There are an estimated 150,000 Brits living in France, and though the lives of each one will inevitably be affected by Brexit, it is certainly not the case that all of them were for staying in the EU, as many might have imagined.
While happily choosing to live in France and within the EU but voting for Britain to be independent might seem like a contradiction to many, things are a little more complicated than that.
Many Brits in France voted to leave the EU.
While there is no sign of regret, the problem these expat-leavers face is that the issue of Brexit among Brits living abroad appears to have become even more divisive and poisonous than it was in Britain before the referendum.
There is still much anger among many Remain-voting Brits in France over the referendum result and indeed over the way the British government is leading the country towards a so-called “hard Brexit”, because of what that could mean for their rights.
Brits in France who voted leave or who have expressed anti-EU sentiment say they have felt the wrath of remainers.
Adopted Parisian Christopher said he and others who might hold a similar position have been “silenced by the mob”.
- 'Brexpats' in France: Which group do you belong to?
- Why we're becoming French: 'It's far more than just Brexit'
- Brits seeking residency in France told 'come back after Brexit'
“I used to belong to various British immigrant Facebook groups, groups in which things like gardening and cheap ferry deals were discussed,” he told The Local.
“While I understood the concerns, any attempt to talk about [Brexit] let loose a rabid mob of Brits who were personally insulting, vicious and derogatory towards me, even down to rummaging through my Facebook profile to try and dig up any dirt on me.”
“I have since left those groups and made my profile private: lesson learnt.”
'I was given the cold shoulder'
One female retiree we spoke to, who lives in the south of France and preferred to remain anonymous for fear of recriminations, told a similar story.
“I am reluctant to expose myself to further abuse,” she told us.
“Since I announced I’d voted out, a couple of people have quietly said that they also voted the same way but publicly say they voted Remain, because they were worried about the social consequences,” she told The Local.
“They had seen or heard some of the flack I’ve received and witnessed the cold shoulder I was given in the following months.
“The passion which has been displayed by remainers has been surprisingly fierce,” she adds.
For many Brits in France, the subject of Brexit is now something not to be talked about at the dinner table, for the sake of keeping the peace.
“Despite all that’s happened since, I still think I made the right choice, as do my Remain friends — but we agree not to discuss it between us generally,” said the female retiree.
But one simple question many want to ask leave voters living in France them is “why”?
'Referendum was about what was best for UK, not individuals'
Robert Hodge, a former UK local government employee turned retiree in the Vendee department of western France, can vouch for that. Hodge backs Brexit despite the UK’s eventual split from the EU potentially making his life more difficult.
He came to France with his then-wife in 2003, originally thinking he would stay only 18 months, but when they divorced, he decided to stay, attracted in part by cheaper living costs.
“I suppose that the reason I took advantage of the EU’s rules about freedom of movement was simply because I could do so, and that it was convenient for me at the time,” he told The Local.
However, he felt strongly that his referendum vote should reflect what he thought best for his country of origin, rather than him personally.
(Eymet, in Dordogne, where many Brits live, including some who voted leave. AFP)
“My personal view has always been that the referendum was about asking the people what they wanted and thought would be best for the future of the UK as a whole, rather than what they thought would be best for themselves,” Hodge told The Local.
“I put matters of personal well-being to one side and considered matters such as sovereignty and independence of the UK, as well as the future overall economic prosperity of the UK — I have two children and one grandchild who are resident in the UK.
“Many leave voters are a bit concerned about the personal impact that Brexit may have on themselves”, he told The Local, “but overall, especially when they consider the future of their younger relatives in the UK, they feel that Brexit is a good thing.”
“I know a number of Brits here who would have voted ‘Leave’ had they been resident in the UK, but who admit that they voted ‘Remain’ for purely personal and selfish reasons invariably revolving around finance and health care,” he added.
'I've earned the right to criticize the EU'
Christopher, aged 55, who works in the travel industry in Paris, voted out because he believes after the treaties of Maastricht and Lisbon the current European Union is “entirely against what us Brits voted for in 1975”.
“My opinion was not formed by any fuss or nonsense about Turkey joining or even too much about unchecked immigration, but was formed many years before,” he said.
He said that people he meets are surprised by his position. “They assume that once you live in Europe you somehow must love all that goes with it,” he said
“France has been my home for 17 years and I've been with my French better half for 16 of those. I think that I've earned the right to be able to critique the EU and France from the inside, as well as from outside.”
And Dr Michaela Benson, a sociologist based at Goldsmiths University of London, who is currently leading a research project examining what Brexit means for UK citizens living in the EU27, said we really shouldn't be shocked by Brits living abroad voting to leave.
“Some people are very surprised when you say there are Britons living in the EU27 who have seemingly voted or have opinions more orientated towards Leave,” she said
“There’s absolutely no reason why the British population who live in the EU would not hold diverse opinions — just like their compatriots in the UK — on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union.”
“Political attitudes and behaviour are far more complicated than people voting on their self-interest would suggest,” she said.
Jealousy among French friends?
None of the Brits in France with whom we spoke reported a particularly hostile reaction from French friends and acquaintances, in fact some reported the opposite.
Angela Mackay, a 68-year-old retiree who lives in the Dordogne half the year and in Dorset the other six months, actually voted to remain, but since the referendum her position has solidified into a pro- Brexit one.
“At a recent lunch with eight French friends, all professionals, all eight backed Britain leaving the EU and were hoping for Frexit, stating the EU and the strong euro had done nothing to help the French economy,” she told The Local.
Robert Hodge in the Vendee department also describes French friends expressing “a certain jealousy”.
“There are indeed those who regard our stance as Brexiteers as being somewhat admirable in view of the fact that we admit that we may be shooting ourselves in the foot financially in order to do what we see as being best for our country in the long-term.”
Surveys have shown support in France for the EU has actually grown since the Brexit vote. In June it stood at 56 percent, a jump of 18 percentage points, according to a study by Pew Research Centre.
Are leave voters simply not concerned about their rights?
While many remain-voting Brits are worried about their futures and campaigning hard on the issue of citizens rights from Brits living in France, those who voted leave appear far more at ease with the limbo everyone is in.
One Leave-voting Brit living in France caused uproar on LBC radio recently when he told listeners he had no fear about his future in France.
“I don't believe anything is going to change…I am an independent Brit, living abroad and I'm happy to be that. I can come home any time I like with my British passport, if I so desire,” said the man named Steve, before admitting he had no desire to return to the UK.
Retired Robert Hodge is also confident his established status in France means he is unlikely to have to consider moving after Britain leaves.
“I still feel as secure as I ever did…I’ve always been ‘occupationally retired’ here, and so I really don’t see the French authorities doing anything to cause people such as myself to leave France post Brexit: we don’t take any jobs from the French, we pay our taxes, and we contribute considerable amounts of foreign exchange cash into the French economy,” said Hodge.
“Causing the Brits to leave France would be very economically damaging for France and so I don’t see that happening. I’m sort of quietly confident that things will turn out OK in the end.”
by Hannah Meltzer