The rights of Britons living in France could be wiped out by Brexit unless reciprocal deals are reached, a special meeting at France's National Assembly heard on Thursday.
A specialist in EU law Myriam Benlolo-Carabot told the round-table meeting that was chaired by Claude Bartolone, the president of the National Assembly, that unless reciprocal agreements are made the impact on the rights of Britons would be “cataclysmic”.
“When Britain leaves the EU then Britons in France will formally and legally no longer be EU citizens,” said Benlolo-Carabot.
“They would be foreigners like all the others. Of course you can imagine the cataclysm that would provoke, but it would all depend on negotiations.”
Christopher Chantrey the president of the British Community Committee of France (BCC), which represents British expats all over the country told the meeting the referendum result shocked them to the core.
“It was not seen as opportunity for us, but a catastrophe,” he said.
Chantrey spelled out the issues that were causing so much concern among his members.
The loss of health cover, the difficulty of travelling between Britain and France, the exchange rates, pet passports for animals, the Erasmus scheme, property taxes, the loss of their right to vote in French local elections, exchanging of driving licenses, double taxation rules, but most importantly the right on the tens of thousands of Brits in France to remain in the country.
“People do not know whether they can carry out their project in France or retire here,” he said adding “If people can't afford to pay for their private health cover, they will have to go home.”
Chantrey made it clear that, in albeit rare incidents, some local authorities in France were already acting as though Brexit had happened.
He told the meeting how some prefectures were not cooperative about the rights of Britons trying to obtain a “carte de sejour” residency card. The rules seemed to be different depending on the which department people were in.
He spoke of one British citizen being told they couldn't have French nationality because it was “too late”. “Britain was no longer in the EU”, they had been told.
Since the referendum, anecdotal evidence suggests Britons have been lining up to try and obtain French citizenship, but many have pleaded for special allowances to make the process easier.
“It's a complicated process. People are asking can't we have some kind of fast-track process to make it easier for Britons to gain French citizenship, or perhaps a special “associated citizenship” to allow them to remain EU citizens,” he said.
Some have suggested the five-year time limit before applying for French nationality could be cut to three or even two, for Britons in the light of Brexit.
Chantrey pointed to the ongoing problems of red tape for example the need to have new copies of birth certificates for each application, despite the fact they never change.
“France is the country of human rights, can't they welcome those who have chosen to make their lives in France with open arms?” said Chantrey, as he read out some of the comments sent to him by Britons in France.
The president of the BCC stressed the important role played the Britons who are “financially and emotionally” invested in French life.
He pointed to huge number of Britons on local councils and those in areas like the Lot and the Dordogne who help keep French villages alive.
Socialist Bartolone told The Local after the meeting that he expects France could take measures to make life easier for Brits, but only once negotiations with Europe have run their course.
“If London has a policy of “everyman for himself” in these negotiations, it would be a really bad sign,” Bartolone said.
“It's important the Britons established outside their country in France and across the EU are not destabilized,” he added.
Bartolone said the last thing he wanted was for “our British friends in France” to feel unwanted.
“I think that in the future something could be done, but first talks have to take place between the EU and the UK, not France and the UK.”
The BCC's Chantrey told The Local: I think France is already doing a lot for Britons in France and I'm grateful to have been given the opportunity to speak here.
“At the moment both sides are just waiting to see who shoots first.”