Australia through the French Looking Glass
The road from Australia to France is well traveled but what about from France to the Antipodes?
A visit to Paris or a sojourn in one of the charming villages of France is the stuff of dreams for many Australians. The path is well trodden with Australians making life long dreams a reality… and…. the publishing industry a sizeable amount of money, (think At My French Table; Food, Family and Joie de vivre in a corner of Normandy by Jane Webster; Love and A new Life in Paris by Sarah Turnbull; My French Life by Tasmanian Vicki Archer….).
Add to that our obsession with French food (SBS’s French Food Safari) and the Tour de France (which riveted us to our armchairs and single handedly compromised Australia’s office productivity) and we still salivate for more French cultural tourism. In fact, this website, My French Life™ is testament to the power of the cultural seduction of all things French. For Australians, ‘la France’ is truly ‘la folle’.
BUT – what of the path from Paris to the Antipodes, what of the increasing number of French who are returning the favour by either visiting our shores or fantasizing about a trip très bientôt, to exotic Australia?
Australia for the French is ‘hot’ and we’re not talking climate. Over 97,000 French visit our country each year with an expected compound growth of over 5 per cent. OK, enough of the figures, but in anybody’s language that’s a lot of French feet expected to arrive on our soil over the next couple of years.
In fact, the French have been visiting us since the earliest days of our history. The history of the French in Australia dates from the arrival of the La Perouse expedition at Botany Bay in January 1788; just days after the landing of the First Fleet, and French people have been visiting and living in Australia almost ever since.
Today’s love affair by the French with Australia however had a somewhat shaky start. Our early colonial history was a shade too rough for some French sensibilities. One of the most enjoyable stories from our earliest efforts at French – Australian détente, centers around Céleste Venard de Chabrillan, (1824-1909) wife of the French consul-general, (later referred to as the consul’s ‘harlot spouse’), who created a social furor, not only by straying beyond the bounds of respectability with flamboyant aplomb, in winning many male admirers (and having the gall to write about them), but by marrying the dashing French consul, a gentleman, ‘well beyond her station’.
A jaundiced Celeste described in her diaries, Melbourne’s ‘uncultivated’ fields, ‘scraggy, sickly livestock’, rotting carcasses and ‘misshapen’ trees ‘. In terms of the city of Melbourne: ‘it looks just like a fairground except that the shopkeepers are not dealing in gingerbread but gold.”
Roll forward to 2011 and Melbourne has officially become the best city in the world to live according to the Global Livability Survey. Melbourne’s centre of culture status also has appeal for the French. This has been enhanced by its recent designation as the second City of Literature in UNESCO’s Creative Cities network. Add to this the appeal of the vibrant live music scene; a strong food, wine and coffee culture; student life in its bobo-chic lane ways; its sophisticated shopping scene; its celebrated fashion designers and it is obvious why the French feel so at home in Melbourne.
Of course, some of this culture could possibly be experienced at home in France, but not with the possibility of following it with a 20 minute tram ride from Melbourne’s CBD to the nearest beach or a 2 ½ hour trip to the nearest ski field. Try doing that from Paris!
French visitors will tell you that they are passionate about Victoria’s countryside – the Great Ocean Road nearly always tops the list for a compulsory visit, but the Yarra Valley, the Grampians, Ballarat and Phillip Island are no strangers to the Gallic cries of delight at their discoveries. “N’est- il pas superbe?” “Formidable!”.
French visitors will tell you they are looking for “l’authenticité et la diversité” and for them that is the unique appeal of Australia. Victoria ticks so many of the ‘must see’ boxes for them, so you’ll find them from Lorne to Northern Victoria experiencing horse riding in the High Country, a cattle drive in the High Country plains or even paddling with a platypus at Healesville.
Some of our adrenalin charged French friends have been abseiling at Mt Buffalo, or just over an hour from Melbourne, they’ve dosed up on Australia’s renowned surf culture (is this the reason Billabong’s European operation is located in Hossegor, France?).
It is not only Australia’s range of unique experiences that attracts, but also the rawness of the country (reminiscent of Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘I Love a Sun-Burnt Country’), which underscores the authenticity of Australia for them. Certainly Australia’s fires and floods of early 2011 made the French press and a lasting impression.
The pull of Australia is clearly evident among the young. The introduction of the ‘Working Holiday Visa’ has been a boom for travel down under. Visit St Kilda in Melbourne any day of the week and the supermarket in the backpacker quarter and you’ll hear what I mean. Be under no illusion – the backpacker phenomenon is a brilliantly effective way of forging connecting and the exciting nightlife around the bars of St Kilda, Melbourne and Brunswick is testament to how well the young French and young Aussies connect!
Speaking of connecting, Australia rates very highly on the list for student language exchanges. Of course for the French, the opportunity to practice English is a mere hour across the Channel. Nonetheless the 22 hour journey to Australia appears strangely to be part of Australia’s attraction. We have had a few students stay with us over the years and many years later the families are still very close. There are just some experiences in life that cannot be bought.
Australians and the French are increasingly sharing many adventures and not least of all in the domain of sport. The French are well aware that ‘les Australiens sont fous de sports’ (are crazy for sport). National pride knows no bounds after Cadel Evans’ extraordinary achievement celebrated on the top of the podium on the Champs Elysées this year, but what of France’s little known achievement in Australia? France’s Australian Football team (yes, you read that correctly and we are talking ‘footy’ not soccer) – Les Coqs français made it through to the second division of the World Cup this year. Now ranking 14th on the worldwide league table, the Red, Blue and White are on schedule for many a future trip down under.
There is hardly a field now in which the French and Australians are not schmoozing each other – incredibly the French appear even to love our advertising commercials. Last year among the 10 most preferred commercials of the French, as highlighted at the Palmarès awards, 4 came from Australia. I kid you not!
Derisive as Céleste de Chabrillan may have been towards Melbourne in the 19th century, I think even she would be pleasantly amazed at just how much the French and the Australians have in common today and how enthusiastic the French are now for Australia’s sunny shores.Images credit Visions of Victoria.