Wander around the South Kensington neighbourhood of London as school finishes and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported to a Parisian arrondissement. Outside the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle, next to the French Institute, the fast-paced chatter of French drowns out English as parents collect their children after a day’s studying.
But until now, the capital’s sizeable French community – numbering 400,000 and the largest non-English population in London – has lacked its own voice on the airwaves. While the cosmopolitan city has stations covering a multitude of tongues, Gallic tones have remained decidedly absent. Until, that is, midday yesterday and the launch of French Radio London (FRL), the brainchild of Pascal Grierson, an entrepreneur with a media consulting background.
Speaking on launch day, head of programming Jean-Michel Duffrène – a radio journalist with 23 years’ experience working for the BBC World Service – was decidedly excited, comparing the build-up to “getting ready for a big wedding”. The station broadcasts 24 hours a day from studios off Edgware road, almost uniquely in French, going out over the internet and local DAB network.
FRL primarily aims to tap into the large number of French and French-speaking London residents, as well as British Francophiles wanting to brush up on their French. Listening to the station yesterday, the presenters seemed to be talking markedly more slowly than their counterparts in metropolitan France. Had concessions been made regarding the speed at which presenters deliver? “Yes, a little bit,” answers Duffrène. “It was a conscious effort. We had to slow the presenters down a little, so that Francophiles – people who are in love with France – can actually listen to the radio station without too much of a struggle.”
The musical output is surprisingly varied and Duffrène is keen to point out that the station doesn’t rehash clichéd Gauloises-infused love ballads from the likes of Serge Gainsbourg and Charles Aznavour. He calls the music “a unique combination” of current music, nostalgia and tunes from the wider Francophone world. And, while stations in France are bound by the 1994 loi Toubon dictating that 40 per cent of radio output has to be in French, RFL has gone one better by committing 80 per cent of music airtime to French-language or French-produced music.
Despite the buzz surrounding yesterday’s launch – and a special reception by the French ambassador to mark the occasion – were the station’s employees worried about the risk they were taking? RFL hasn’t received any French government funding and is reliant on advertising revenue. “First of all,” says Duffrène defiantly, “it’s particularly nice to be part of something new being created – something hopeful. And it’s something that didn’t exist before. So the fact that everything else is doom and gloom really isn’t part of the equation.”