‘Today it’s hard not to feel ashamed to be British’

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.

'Today it's hard not to feel ashamed to be British'
Photo: AFP

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, 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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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.