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A 2005 TNS Sofres poll shows that about half of those departing are under the age of 35, and that one of the main reasons they give for moving is the desire to leave France. What's more, they show little inclination to return. A whopping 93% say they are pleased with their new life, while 45% only intend to return to France when they retire or never. What's going on?
Look back in anger
France has always had its explorers and travelers, but unlike Portugal, Italy or Ireland it doesn't have a tradition of mass migration because it has been such a rich country for so long. What's striking about the new French exodus (and is causing a sometimes-agonized debate back home) is the description these new émigrés give of the France they are leaving behind: a country where it's difficult and sometimes miserable to be ambitious, where landing a stimulating job often depends on connections rather than talent, where bureaucracy is daunting and discrimination sometimes overt a France, in other words, that is set in its ways and frustratingly unresponsive to the hopes, plans and dreams of its young.
I'm not one of those people who spit in the soup. I would like to go back if the opportunity arises," says Florence Cellot, 32, a marketing specialist who has just moved to London after five years in Tokyo. But, she says, "France is like an old lady. It is paralyzed by the fear of what it could lose." Jacques Deguest puts it even more bluntly. He's a friend of Cellot's who moved to Tokyo in 2001 after a web-hosting company he started in France collapsed in the dotcom crash. It was a bitter experience, and he says he has no intention of ever returning. "France is like a restaurant where the food is fantastic, the best of everything, but the comfort and the service are zero, zero, zero and the bill is exorbitant," says Deguest, 37. "I love France, but in small doses."
The French themselves are not quite sure what to make of this exodus. To an extent, what's happening in France is also being seen elsewhere. Many Europeans are now discovering the joys of a newfound mobility and not just the brainy scientists who have long deserted their home labs for the U.S. As borders have fallen, more people than ever are packing up and leaving: thousands of Britons are trying their luck in France and Spain, even as Poles and other East Europeans flock to London to take often menial jobs.
Some French commentators, including the best-selling author Nicolas Baverez, view the outflow of talent as the latest manifestation of French decline. Others are more upbeat the french conquest of the world blazed the headline of one article on the issue in the right-wing daily Le Figaro and the official government line is that this exodus is a welcome sign that young French people are keen to broaden their horizons. At the same time, the government has been putting in place several programs designed to encourage émigrés to return, including offering cash incentives to talented scientists.
What's evident is that the exiles are holding up a mirror to French society itself. Their description of a dysfunctional France has become a central theme in the election campaigns of all three key candidates for the French presidency. Nicolas Sarkozy on the right, centrist François Bayrou and Ségolène Royal, the Socialist Party's candidate, are all taking aim at a France they describe as "blocked" and "immobile." And they are making promises galore to resolve many of the issues that have sent these young French abroad in the first place. Royal wants to hand out $13,000 interest-free loans to aspiring entrepreneurs, and says she will create 500,000 state-funded jobs to get young people into the workforce. Sarkozy pledges to introduce a new work ethic to France, and better reward those who work more than 35 hours per week. Bayrou promises to end the politics-as-usual domination of the two main parties on left and right that he says is the cause of France's decline over the past quarter-century. France, he told supporters at a Paris rally in March, "is a country in pain and anesthetized that needs to get back into shape so that it can stand upright again."