What I learned by watching French property programmes

A Parisian apartment for rent. Image: Getty.

There are many reasons to watch Recherche appartement ou maison, a French property programme similar to Location Location Location. You get to be a virtual tourist in different French cities, imagine a world without carpets, and enjoy lots of bidet-based historical anecdotes.

But it can also tell us a lot about the housing situation in France – and in turn help to make sense of our own property market. Here’s what I learned.

The housing ladder is a very British concept

I always assumed that our neighbours shared our Thatcherite obsession with home ownership as a symbol of adulthood and social mobility. Recherche appartement ou maison taught me that I was wrong.

There is not even a satisfactory French translation for the concept of the “housing ladder”. Participants seem somehow freed from the societal pressures to buy, and renting is not seen as a sign of failure.

It is possible to make a property show without tourturing the young

British property programmes are famously aspirational and, for millennials, they are often seen as a form of torture.

Recherche appartement ou maison is equally guilty of caving to our masochistic desire to watch other people viewing things we could never afford, and rejecting them because the toilet and the shower are in the same room.

Yet it also has a more compassionate side: for example, you can go on the show if you are looking to rent. There are also plenty of participants who are seeking to buy their first home, without having suspiciously limitless funds.

Then again, perhaps a similar approach would be impossible in this country. It’s possible viewers wouldn’t enjoy seeing millennial after millennial coming to Kirsty and Phil with a quarter of a million pounds and the goal of owning their own home in London, and having their dreams crushed. week after week.

Flats are the norm

I also noticed that a high proportion of the properties featured are flats, especially in the larger cities, and that families seem a lot more prepared to live in apartments. After a bit of digging, I realised that the UK, not France, was the anomaly. Of the EU-28, UK residents are the second most likely to live in a house rather than a flat, behind only Ireland.

This is particularly true when we compare Paris and London. In London, only 14 per cent of homes are in buildings of five floors or more, compared to 59 per cent in Paris.

Flats are smaller, of course. In Île-de-France, the region which includes Paris, the average surface area is 60m2. In London, it is 80m2. But when we are shown tiny, one-bedroom flats in the French capital, they often seem well-conceived and make good use of the space, rather than visibly being part of a larger house which has been awkwardly divided up.

Paris is extremely expensive per square metre, yet it seems more affordable than London, because of its high proportion of smaller – and thus cheaper – flats.


English words are everywhere

No language is truly as universal as estate agent-speak. Like us, the French find themselves saying “studio” and “kitchenette”, when what they really mean is “no adult human could live in this space without going insane”. French housing vocabulary is also full of English words, from design aspects like “bow-window”, to pseudo-anglicisms, such as “dressing” (room), and “immeuble de standing” (a high-class apartment block).

Sometimes things get lost in translation. The term “WC” is widely used across the channel to refer to the toilet, but for some reason the pronunciation has been shortened, so that it becomes “VC”. (For those who don’t speak French: the language, sensibly enough, pronounced W as “dooble-vee”). This resulted in a visit where the estate agent showed the client to the “WC”, and the client responded, confused: “Why double-VC? There’s only one.”

Paris is expensive, but London is worse

In Paris intra-muros – the administrative centre of Paris, which is separated from its suburbs by the Périphérique ring-road – the average property costs an eye-watering €8,940 per m2. This is still slightly less expensive than central London, depending on how you define central.

But therein lies the difference: central Paris is clearly defined. The Périphérique provides a neat boundary beyond which house prices fall, often drastically, even though most Parisians live outside of these boundaries. In La Goutte-d’Or, for example – a traditionally working-class neighbourhood in the 18th arrondissement in the north of Paris – property costs on average €7,030 per m2. Walk a few minutes north until you cross the Périphérique into Saint-Denis, and the price drops to €3,300 per m2.

“If you would cross the Périphérique, you could get a lot more value for your money,” says the agent-presenter. The clients look shocked. It seems the agent has broken a taboo. “Once you’ve lived in Paris, nobody wants to move to the suburbs.”

I guess there is one thing that links property programmes on both sides of the channel: people are impossible.

You can hear more about some of these subjects on a recent edition of our podcast Skylines.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.