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Paris on the Saint-Laurent: The French invasion of Montreal

My new neighbour is one. So is the new personal trainer at my neighbourhood gym. My waiter at lunch the other day turned out to be one. Then again, these days it seems most of them are.

The French Invasion of Montreal is hardly news to anyone who has spent any time in the world's second-largest francophone metropolis in the past few years. But as someone who voluntarily exiled himself from Montreal for a few years, the influx of newcomers from la mère patrie was easily the most striking difference I noticed on my return in 2015. Les Maudits Français have taken over the place. Their pointy accent is now as common as joual in some neighbourhoods.

I say that approvingly, mostly. Francophone Quebeckers once rolled their eyes at the annual pilgrimage of French tourists to la belle province, on the hunt for "rustic" cousins for whom the horse-and-sleigh was still main means of transportation and Sunday brunch at the cabane à sucre a religious obligation. If it is any consolation to Andrew Potter, forced to resign last week as the director of McGill University's Institute for the Study of Canada after inappropriately opining on the state of anomie in the province, Quebeckers are way more touchy about what French observers say about them than about any presumed Quebec-bashing by their English-Canadian compatriots. Last fall, a writer for Elle France was skewered like a pig in a sugar shack for describing Quebec in a deluge of 18th-century clichés.

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Anyways, as Quebeckers say, the French Invasion really got rolling around 2009. The Great Recession prompted thousands of young professionals to leave France, where it had become nearly impossible to secure a full-time gig. Montreal was naturally a favoured destination, especially among those with little inclination to work in English. Whereas Quebec accepted fewer than 2,000 French immigrants every year a decade or so ago, more than twice that number have been landing annually in the province in recent years. France was the top source of newcomers to Quebec in 2015. Although Syria was in the top spot last year, about 5,000 French citizens still took up permanent residency in the province in 2016, accounting for one out of 10 new immigrants.

Add in the estimated 10,000 French students enrolled in Quebec universities, who pay out-of-province rather than much higher foreign-student tuition fees, and the thousands of young people who arrive each year under Ottawa's International Experience Canada program (commonly referred to as PVTistes, for permis vacances-travail) and you end up with a critical mass of more than 100,000 recent French newcomers who have turned the hip Plateau Mont-Royal borough into la Petite France, replacing the hot dog joints with chic cafés, bakeries and clothing shops.

Because as much as these French arrivals come seeking New World experiences, they are not about to give up the comforts of home. Finding what they consider an authentic French baguette can still be a challenge. And don't get them started on the taste of Canadian cigarettes or the price of a bottle of wine at a Société des alcools du Québec outlet. C'est dégueulasse.

The influx of these young Frenchies has made Montreal fertile ground for the presidential campaign of Emmanuel Macron. The local chapter of the superstar centrist candidate's En Marche movement counts about 200 volunteers. Montreal En Marche member Christopher Weissberg is typical of the new wave of French immigrants. The 31-year-old public-relations professional/restaurateur came in 2009 to do an undergraduate degree at the University of Montreal, and obtained his permanent residency status last year. Like many French expats, he describes Montreal as "the best of both worlds – the best of America, the best of Europe." And even he cannot get over the omnipresence of the French accents in some parts of Montreal. "I am blown away by the impression that French people are everywhere."

Bienvenue dans le club. On a trip to Paris last fall, a twentysomething hipster asked me directions to the Rambuteau Métro station. As I pointed the way, he perked up on hearing my Québécois accent. It turned out he lived in Montreal's Mile End and was just visiting family in France.

How many of these French invaders will still be in Montreal a decade from now? Will they weary of the long winters and crappy cigarettes? Who knows? For now, they have added a new dimension of je-ne-sais-quoi to a city that already boasted plenty. C'est complètement dingue.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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