More like “London, France’s 68th biggest city”

A piece about the French expat community in London, titled “London, France’s sixth biggest city”, is the most shared article on the BBC News website as I begin to write this post.

That such an article would be popular among BBC News readers is not surprising: the idea of French people crossing the Channel en masse to find a more vibrant, fluid and color-blind society, and staying there despite the mediocre weather and exorbitant rents, is appealing to both London fans and French bashers alike. (The view that French people move to London because it’s the closest large English-speaking city is not mentioned)

What’s more baffling is why the BBC News Magazine editors, who had recently shown a laudable willingness to take oft-repeated but bogus factoids to task, would decide to publish a piece based on such a worthless piece of statistics.

For the idea that “between 300,000 and 400,000 French citizens live in the British capital” is just plain laughable.

Where does this figure come from? Like in previous articles on the same subject, from just one source: the French Embassy in London. Reading the article, you could be forgiven to think that the number is an official estimate from Insee, the French statistical agency. In fact, the BBC is being (unintentionally?) imprecise here: what really comes from Insee are the official population figures of French cities (used to determine that London would be the 6th French city) and not the French population in London.

So what does the French Embassy say?

More or less 120,000 French are registered at the general consulates in London and Edinburgh, but we assess the real number of French living in the UK as being between 300,000 and 400,000, a huge majority of them living in London.

Let’s note en passant that the “between 300,000 and 400,000” figure applies to the number of French people living in the UK, not London proper, and that a “huge majority” doesn’t mean “all of them”.

But that is a trifling matter compared to the unforgivable sin of the article: taking the words of French diplomats at face value.

Because, on its face, the figure really sounds dubious. Quick tip for journos: while not a foolproof method, checking Wikipedia is usually a good way to assess if there’s something really wrong with your data. The Wikipedia article on London cites the 2001 UK census, which estimated that the largest foreign community (measured by country of birth) in London was the Indian community. Total population: 172,162. At the time, the number of people born in France and living in London was 38,130. So did the French population in London really grow ten-fold in 10 years?

In a word: no. In two words: hell, no.

Firstly, it is well-known that the French consulate figures are inflated. In a 2007 article, an observer noted that (pdf):

In the U.K., [the] consulates estimate the French population at 300,000, whereas our study puts it at 130,000 (±15,000).

Who was that? Well, none other than a senior statistician working for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time, being interviewed in an Insee journal.

Secondly, and crucially, official estimates on the number of French people living in London do exist. One is done by the British Office for National Statistics based on data from its Labour Force Survey. The latest figure (XLS file, sheet 2.4), for the year 2010-2011, puts the number of French nationals living in London at around 70,000 (+/- 14,000).

Make no mistake: this is a large number. And French people make up the fourth largest foreign community (at least by country of nationality) in London, after Indians, Poles and Irish. But the official figure is still 5 times less than the one bandied about by the BBC.

Somehow, “London, 68th French city” doesn’t have quite that same je ne sais quoi to it.

7 thoughts on “More like “London, France’s 68th biggest city”

  1. Pingback: FT Alphaville » Further reading

  2. Are managers in the benighted English outposts of EdF going to be paid multiples of what their bosses get in the City of Light?

  3. Great post because you were able to give details and relevant information regarding to you topic and honestly I enjoyed reading it. I love French people and I respect them!

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  4. Using Wikipedia to obtain reliable data is just plain silly. Ask ANY university in the UK if they will allow their students to cite Wikipedia!

  5. “The table shows the top 21 countries of birth of London residents in 2001, the date of the last UK Census.[23] These figures do not give a fair indication of the current total population of the specific ethnic groups associated with each country. […] The same can be said for Italian and French Londoners whose communities have been here for centuries (the French Embassy estimates there are between 300,000 and 400,000 French citizens living in the UK, with “a huge majority of them living in London”).[24]

    Citation 24 leads you back to the BBC article you are complaining about. Thus you selectively choose the list that the author at Wiki says “do not give a fair indication” but refute the other citation – the BBC article!

  6. Thanks for you article, As a French guy living in London for a while, I was always very surprised by the French embassy statistics which seemed to me unrealistic.
    if it easy to meet Pols or Indians at work, it is not more common to meet French then Italian or Spanish.
    I’ve checked the latest census which is part available and I’m afraid, you’re right.

    According to the 2011 Census (, there is only 81,000 people with French nationality in London (including people born a different countries than France, like the UK):

    Country Estimate CI +/-
    1 Poland 137 19
    2 India 119 18
    3 Republic of Ireland 113 18
    4 France 81 15
    5 Germany 56 12

    There is only 140,000 people born in France who live in the UK:

    Country Estimate CI +/-
    1 India 696 37
    2 Poland 614 34
    3 Pakistan 456 30
    4 Republic of Ireland 387 27
    5 Germany 298 24
    6 Bangladesh 229 21
    7 South Africa 222 21
    8 United States of America 192 19
    9 Nigeria 184 19
    10 Jamaica 151 17
    11 France 140 16
    12 China 138 16

  7. I stumbled upon your article while looking up “London 6th french city”, and I’d like to add as a mitigation that the figures from the Consulate aren’t very accurate if they only take into account people who register as expats with them. I lived in the UK for about 5 years before I registered, and I’m sure I’m not the only one!

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