the Great Recession, when the province’s economy bounced back faster than France’s.

Quebec has welcomed more French immigrants in the past 20 years – almost 38,000, third most of any country in that span – than it is believed to have done during the entire colonial period.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

The French may be newly open to Quebec, but that does not mean they necessarily know anything about it. Québécois stars have broken through in the metropole over the years – Félix Leclerc, Celine Dion – but even that success is sometimes tempered by misunderstanding. Montreal filmmaker Xavier Dolan has been a favourite at Cannes, but his films, studded with Quebec slang, often screen there with subtitles. A few years ago, a Leger poll found that when the French were asked what they like about Quebec artists, 56 per cent said “their accents.”

That means touching down in the Plateau can be a disorienting experience for a new PVTiste. Many of the surprises revolve around how “American” Quebeckers are. They drink more beer than wine, smoke more weed and fewer cigarettes. “The day starts much earlier and ends much earlier,” Ms. Lagoutte said. “When someone invites me for dinner at 6, I don’t eat lunch. ... I couldn’t possibly be hungry at 6.”

In the Plateau, baguettes taste Parisian, but elsewhere in the city, Ms. Robinot said, “You don’t find lardons everywhere.” Even Quebec’s car culture and approach to public safety – measures by which the province can seem relatively European to its continental neighbours – strike some French immigrants as borderline Texan. Léo Trespeuch, Ms. Robinot’s husband and a professor of management at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, remembers how taken aback he was at seeing cops speeding after a car and pulling their sidearms on a suspect. “That cowboy side was new to us,” he said.

The most “North American” thing about Quebeckers is also the most difficult for French expats: their relationship to friends and family. The Lumineau sisters observe in their guidebook that Quebeckers are like avocados, soft and welcoming on the outside, but with a hard inner core. New French arrivals often find it’s hard to make friends, because Quebec social life seems to take place within tight circles of intimates, around family barbecues or by the side of those swimming pools, not over spontaneous after-work cocktails as in Paris or Marseille.

By and large, Quebeckers are not hostile to the French. The days of Montrealers muttering about the maudits français with their haughty manners are mostly gone, because so, mostly, are the haughty manners. Patrice Hudon – who runs the website Traduction du français au français, about the differences between Quebec French and French French – has seen a dramatic change in the way metropolitan newcomers relate to their surroundings. “There’s an interest, a curiosity,” he said. “Now it’s rare you’ll see snobbishness.”

Still, many French immigrants continue to feel out of place in their new home. The first five years are especially hard, Prof. Pavot found in his study. In that window, expats have a rate of return seven times higher than those who make it beyond the threshold. Is that different from people from other places? “One thing that was surprising was learning how our compatriots have fairly serious problems integrating properly,” he said.

Alan Nowak throws a boule during a game among a group of French ex-pats, in La Fontaine Park, in Montreal.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Francois Crespeaux, refills baked goods at O Petit Paris, a bakery that caters to a large majority of French ex-pats, in Montreal. Crespeaux, says 'our flour comes from France to give customers the flavour of France.'Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

The pandemic, with its border closings and grounded flights, has only sharpened those feelings of alienation. “It made them realize how far away they were,” Ms. Lagoutte said.

Even the charm of the squirrels wears off eventually. For Old World sophisticates raised on urban wildlife consisting of little more than pigeons, squirrels incarnate the wildness and freedom of the New World. French newcomers can often be seen gawking at them in Montreal parks as if they’ve just seen a zebra on safari. Ms. Lagoutte herself couldn’t resist posting a video to Twitter at the beginning of her mandate showing a couple of frisky écureuils chasing each other around a tree trunk in front of her official residence. This year, however, the diplomat had an infestation in her attic. She now realizes they’re “rats,” more or less, who “don’t love us” after all.

New fortune-seekers continue arriving in the francophone El Dorado, but others are returning to the duties and comforts of home. The phenomenon is hard to quantify, but most members of the diaspora have noticed it. A recent article on the French departures in the Montreal daily La Presse was headlined Adieu, le Québec!

Anthony Ouzeau is among those saying au revoir. He has been in Quebec for six years, but the pandemic killed his business selling fresh food in vending machines, and his family back in France is getting older. As he played pétanque in Montreal’s Parc La Fontaine on a crisp fall day, he reflected on the advice he had recently given a new French arrival about life in Quebec, both encouraging and cautionary.

“I told him, ‘Here, people will give you a chance, you just have to ask,’ ” Mr. Ouzeau said. “The second thing I told him is, ‘You can’t think because they speak the same language it’s the same culture. It’s different. Very, very different. Not even close.’ ”

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