Almost four years after the referendum, many Britons living in France are still in the dark about what Brexit means for their future lives in France, writes Michaela Benson (Goldsmiths University of London).
France hosts the second largest number of UK nationals in the EU27, and is home to approximately 150,000 Britons. Yet almost four years on, Britons living in France still feel in the dark about what Brexit means for their lives. Brexit Brits Abroad’s new report, Brexit and the British in France, summarises the key findings of extensive, longitudinal research conducted from 2017-20 with UK nationals living in France.
Official communications from the UK and French governments were slow to clarify what Britons living in France should do to secure their futures, and many have been unclear about where to turn for reliable information about specific concerns. They feel let down by the UK government, while their encounters with the French state, often in local municipal offices, have created further confusion as local officers similarly find themselves lacking in the relevant information to give appropriate advice. This has left Britons in France with a sense that they are nobody’s responsibility but their own.
The newly passed Withdrawal Agreement (WA) ensures that UK citizens who have lawfully exercised their treaty rights will be able to stay in France and outlines the terms that will guide this. However, it does little to resolve other issues that concern them, including the value of pensions and other income exported from the UK, continued freedom of movement within the EU, and the terms on which Britons in France will be able to return to Britain with non-British partners.
Britons in France are responding to Brexit by taking matters into their own hands – but the results are uneven
In the absence of official advice about the routes they should take to secure their futures, from an early stage many Britons started to take matters into their own hands. This has included applying for the residence permits available to EU citizens and applying for French citizenship.
It is clear that Brexit has already had uneven outcomes and consequences for the lives of British citizens living in France, not least because before the referendum very few Britons living in France had residence permits and French officials have struggled with the surge in applications. Personal circumstances such as chronic and terminal illnesses, periods of unemployment, reliance on benefits and relationship breakdowns, have made some people ill-placed to respond to the challenges Brexit presents for their lives.
For Ann, who had suffered from serious illness since retiring to France, the concern was about what would happen if she was ill again in the future:
I was bedridden for four months and I had assistants twice a day, washing and all that, carers came in twice a day, nurses came in once a day, I had physiotherapy … we had been thinking what on earth do we do in this situation? Because of our health issues medication costs … €1,000, and money would soon run out at that rate.
Further, it has become clear that applying for residence permits has had uneven outcomes. For some, these applications have become the site on which they are found to lack evidence of their lawful residence, and in on which in a few rare cases they are judged—often on the ground of insufficient resources—not to be lawfully resident as European citizens, and thus to have no right to residence.
Another route that people were taking was to apply for naturalisation in France. For those married to French nationals (for a minimum of four years), the route to naturalisation is by legal entitlement. For others, it is by decree, providing applicants meet the conditions of five years habitual and continuous residence, and are judged to be ‘integrated’ into French society. It was clear that before Brexit, many of them had not even been aware that it was possible to have dual nationality or had not even thought about it. Tamsin had been brought up and educated in France to MA level and was now in her late 20s, unemployed and looking for work in Toulouse. As she explained:
It was talking with my colleague so I started looking and found I can apply and have dual nationality … It is just a security measure. I don’t want to get kicked out … One thing I did read … if two people go for the same job, one European or French and a British person, if they have exactly the same qualifications and experience both people would be perfectly fine for the job but they would have to choose the EU person rather than the British one … So if it can penalise me on a professional basis then it is worrying.
Britons in France are questioning their previously taken-for-granted identities
UK nationals living in France have been questioning what it means to be British in France: their understandings of themselves as British, and the values they associated with being British, were also shaped by their understanding of their relationship to Europe and Europeanness. Participants’ feelings about Brexit have been mediated by their social relationships in the UK and in France. As well as sharing stories of family feuds sparked by Brexit, unique to these Britons are accounts of family members’ newly disclosed antagonisms about their decision to live elsewhere in Europe.
Hayley, who had moved to southwest France following the referendum after she and her partner had lost their jobs in the UK, described her late discovery that her family had voted to leave as she wrote to me in 2018:
Recently I’ve been having quite an emotive internal conflict between feeling deliberately betrayed and/or accidentally forgotten about … I’ve realised now that most of my family voted for Brexit and would do again, and the people that I know who voted remain also have little sympathy because essentially they’re bored of Brexit and after all I made the decision to live in France. I must add, I do feel grateful and privileged, I have my health, my French family and a lovely life overall, it could be a lot worse, nevertheless I’m still really negatively impacted by this whole thing and it’s not very easy to articulate these feelings either.
Participants’ perceptions of how the UK government has dealt (or failed to deal) with the concerns and issues that Brexit has raised for them are also significant factors in how they understand their continuing relationship to Britain.
This post represents the view of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.