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Paris: The City Beckoning Brexit Bankers

Cracking culture, great grub, and cheaper houses await financiers relocating to the French capital. But can it replace London? Institutional Investor investigates.

  • Joe McGrath

Ella Fitzgerald famously sang that she loved Paris in the springtime, and it’s easy to see why.

The sidewalks buzz with chatter, the weather is warm, and the sweet scent of pastries fills the air. For the tourists whiling away the hours in the city’s cafés and bars, there are few better ways to forget about the stresses of work than chatting with friends in the Parisian sunshine. Yet amid the tourists, deals are being struck and meetings are taking place. For those relocating from London, the change in lifestyle is stark.

It would be easy to dwell on the corporate case for Paris. The district and national governments have worked hard to establish an attractive regulatory environment and favorable tax rates, and to embrace English law contracts. But these are unlikely to be the defining characteristics shaping the lives of the workers relocating from London.

In recent weeks the French capital has emerged as a likely economic winner from the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union. Thirty asset management groups have applied for new offices or repatriation from London since the June 2016 referendum vote, according to the French Financial Management Association (AFG).

Then there are the banks. HSBC Holdings already plans to move 1,000 jobs to Paris. Citigroup and Morgan Stanley have commissioned external consultants to weigh Paris’s benefits, according to a recruiter in the City, and JPMorgan Chase & Co. — which opened its first banking operation in Paris back in 1868 as Drexel Harjes — has yet to confirm its game plan. About 70,000 London finance jobs could be on the move thanks to Brexit, estimates TheCityUK, a trade group.

For executives of trading, fund management, and banking firms that spoke to Institutional Investor, Paris compels. Rather, Paris enchante.

Working in London’s financial hub is frantic. Everything seems to happen in excess. Londoners work hard, drink hard, commute hard, study hard, train hard, shop hard. Every action has a purpose, and every minute of every working day is in some way allocated.

When the City’s commuters pour out of London’s transportation hubs in rush hour, tourists know to move out of the way. Many disapproving out-of-towners loathe the purposeful gait of City slickers, labeled “the London walk.” But to locals it’s part of the City’s efficiency.

Paris is different. Take, for example, Gare du Nord, the main rail terminus for Charles de Gaulle Airport and the Eurostar train to London. It’s the King’s Cross or Grand Central Terminal of France. But although Gare du Nord has people in abundance, they lack the urgency of travelers in those other rail hubs.

Alasdair Haynes, chief executive officer of the pan-European Aquis Exchange, lived in Paris for four years before returning to London. He acknowledges the difference between cultures but says Paris is “a great place to live. Is it different? Yes, but wherever you go in Europe, each country has its culture, and the French, just like most other Europeans, are very proud of their culture. If you ask people which of the cities would they like to live in, I suspect Paris would come pretty near the top.”

The slower pace of Parisian life has its perks. Incoming Brits will find business meetings far more delicious than they ever were at the City’s mediocre eateries or in the artificial, glassy environs of Canary Wharf. France boasts the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world: According to the revered gastronomic guide, France had 600 in 2016, compared with 333 in Italy, 290 in Germany, 174 in Spain, and just 163 in the U.K. (Ireland, by the way, has ten.)

Amid plenty of choice, there are some must-eats for financial services folk in France.

Sormani, a French-Italian restaurant, is a favorite with buy-side bosses (including Jean-Louis Laurens, former head of Axa Investment Managers), famed for impeccable service and an extensive wine list. Those looking to rub shoulders with sell-siders should stop in at Taillevent, a traditional French restaurant with two Michelin stars that is a popular haunt for Parisian traders. Then there is Laurent, which offers seasonal menus and a garden terrace a stone’s throw from the Champs Élysées.

For Brits, of course, boozing is as important as schmoozing, and London’s after-work pub culture is a key part of corporate bonding. Step out around Liverpool Street, Bank, or Moorgate in the summer and you’ll see pubs surrounded by swarms of thirsty punters in suits. The good news for soon-to-be-expats is that Paris can more than match London for its watering holes. In fact, a postwork drink is as popular in Paris as it is in Blighty, according to those who work in France. And if Parisian café culture becomes too much, there’s even a “British boozer” for a taste of home: The Pop In pub features live indie acts covering classic rock and offering original compositions to sip your suds by.

Language is a hotly debated subject by lobbyists from all of the European cities.

