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OPINION - VOTES FOR EXPATS

BRITS IN FRANCE

Why Brits in France must fight for right to vote

Thousands of foreigners living in France including Brits and Irish are barred from voting back home. In the second part of our series on voting rights for expats, The Local hears from one 'excluded' Briton who is urging others to fight for a fundamental right.

Why Brits in France must fight for right to vote
British expats who have spent years in France lose their right to have a say in who sits in the Houses of Parliament. Photo: Hagwall/Flickr

Tens of thousands of expats living in France and around the world are unable to perform a fundamental right – vote in the national elections in the country where they were born.

Unlike French expats who hold on to their right to vote no matter where they live, Brits and Irish nationals lose it if they stay abroad for a certain amount of time.

One of those who has seen his fundamental right disappear is Brian Cave, who lives in Gourdon, a town in the Lot, south-western France. Cave can no longer vote in UK national elections because he fell foul of the British rule that takes away voting rights from its citizens if they have been abroad for 15 years or more.

In Ireland the law is even more severe, with voters having to forgo their right to cast a ballot if they intend to stay away for 18 months.

Cave has been one of the leaders of the battle to get the UK to drop its controversial 15-year rule. Here, he tells The Local why, even after having lived in France for so many years, he deserves the right to vote back home.

"I am taxed by the British government on my teacher’s pension, which by law can only be taxed in the UK. All my investments are based over there too. I am not a rich man, I am getting on towards 82, but I have savings through the British system and an investment with a British investment house. These investments are very much dependent on the British government’s policy towards investment banks.

'I am tied up with Britain but have no say in it'

"My state pension also comes from Britain, in fact every income I receive comes from the UK, which is why I should have the vote."

Cave, who is the author of the blog Pensioners Debout! (Stand Up Pensioners!) says his desire to retain the vote in the UK is not just motivated by financial reasons.

“I also have two children in Britain and grandchildren in British schools. The British government through the EU supports my health care in France. So I am affected by any treaty arrangements between the EU, France and the UK. 

“Culturally I am British. I am very interested in how Britain acts in the world and who it decides to go to war with. I am tied up with Britain in every way and therefore should have the right to vote. The British government acts in my name but I don’t have a say in who it is."

The campaigner is angered at Britain's stance that if you leave and don't come back then don't expect to hold on to you rights.

"The government is not interested in me and my life," he says. "There is an attitude that once you have left the ship, you lose the right to a say in what happens to it.

“A member of the House of Lords once said to me: ‘What have you got to do with Britain, you are no longer part of the economy.’ I said: 'I bloody well am!'.”

Not just elections but referendums

It is not just general elections that thousands of Brits in France will be barred from taking part in. One of the key votes that could really impinge on their lives is a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, which Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to hold if his Tory party wins the 2015 general election.

“If there’s a referendum about Britain’s membership of the EU, then I won’t be able to vote.  So many of our expats are laid back, they just don’t care about it. Only last week I was talking to people who say it won’t happen, but of course it could happen. We can’t just sit back and say it will all be OK. If we came out of the EU it would be a disaster. The British government could freeze pensions. We might need to get work permits just to work in France one day.  

“We have to try to wake up the expats in France to this issue. There are 60,000 British pensioners living here, but a petition calling for us to get the vote has only garnered 3,000 signatures. It’s not just pensioners either, there are thousands of people in France who will soon be disenfranchised."

Cave and fellow campaigners for the vote are also calling on the UK to adopt the French system whereby expats living outside France are represented by their own MPs.

“That’s what we eventually want,” says Cave, “but let's take it one step at a time.”

It is not just Brits of course who are left disenfranchised. Noreen Bowden has been leading the campaign for Ireland to change its laws on barring expats from voting. She is equally angry at being denied a fundamental right.

"It is particularly ironic, and even sad, that Ireland, which tends to rely so heavily on its citizens abroad for support during times of economic distress, should take the hardest line in Europe on votes for its emigrants," she told The Local. 

"Compare it to a nation like France, which takes the voices of its overseas citizens seriously by enabling them not only to vote but also to elect their own MP."

Earlier this month, The Local highlighted the campaign to give EU expats the right to vote in their country of residence. It's a fight that Cave is also backing.

“If any government involves themselves in your life whether it’s socially, culturally or financially, then you should be able to have a say in who exactly is governing you," he says.

Wake up: Are you a British expat who wants to keep your right to vote? Then sign this online petition.

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VISAS

Reader question: How does getting a French visa affect the 90-day rule?

If you're not an EU citizen and you're coming to France, you need to either get a visa or abide by the 90-day rule - but can you combine the two?

Reader question: How does getting a French visa affect the 90-day rule?

Question: I have a property in France and I’m looking at getting a six-month visitor visa so we can spend more time there since Brexit, but how does this work with the 90-day rule? Do we still use that rule for the rest of the year?

If you’re not a citizen of an EU country and you want to spend more than 90 days at a time in France, you will need a visa. This has always been the case for non-EU nationals such as Americans and Australians, but since Brexit it also applies to Brits.

Many British second-home owners who were previously accustomed to splitting their time equally been France and the UK now have to either limit their stay or get a visa.

We’ve got a complete guide to how the 90-day rule works HERE

And a step-by-step guide to getting a visa HERE

There are many different types of visa, but the one that many second-home owners have opted for is the 6-month visitor visa. This allows you to keep your main residency in your home country without having to worry about things like tax status, but enjoy lengthy visits to your French property.

But if you have a six-month visa, then what are the rules for the other six months of the year?

Essentially, having a visa suspends the 90-day rule when you are coming to France – so within the period of validity of your visa you can spend as much time in France as you like and you don’t need to worry about counting the days.

However it’s important to note that this is only the case for France – the 90-day rule covers the whole of the EU and Schengen zone, so if you make any trips to – for example – Germany or Spain during the period when your French visa is activated, those days still count towards your 90 day limit.

Once your visa has expired, you revert to the 90-day rule when it comes to trips to France, meaning that you can be here for 90 days out of every 180 but at the end of that period you must leave the Schengen zone.

This operates on a rolling calendar, so you always count back 180 days from the present date to see how many days you have spent in the EU in that period, and therefore how many you have left – if you’re confused, the online Schengen calculator HERE allows you to input your dates and work out your total. 

If you intend to roll your visa period directly into your 90 days you will need to leave the Schengen zone at least for one day, otherwise it will appear that you have overstayed your visa – you need to exit the EU, and then re-enter without a visa to allow your days to be correctly calculated.

Tax

And a quick note on tax. The 90-day rule and visa rules refer to your immigration status, but if you intend to spend up to nine months of the year in France, you need to also check your tax status both in France and in your home country to avoid breaching the rules on tax residency.

Immigration checks

Over the years France has earned itself a reputation as being one of the less strict countries in Europe when it comes to policing stays from visitors. However, Brexit appears to have changed this with many people reporting stricter border checks and some people being fined or having their passports stamped for over-staying their 90 days.

It’s likely that you won’t be checked every time you enter and leave, but if you are caught overstaying a visa or a 90-day limit, the penalties can be more severe than a simple fine. If your passport is stamped as an over-stayer it is likely to make future travel (anywhere in the EU, not just in France) more difficult, and you may also be rejected for future visas.

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