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Europe in Brussels part 24: Our French neighbours

Jul 11, 2017
14 July is France's national holiday - and with such a sizeable French community in the city, you don't have to look far to find a party

On 14 July, French people all over the world will be celebrating their national day, which commemorates the storming of the Bastille in 1789, a turning point in the French revolution.

The French embassy and consulate will be organising two receptions that day at Bozar. The consulate estimates that there are up to a quarter of a million French citizens living in Belgium - about half of whom are registered with the consulate.

The 2016 figures from the Belgian federal government put the number of French at 162,482 because the amount does not include those with dual French-Belgian nationality.

Marie-Christine Butel, the French consul in Brussels for the past three years, says the number of French in Belgium has been growing steadily at a rate of about 3-4% per year.

And they're not all tax exiles. Butel says that while there are some famous cases of wealthy French figures settling over the border to ecape France's wealth tax, they are an exception. Many workers have chosen Brussels over Paris because of better living conditions, more affordable housing and more space for families with children. Many work in the European institutions or in liberal professions.

Ophelie Martin, a French expat living in Brussels, says of the 14 July national holiday: "It really represents French people in a way that I feel we tend to be very passionate about things, very revolutionary."

In France there will be fireworks, a military parade, dancing on town squares on the evening of 13 July and plenty of wine. Martin will be going back to her home in the south of France to visit family and friends. "It's just a nice opportunity to all be together," she says.

Martin has been living abroad for almost eight years and came to Brussels to pursue her career. "I knew that if I wanted a career in European affairs that this would be the place to go," she says. "I visited it with my husband we thought this was really a city we could live in.

"There is a huge community of French people in Brussels, not only working in EU affairs but in really different types of jobs."

Despite the fact that French is the first language for about 40% of people in Belgium, Martin says culturally there is a big difference between the two neighbouring countries.

"We have different kinds of idioms which can be funny. We speak the same language but we have completely different ways of saying things," she says light-heartedly. "I'm saying this as a compliment, Belgian people are more relaxed than French people are."

With such a sizeable French community in Brussels, you won't have to look far to find a 14 July celebration, but Martin recommends a visit to the wine bars of the Châtelain neighbourhood.

"I'm proud of being French, in some ways, because French people are proud of
being French," Martin concludes. "We have this sense of political awareness, being committed to some issues and I see French people as being very active and a revolutionary nation."

France and Belgium continue to work closely together in a broad range of areas - and next year will be a particularly important one for Franco-Belgian collaboration with various big events to mark the centenary of the end of the first world war.

Another important policy area for the French embassy and consulate over the coming years is care for elderly people, with thousands of French senior citizens staying in Belgian care homes.

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