In the wake of the UK’s Brexit vote, many migrants to Britain have been made to feel like unwelcome outsiders. At the end of a visit to the country in early May, the UN special rapporteur on racism, Tendayi Achiume, said there had been a growth in “explicit racial, ethnic and religious intolerance” since Brexit.
But Britons have long been migrants elsewhere too. My own research among British people living in south-west France showed how they are often obsessed with their own integration into French society.
Integration is a difficult concept to measure or define. It’s reflected in social cohesion and with being able to work and socialise with people outside your own culture. But it’s not a one-way street. Integration depends on a degree of acceptance from the existing population – some have even argued there needs to be a more active two-way process of adapting to each other.
Among those I interviewed, their obsession with integration sometimes mirrored their attitudes towards immigrants in the UK. One interviewee compared what he saw as isolated clusters of migrants in England with huddles of Britons living abroad together. He said: “In England we call them ghettos, when you get all the Caribbean people living here and all the Polish people living there. That shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be in England and it shouldn’t be out here.”
Many interviewees cited stereotypes of Britons abroad: that they isolate themselves from the locals, depend on British foods, services and each other, and they don’t learn the language. There was criticism, of “other” Britons whom they felt were doing things the wrong way. The stereotypes were also reinforced in dozens of press articles about the British in France.
Even since the 2016 EU referendum, media reports on the high numbers of Britons working in Europe have used stereotypical images that imply Britons in the EU spend their time sitting around in bars draped in the Union Jack flag. No one wants to be aligned with that stereotype, and the Britons in France whom I spoke with were keen to avoid being seen as part of a British network or community.
Easier said than done
Many of those I spoke to felt that they managed quite well in French on a “need to know basis”, relying on more competent acquaintances to translate documents and even accompany them to hospital appointments. However, such dependency contradicts the idea of being integrated.
What surprised me was how creative people became when articulating a sense of what it meant to be integrated – for them. One couple, whose low level of French limited their activities, skimmed over their lack of socialising and emphasised their compliance with French residency laws. They contrasted themselves with the “part-timers” who still drove around with UK registration plates.
Another couple talked about how being treated like “freaks” or “royalty” at a neighbour’s wedding – where everyone wanted to have a photograph taken with them because they were English – showed how they were properly being integrated. Yet their choice of language sounded more as if they were being positioned as outsiders by their French neighbours.
The same people had proudly told me that they filled the car with bacon and teabags on their twice yearly trips home, just a few minutes after describing other Britons as sad and wrong for continuing to eat British foods. They added that the French expected to be shown what the British eat, and therefore they were merely addressing a “duty” to show the French things such as fish and chips and haggis.
Almost everyone I spoke to was reluctant to position themselves within any kind of British community. People claimed that they didn’t mix with other Britons living nearby, although it became clear that most of them knew each other.
It became clear that being integrated can mean very different things to different people. The Britons I interviewed in France were so keen to avoid the British stereotype that they interpreted the concept of “integration” to fit around their own behaviour.
All of this could well be changing in the turbulent Brexit landscape. Britons now face an uncertain future regarding their right to reside in France, if the current plans set out in the draft withdrawal agreement between the EU and UK fall through.
Having caught up with one of my interviewees after the vote in late 2017, I detected a feeling of dislocation, or disconnection, from Britain itself. This made me wonder how far Brexit might now be bolstering a sense of being part of a British community in France, in the face of a common threat.
People are certainly seeking support in numbers, for example the buoyant RIFT (Remain in France Together) network, a campaign and support group of over 6,000 members. These kinds of networks appear to be generating a stronger manifestation of a British-in-France identity.
At the same time I suspect that they will subdue some of the reluctance to be a part of it. As the British incomers seek solidarity, my guess is that they will become less reluctant to be seen as part of the British community in France.
Michelle Lawson is an associate lecturer for the Open University in Britain in Applied Linguistics.