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BREXIT

Abused, shunned but unfazed: What it’s like being a Brexit-supporting Brit in France

Brits living in France who backed Brexit say they have no regrets about their vote and appear unconcerned about their futures in their adopted country, but they do say they are more worried about being abused and ostracized by fellow British citizens.

Abused, shunned but unfazed: What it's like being a Brexit-supporting Brit in France
Photo: AFP
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”.
 
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(AFP)
 
“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
 
For members

BREXIT

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Brexit really does mean that Britons are no longer EU citizens. Claudia Delpero looks at whether there's any other way they can keep their rights.

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Britons lost EU citizenship when the UK left the EU, on 1st February 2020. 

It is the first time the EU’s top court has rules on the matter, after a number of legal cases challenged this specific Brexit outcome. The decision also sets a precedent should other countries decide to leave the bloc in the future. 

What has the EU Court decided?

The Court of Justice decided on a case brought by a British woman living in France.

Before Brexit, she could vote and stand as a candidate in her town of residence, Thoux. But after the UK withdrawal from the EU, she was removed from the electoral roll and excluded from the municipal elections that took place in March 2020, during the transition period.  

As the mayor refused her appeal to restore the registration, she took the case to the regional court in Auch, which agreed to request an interpretation of the rules to the EU top court. 

Julien Fouchet, the barrister supporting her and several other cases on the EU citizenship of British nationals, argued that the loss of EU citizenship and voting rights was disproportionate. It would also be contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, given that the woman also lost her voting rights in the UK, having lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Alice Bouillez, who has lived in France since 1984 and is married to a French national, could have applied for French citizenship, but did not do so because she said “this was not necessary” before Brexit and, as a former UK official, she had taken an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

On Thursday the Court of Justice announced the decision about her case. The court ruled that the “possession of the nationality of a member state is an essential condition for a person to be able to acquire and retain the status of citizen of the Union and to benefit fully from the rights attaching to that status.”

The court therefore confirmed that British nationals automatically lost their EU citizenship as a result of Brexit and, as a consequence, Britons also lost their voting and electoral rights in municipal elections in the EU (unless the country where they live set different rules). 

What is EU citizenship?

EU citizenship was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, when borders were opening and the bloc was integrating economically after the end of the Cold War. 

Under the treaty, every person holding the nationality of an EU member state is a citizen of the Union. EU citizenship is additional and does not replace nationality, the treaty specifies. But this creates the first form of a transnational citizenship that grants rights across borders.

EU citizens have the right to access each other’s territory, job market and services under the principle of non-discrimination. If they are economically active, they have the right to reside in other EU states and be joined by family members, access healthcare at the same conditions of nationals (for emergency treatment also when travelling temporarily), obtain social security benefits and see their professional qualifications recognised.

Beyond free movement, at the core of EU citizenship there are also political rights, such as participating in the European Parliament election, voting and standing as candidates in municipal elections when living in other EU countries, receiving consular protection from other EU states outside the EU, and taking part in European Citizens’ Initiatives asking to the EU to legislate on certain matters. 

Which EU citizenship rights have Britons lost with Brexit? 

For British citizens who were living in the EU before Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement protects some of these rights. Britons covered by deal have their residence, access to work and education, healthcare, social security and qualifications secured, but only in the country where they were living before Brexit.

But the right to free movement in other EU states, consular protection in third countries, and the political rights attached to EU citizenship were lost, the Court confirmed. 

For British citizens in the UK, the trade and cooperation agreement has preserved some social security rights and, in theory, the possibility to have professional qualifications recognized when moving to an EU country. These provisions however lack details and may take a long time before they work in practice. 

As the “European Union” no longer features on British passports, the possibility to access EU lanes at airports to skip passport control queues has also vanished. 

“The loss of those treasured rights has been clear to those of us living in the EU from the early days of Brexit. But for Brits in the UK, the realities of life outside the EU, and the consequences of Brexit, are only just dawning. Long queues at the borders, roaming charges, obstacles to working abroad, etc. are the new reality,” said Sue Wilson, Chair of the group Remain in Spain. 

While she said the court’s decision was “no real surprise,” she argued that “this is not the Brexit the public were promised, or that the majority voted for.”

Can British citizens get some of these rights back?

Julien Fouchet was disappointed at the Court decision and promised to continue the legal fight, bringing the case at the European Court of Human Rights (which is not an EU institution). 

Other two cases on the matter of EU citizenship for British nationals are still pending at the Court of Justice of the EU. One of them aims to determine whether EU citizenship is a “fundamental status” that cannot be removed but Thursday’s decision could have already provided the answer.

Another option to reconsider some of the rights is the renegotiation of EU-UK trade agreement, when it will be reviewed in 2025. 

Meanwhile, the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders. 

Applying for citizenship is so far the only option to regain voting rights, although not all EU countries allow dual nationality. 

Sue Wilson, who has long campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU, said: “There is only one way to restore the loss of our rights, and that’s to rejoin the single market, rejoin the customs union, and eventually, rejoin the European Union… Until that day, we will continue to be second class citizens whose rights have been diminished for the sake of an ideology.”

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