Why UK’s ‘frenemy’ France is most keen on Brexit in EU

The relationship between France and Britain has never been completely amicable, hence the reason why so many French people - although not a majority - are keen on Brexit.

Why UK's 'frenemy' France is most keen on Brexit in EU
Croissants and tea - the perfect Anglo-French combination. Photo: AFP

From bloody wars to gentle ribbing and occasional cross-Channel bashing, France and Britain's relationship status has been complicated for nearly a thousand years.

And as Britain wavers over whether or not to leave the European Union, studies show its old Gallic “frenemy” has a larger proportion of citizens in favour of the Brexit than other members polled.

“This shows the relationship between France and Europe today, and the relationship between France and Britain since always,” said Dominique Moisi, of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).

A series of polls between April and June show that between 32 percent and 41 percent of the French population would see their neighbour's departure from the EU in a positive light.

The most recent study by the Pew Research Center showed that the overwhelming feeling across Europe was that Brexit would be bad for the EU, a sentiment felt most strongly in Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany.

“France is the only country where more than a quarter of the public says it would be positive for the EU if the UK departed,” the report said.

Folkloric disdain

From the Norman invasion of England in 1066 to political spats over the war in Iraq in 2003, the panoply of Anglo-Franco conflicts have led to the folkloric belief that the two sides cannot abide each other.

A favourite anecdote in France comes from when then prime minister Jacques Chirac forgot his microphone was on during a 1988 European summit, while fuming over Margaret Thatcher's demands for a budgetary rebate for Britain.

“What more does this housewife want from me? My balls on a platter?” fumed Chirac.

However in reality, with so many French people living in London it is nicknamed “Little Paris”, ties between the two nations are perfectly cordial these days — a little teasing here and there aside.

The biggest bone of contention in recent years has been over the management of a migrant camp in the northern French city of Calais, from where many make desperate efforts to reach Britain.

Growing French euroscepticism

Analysts say the polls are perhaps more revealing about France's attitude to the EU in general than to Britain.

The Pew study revealed growing doubts about the EU in France where favourable sentiment to the bloc fell 17 points between 2015 and 2016, mostly among the older population.

Only Greece — hit by the doubly whammy of the economic crisis and the migrant crisis — was more critical of the EU than France.

The study showed much of the increasing gloom about the EU across the bloc was a result of the handling of the refugee crisis.

Those in France who do favour a Brexit come from widely differing political backgrounds, from the anti-Europe far-right to those who want a more integrated Europe and see Britain as an obstacle to this.

“There is the impression in France that the British have always been an impediment to deepening the European Union. Intuitively, some tell themselves 'if they leave, we can do more',” said Francois Lafond, a professor at the Sciences-Po university.

On the other hand, for the far-right, a “Leave” vote would be a welcome sign of “the beginning of the end”.

“It means that they can finally demand the same thing,” he said.

Far-Right National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen said as much at a rally in Vienna on Friday.

“France has maybe a thousand more reasons to want to leave the EU than the English,” she said.

Perhaps the most telling thing about the Pew study, echoing the other polls, is how divided French society is on the European Union.

When asked about future of the EU, 39 percent of people said some powers should be returned to national governments.

However 34 percent of French people wanted more power transferred to the EU, the largest percentage of any of the countries polled.

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Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.