Most Brits working in financial services have a broad education and a decent skill set, but the school systems in the U.K., public and private, have never prioritized European languages. A British Council poll conducted in 2014 found that 75 percent of Brits could not hold a basic conversation in a foreign language; only 15 percent of the population speaks French. This presents another challenge for those receiving, or seeking, a relocation notice.

Parisians have a reputation for stubbornness when it comes to speaking English. The stereotype is of a reluctance to learn and an aversion to exercising the skill, but lobbyists for the city are keen to stamp it out. Former Axa Investment Managers boss Laurens is now the French asset management ambassador, tasked with promoting the city to buy-siders in the U.K. He says doing business in English is as easy today as it would be in Dublin or Frankfurt, and notes recent efforts by the French government to make English compulsory in the education system. “We now have European classes from the age of 11, and the very young children take English classes,” Laurens says. “All graduates are fluent in English, and somebody who just speaks English can work perfectly here.”

Laurens’s comments are echoed by Arnaud de Bresson, managing director of Paris Europlace, a trade group that has been one of the key players lobbying London directors to reallocate jobs to Paris. “Yes, it has been said that English is not widely spoken in Paris, but that has very much changed,” he explains. “Many French workers are coming back from London and abroad, and I would say that as many people in Frankfurt or Luxembourg are now speaking English in Paris.”

It is true that many Parisians now have a grasp of English, but the language is by no means universally spoken. During a recent financial technology conference at the city’s old stock exchange, a group of fintech entrepreneurs gathered at a nearby café. Of these half dozen individuals — all recent graduates — only one said she felt she had a good enough grasp of English to use it in a business environment. Though anecdotal, this suggests that the linguistic picture may not be as clear as Parisian campaigners would have you believe.

Aside from language, there are, of course, cultural differences. While London pubs are the traditional hangout for workers after a busy day, corporate sports teams and activity committees within financial companies have gained social prominence over the past decade. In London companies commonly sponsor staff teams in soccer, rugby, running, hockey, and even table tennis. The trend has spawned the frequent sight of workers in corporate kit wandering around the City after-hours, as well as a side industry offering events, venues, and services for these sporty bonding activities. Five-a-side football centers, astro pitches, golf centers, and sports clubs are widespread in London, as are the running clubs that trot through the city’s parks and gardens. Paris offers fewer facilities in its central district, with the exception of basketball, for which there are ample concrete courts. For soccer addicts the city’s main five-a-side complex, Le Five, is out in the suburbs, in Porte de la Chapelle. A British expat community has established regular Friday night competitions, and postgame beers in the bar are encouraged.

In the polls conducted by the French delegations promoting Paris to London bosses, the city scored highest for culture. Aside from the obvious tourist haunts of the Louvre (think the Mona Lisa) and the Center Pompidou, there are plenty of smaller museums and galleries. But where to begin? Well, the city-run Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris hosts guest exhibitions and family-friendly seminars, as well as health and well-being workshops during the week. Yoga and Wu Tao dance workshops can be booked on their own or as part of a visit to one of the exhibitions. There are also parent-and-baby classes on offer. Alternatively, there are rotating exhibitions at the Musée Picasso, a gallery dedicated to the work of, you guessed it, Pablo Picasso.

Those looking for a smaller, more intimate setting should head to Place des Vosges, in the Marais district, home to the Modus and Royal Turenne galleries. Or venture out to the art district, in the north of the city, for artists selling paintings, crafts, and canvases — perfect souvenirs to bring back to your former British countrymen. If manuscripts are more your thing, the Paris Choral Society might be worth a look: The society holds regular rehearsals and performances of classical works, and international volunteers are encouraged to get involved.

Paris also scores highly for its work-life balance, with the financial center having a reputation for later starts and longer holidays. “I remember going to meet clients in France at 9:30, 10:00, and everyone is in a café nearby, having their morning coffee,” says Etienne de Merlis, chief investment officer at Signia Wealth, who has lived in both Paris and London. “That said, people stay much later in the evening, and working until 8:00, 9:00, or 10:00 is not unheard of.” De Merlis says it is possible in some finance jobs to secure much more annual leave than is typical elsewhere, thanks to tighter restrictions on weekly working hours. He explains that most organizations, instead of restricting working hours, allow staff to accumulate their overtime and take it in a block during the summer months. “When the working-­week restrictions were introduced in the early 2000s, people said they couldn’t just knock off five hours each week, so they continued working 40 hours a week and then accumulated five hours a week in holidays,” de Merlis says.

