Brits in France begin to fret over Brexit as vote nears

With the crucial, possibly life-changing EU referendum in Britain just two days away, and opinion polls suggesting a tight finish, Brits living in France are growing uneasy.

Brits in France begin to fret over Brexit as vote nears
Photo: AFP

Brits living in France and indeed anywhere in Europe have more reason than most to worry about Thursday’s referendum over whether Britain should remain in the EU or leave.

While they won’t be herded from Dordogne onto ferries in Calais to be taken home, many fear that life could get a little more complicated while others fear the very real prospect of a fall in the value of the pound would see the value of their pensions tumble.

While the referendum has loomed large for months, many thought there was no real danger of an “OUT” vote but as the crucial moment arrives, polls have showed a lead for the “leave” campaign, before evening up in the last few days.

It's all far too close for many people’s liking.

“A few months ago I was confident common sense would prevail and remain would win comfortably,” Paris-based Briton Martin Dixon told The Local.

“I am now very worried that thanks to a very negative campaign from both sides, there is a real prospect of a vote for Brexit. I’m voting “remain” and crossing my fingers that the opinion polls are wrong.”

A survey this week by expat social network organisation Internations found that 85 percent of Britons living in France that the Britain leaving the EU would potentially change their living situation abroad.

'People in Dordogne are bewildered'

Down in the Dordogne area of France, or Dordogneshire as it is known, the local population of up to 8,000 Brits are uneasy.

“People here are genuinely concerned and a bit bewildered by the whole situation, the campaign, the uncertainty,” said Roger Haigh, who represents the Dordogne region at the French-British Chamber of Commerce.

“Especially the older people (who) have no influence on what's maybe going to happen to them,” he said. 

Many of those British residents in the Dordogne are retired and their only income is from a British pension, the value of which rises or falls depending on the strength of the pound.

Brexit fears have seen the pound tumble in recent months, before recovering in recent days as polls showed a bounce for the Remain campaign.

“If we vote out, and there's a dramatic effect on the pound, retired people here will suffer,” said Terrie Simpson, an estate agent in Eymet, Dordogne. “For some pensioners their pension could drop by a third but they won't have the means to go back to England.”

Self-employed Iain Black, also based in Paris, feared that the next generation of Brits won’t be able to take advantage of one of the key positive aspects of the EU.

“I am scared about it. I want my kids to be able to the same things as I have done. I want them to be British but have all the advantages of being a member of the EU – to be able to move around, study or work abroad like I did,” he said.

'Disappointed at lack of knowledge'

Thursday’s vote of course will be even more stressful for those who have been denied the chance to cast a ballot because they have lived abroad for 15 years or more and so are barred from the electoral register.

Christopher Chantrey, Chairman of the British Community Committee of France, said: “Many British expats – often better informed than the UK-resident electorate, almost in every case with much more at stake – have been denied the vote. 

“Hence our message to those who are registered to vote must be: please do vote, and please do consider the British abroad and the influence that the UK can and must exert in Europe and the wider world.”

Like in the UK, many expats in France have been disappointed about the nature of the campaign that appears to have been based more on scaremongering than facts.

Bob Lewis President of the Franco British Chamber of Commerce said: “I am just very disappointed in the lack of knowledge and understanding of the European Union from the British voters and the weak grasp of the benefits that trade within a 500 million consumers block brings.” 

However no matter what happens on Thursday, Brits who have made France their home for many years are not envisaging returning home anytime soon.

“I'd like to think that – unless there is a change here to a government led by the National Front – France would continue to protect our rights and that any reciprocal agreement would retain our current rights,” Tina Beach, from Nord-Pas-de-Calais told The Local.

“And that, for me, is the crux of the matter.”

Brian Hinchcliffe a retired teacher living in the Dordogne said that whatever happens, he is here to stay.

“France has been good to us and continues to be good to us.”

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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.