In Coastal Pockets, the French Are California Livin'

On sunny Saturday mornings, the atmosphere at the French Market Cafe in Venice and other tucked-away bistros around L.A. is like France's Co^te d'Azur. Little dogs run around cafe tables while their owners sip espresso and smoke cigarettes. In courtyards framed by flowering vines, regulars' conversations flow from one table to the next, their accents paying tribute to the various regions of France from which these L.A. residents emigrated.

Los Angeles has the second-largest population of French natives in the United States, according to the French Consulate. About 11,000 French live here. But unlike other ethnic groups, the French inhabit no specific neighborhood and are not always easy to track down.

"The French are like cats," said Yo-Jung Chen, vice consul for the French Consulate in L.A. "We prefer keeping a distance from those like us," he said of the city's French residents, who tend to spread out and keep to themselves.

Many French natives who moved their families and their lives to California say they chose it for the climate, which is similar to that of the French Riviera. And so much, if not all, of the French population here is concentrated along the coast--in Santa Monica, Venice and Marina del Rey--where residents can enjoy the beach.

Jean-Philippe Genault, a French transplant and 18-year L.A. resident, is dressed in black cowboy boots and a denim jacket embroidered with a Harley-Davidson emblem. His attire speaks volumes about Europeans' fondness for all things American. Genault said he left France to work in the entertainment industry.

American film has transported images of "California dreamin' " to France for decades. Vice versa with French films in America when Brigitte Bardot crossed cultural lines in barely-there bikinis and blazed a trail for the likes of Pamela Lee.

Cinema, and the entertainment industry as a whole, often introduces countries to one another. The French watch "Baywatch" and, if not reminded of Bardot, are fascinated with images of America's West Coast, as 32-year-old Frenchman Lionel LeFavre was when he moved to Los Angeles in 1996. American cinema hatched in him cliche dreams of what it means to live in California.

"When I was a kid in France, I dreamed of making a western film and being an actor," LeFavre said. "I always wanted to move to the United States, to Hollywood."

Jean-Charles Delsol, who lives in Marina del Rey with his wife, Flore, has been in California 16 years.

"I moved my family from France to the U.S. to offer them better opportunities," he said, his accent still thick. "In schools, in work, and in the climate here too, they would have a very nice place to grow up."

While subtle, the cultural differences between the French and Americans often lie in the details. Californians rarely tolerate the widely accepted French habit of smoking, not even while enjoying a digestif after a meal. And topless or nude sun bathing, considered natural at many French beaches, seems racy and is illegal in most places on the West Coast.

But perhaps the greatest difference between France and America is the work ethic. The French, many of whom are used to five weeks' paid vacation annually, suffer the frustration of living in a coastal paradise, yet work too much to enjoy it.

"When it comes time to ask my boss for vacation," jokes Laurent Delsol, Jean-Charles' son, "he does not understand that I mean four weeks."

California dreamin'? Indeed.

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