Culture Shock for French in Canada: ‘We Smoke Cigarettes, They Smoke Pot’

MONTREAL — “They make rents go up and steal our women.” They “travel in packs of 10 and complain all the time.” “There are too many French people on the Plateau.”

These are some of the lyrics of a song written by Fred Schneider, a 38-year-old advertising copywriter from France, who was belting them out on a recent evening at a thronging bar in Montreal.

The largely Quebecois crowd roared with laughter as the song poked fun at an influx of snobbish, chain-smoking, “know-it-all” French who are “occupying” the Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood. The area is so replete with French residents, French bakeries and Parisian accents that it is sometimes referred to sardonically by Montrealers as “Nouvelle-France,” France’s former North American colony.

Mr. Schneider, whose self-mocking performances sometimes include singing while dancing with a baguette, is among the droves of French people who have flocked to Montreal in recent years. They are drawn by a quest to find the American dream in the language of Molière and motivated, in part, by economic doldrums back home.

Some Montrealers call them “FFF’s” — French from France.

But as is often the case with old relatives, relations can be complicated. Quebecers and the French sometimes sound like two peoples divided by a common language.

Louis Myard, a politics student at the University of Montreal, whose family moved from Paris to Montreal several years ago, mused that “a Mexican and a Chinese person had more in common than a Frenchman and a Quebecer.”

“We play soccer, Quebecers play hockey,” he said. “We say “diner,” (dinner) they say “souper” (supper); we prefer wine, they prefer beer; we smoke cigarettes, they smoke pot.”

Mr. Myard, 22, said romance in feminist Quebec also posed challenges for young men reared in “machismo” France.

“I have been glared at for opening the door for a Quebecois woman and once called a Quebecois girl I liked, ‘my little baby,’ ” he recalled. “She got very annoyed and said, ‘I am not your baby!’ ”

Salomé Zimmerlin, a part-time French model who came here to study economics at McGill University, said she was initially taken aback by Quebecers using the informal pronoun “tu” rather than the more formal “vous” even when addressing strangers, though she quickly embraced the informality.

Also surprising to her were Quebec expressions such as “ma blonde” — “my girlfriend” — which means “my blonde” to a French ear.

But Ms. Zimmerlin, 23, who started her own unisex fashion brand, “Kafka,” said any culture shock had been more than offset by the attraction of a society she said was far less rigid than hierarchical France.

“If I had tried to start a fashion label in Paris, people would’ve laughed in my face due to my lack of experience,” she said. “Here, the reaction was, ‘Show me what you can do!’ ”

Whatever the challenges, mutual ardor between France and Quebec was on full display during a visit last month by Quebec’s premier François Legault to Paris, where the right-leaning former businessman was greeted like a world leader by President Emmanuel Macron.

Mr. Legault also made it clear that while he wanted to reduce the number of immigrants coming to Quebec, that most certainly did not apply to the nation that gave the world pain au chocolat.

There was a time when some in Mother France would sneer at what they perceived as Quebec’s rustic “patois,” while Quebecers, in turn, would complain about the “maudits français” — or “damned French.”

These days, however, Le Monde has proclaimed Quebec an “El Dorado” for a new generation of French drawn by, among other things, an unemployment rate of about 5.5 percent, compared with more than 9 percent in France, and some advantages under immigration rules for speaking and writing French.

Between 2013 and 2017, France provided the second largest number of immigrants to Quebec after the Chinese, according to Quebec’s ministry of immigration. There are about 130,000 French people in Montreal.

Yet the disorientation for the new arrivals can be as unrelenting as the Canadian winter. After all, poutine, the gravy-drenched cheese fries beloved in Quebec, would seem to owe more to British and American culture than to France. Then, there are all those English words that have infiltrated the language like “cute,” “weird” and “fun.”

Mathieu Lalancette, a Quebecer who made French PQ, a documentary about the French in Quebec, noted many French were shocked to discover that a common language doesn’t mean a common culture.

“We Quebecers know we are very different from the French but many French who come here think they are taking the train and going to the French countryside,” he said.

While Quebecers have long looked to Enlightenment France for inspiration, Gérard Bouchard, an eminent historian and sociologist with the University of Quebec in Chicoutimi, said that as they “gained a stronger sense of identity in the 1960s, they increasingly looked to North America — not France — for self-definition.”

The new French arrivals typically come armed with some knowledge of Quebec through exposure to the music of Quebec singers popular in France like Celine Dion and Garou or to French-language films by the Quebec wunderkind Xavier Dolan — albeit sometimes shown with French subtitles in Paris cinemas.

But Catherine Feuillet, the consul general of France in Montreal, noted that Quebecers were understandably irritated by those of her compatriots who arrived in Quebec unable to find Quebec on a map or ignorant of its recent history.

If the French were sometimes not fully up-to-date about their new home, she added, it was, perhaps, because losing Quebec to the British in 1763 was “something they would rather forget.”

She noted some Quebecers asked, “‘Couldn’t the French have fought some more?’” ”

At the same time, Gallic tempers can flare when their French-speaking cousins surpass them.

In March, when Agropur, a Quebec dairy cooperative, edged out a French dairy producer to win the prize for having the world’s best Camembert, some French people were horrified.

“It’s a scandal, a fraud,” VSD, a glossy weekly magazine in France, proclaimed.

Nor are Quebecers amused by periodic breathless reports in the French media depicting Quebec as a frigid maple tree-covered frontier where, according to an article in the French magazine Elle à Table, every year pigs are “sacrificed” around Easter time before being frozen in the open air.

After an outcry here, the writer of the article apologized, acknowledging that the “very ancient” ritual no longer takes place in contemporary Quebec.

Cultural misunderstandings aside, the French influx shows little sign of abating.

Adeline Alleno, a 29-year-old from Paris, said that after spending $17,000 on her master’s degree in France, she was only able to find work there in a shoe store. In Montreal, she said, she found a senior marketing job in a matter of weeks.

She said her generation had been galvanized by President Macron, but were frustrated by his inability to deliver on his promises.

“Here I can find a good job, buy a house, am close to nature and have quality of life, and I can still live in French,” she said, adding: “I am angry at France for failing me.”