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'Today it's hard not to feel ashamed to be British'

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'Today it's hard not to feel ashamed to be British'
Photo: AFP
15:54 CEST+02:00
The impact of Brexit will be felt far and wide, not least in France and that's why it feels so shameful, argues The Local's Ben McPartland.

It's been an embarrassing few weeks to be British in France, or English at least (but then the French don't seem to make the difference most of the time).

There was the violence in Marseille and Lille by a minority of England fans. Then there was the chanting. "Sit down if you hate the French” was bad enough, then there was the old song about shooting down German bomber planes in the war being sung in cities around France.

Although to be fair, their chant “Fuck off Europe, we're all voting out” should have been taken a little more seriously.

But Thursday's decision to quit the EU tops all that by a long way. 

As the French woke up to the news that their old friend from across the water had voted to divorce the EU after 43 years of troubled marriage, as a pro-EU, Remain voter it was hard not to feel completely ashamed of half of my compatriots.

And many other British immigrants in France did too, just like the poor 16 million "Remain" voters back home

French friends, family, workers in our office were as stunned as we were. "I'll get you a taxi to the airport," one joked. Most just wanted an explanation as to why, how, who.

Basically we stormed out of the party, because the undemocratic DJ wasn't taking requests and we got paranoid that some of the guests, who don't speak English you know, were coming over to our sofa and stealing our booze and there were more coming. Best to try and find another party ourselves. Somewhere.

Some here in Paris reacted to the result of the referendum with a shake of the head and a typical Gallic shrug. “Well you weren't really part of Europe anyway were you?”.

Without Schengen and the euro currency the British were always viewed as outsiders, but the problem here is not the impact on currencies, house prices or pensions. They will all recover, hopefully.

It's the symbolic message it sends to the rest of Europe, which has no price on it.

"We just don't want to work together with foreigners. It doesn't matter if the decisions they make are good for us, we just don't want non-Brits making them. . In fact we just don't like foreigners, yes even in 2016. We're better off on our own, thanks"

In short: xenophobia 52 percent, openness 48 percent.

"I don't want to sound racist, but there's just too many foreign people coming to this country," was what one happy Brexiteer told The Guardian on Friday. 

The desperate feeling of disappointment that his side won was also because the result just felt very, very un-British.

Compared to the constant identity crisis engulfing France, it always felt that the British were at ease with who they were – a multicultural society, not fearful of change, willing to accept globalization without feeling insecure about who we are.

Britain felt free from the kind of existential angst in France about the influence of Islam and the decline in influence of the French language and culture.

Immigrants to Britain were allowed to be who they wanted to be rather than in France, where it feels there is pressure on people to feel, look and act French without giving them the time to do so naturally.

But what made us feel proud to be British just evaporated overnight on Thursday.

"I chose to live in London and in the UK because I found it to be a tolerant and welcoming country. I was wrong apparently," Nadege Alezine, editor in chief of French expat news site, bealondoner.com told The Local.

But the biggest reason to feel ashamed of Friday's result was the knock-on effect it could have elsewhere in Europe, where populism and extremism is on the march. Not least in France.

Anti-EU sentiment is also on the rise here, but thankfully the politicians in charge don't appear to be stupid enough to put it to a referendum at a time when terrorism and the biggest migrants' crisis since the war has boosted extremism and muddied ordinary people's minds. And 

It was not the right time for "two boys from Eton to settle their squabble" as one person on Twitter described the David Cameron versus Boris Johnson battle.

Even without a referendum, Friday's result could have a significant impact on France, a troubled country which according to one intelligence chief could end up on the brink of civil war, given the rise of ultra-far right groups and the prospect of more terrorist attacks.

“Victory for Freedom. Europe will be at the heart of the next presidential election,” said a buoyant Marine Le Pen, head of France's anti-Islam, anti-immigration, anti-EU National Front party. 

A Remain vote would have been a kick in the teeth for the nationalist Le Pen but instead 52 percent of British voters have ended up giving her a boost, at a time when she has never been more popular.

The next presidential election is under a year away. Le Pen is already touted to make the second round. Who knows how far she could go.

Many will point out that a majority of French people want a referendum. It's true there are a lot of people here also ready to pin the blame for everything on Europe. That doesn't mean they are right.

It's not an exaggeration to say many in Brits in France are now openly talking of gaining French nationality, or any other nationality they can qualify for.

And it's not just to smooth over any bureaucratic bumps that may lie ahead in the post-Brexit age, it's also out of shame of what has just happened back home.

Many British immigrants in France just want to distance themselves from the 17.4 million voters who decided to blame Europe for all their country's ills, rather than their own government.

I for one will be looking into it.

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