One big advantage of the French capital is its proximity to London. Face-to-face meetings likely will still be necessary once staff relocations are completed and Britain has exited the EU.

The quickest traveling time from Paris to London’s St. Pancras railway station is two hours and 16 minutes, according to Rail Europe — on par with a domestic trip from London to Manchester. Eurostar trains run 16 times a day between London and Paris, and with swift connecting infrastructure at either end, the French capital is exceptionally easy to get to. For those who prefer to fly, Charles de Gaulle Airport is half an hour from the city center, with a flight time to London’s Heathrow Airport of one hour and 15 minutes. Travelers may prefer to fly into London Southend, which has a flight time of just 45 minutes, with a 50-­minute train trip straight into London’s financial district.

Those who are well practiced at commuting to and from London will find trekking in from the outskirts of Paris a veritable sprint. “Your commute is going to be far shorter than for the average Londoner,” Signia’s de Merlis notes. “But on the other hand, there is the potential for it to be more disrupted by strikes and so on, especially after the French election, depending on who gets elected.”

On receipt of a relocation package, resettlers may want to take advantage of their company’s assistance in finding a new abode. If they are selling their home in London, they will soon discover that money goes a little further in the French capital, despite the recent depressing performance of sterling.

Paris is divided into 20 districts, or arrondissements. Districts 1 to 8 are the most central, and property there is priced accordingly. English-language property website Green-Acres.com shows it is possible to obtain a two-bedroom apartment in the 7th Arrondissement for about €500,000 ($543,000). Those with families, however, may prefer to commute in exchange for more space. The affluent area around the Bois de Boulogne park offers leafy surroundings to the west of the city. There it is possible to buy a reasonably sized, modern, two-bedroom property for about €900,000. This district is a short distance from the Eiffel Tower. By comparison, a two-­bedroom apartment in London’s Westminster, near Big Ben, will set you back about £1 million ($1.28 million). Alternatively, in the southwest of the city, the 15th Arrondissement is home to two of the city’s international schools and is an established family neighborhood. There you can pick up a family-sized two-bedroom townhouse for about €700,000.

For Britons who are bringing families to Paris, there are half a dozen private schools that teach in English. Tuition fees vary from €15,000 per year for kindergarten to €25,000 for the final senior years before the International Baccalaureate (IB) examination. Scholarships are available at most schools and will reduce the rate still further. There also are French schools, under contract from the French government, with an international curriculum taught in English, with the option of accompanying French instruction; the Ecole Active Bilingue is one such institution. They teach French and foreign students together for British or U.S. school certificates. Fees start at €9,250 for the primary school and rise to €13,700 for the IB diploma program.

Anyone in doubt about the size of the financial services community in Paris should spend a few minutes in the presence of Arnaud de Bresson, the aforementioned managing director of Paris Europlace. He explains that any British employees relocating to France will feel at home pretty quickly given the huge number of workers in the Parisian finance scene.

The total population of Paris and the surrounding metro area is some 10.5 million, according to United Nations figures; it is estimated that the financial industry in Paris employs close to 1 million people, Paris Europlace figures show. This means that one in ten people in the city work in finance of one form or another. Although it may not be obvious given the absence of skyscrapers à la Canary Wharf (and, increasingly, the City of London), France has the largest insurance market in Europe. Five of the largest banks in continental Europe have headquarters there: BNP Paribas, Crédit Agricole, Société Générale, Groupe BPCE, and Crédit Mutuel Group. In addition, France has the second-largest asset management market in Europe, after the U.K., with Paris alone boasting more than 600 asset management groups, according to Europlace.

Paris is a city at a greater cultural remove from London than, say, Frankfurt or Dublin. The Germans and the Irish share many traits of corporate and urban life with Londoners. But the cultural differences that Parisian life provides are also a big part of the city’s appeal. London workers offered the chance — or requirement — of relocation will find themselves in a city with major ambitions. In the past decade investment in making Paris more international (and internationally friendly) appears to have won over many of the city’s critics. The blossoming fintech scene testifies to the work that the government has done, both domestically and overseas, to stimulate new ideas in financial services and attract youthful talent.

The last piece of the puzzle will be how seamlessly firms can settle their teams and whether expats will choose to stay for the long term. Either way, Britain’s departure from the European Union is now under way, and there will be no turning back. As they say in Paris, “Les carottes sont cuites” — the carrots are cooked!