‘Brits in France are victims of Brexit’ – French senator vows to fight for UK citizens

French Senator Olivier Cadic told The Local he is casting a protective eye over the British community in France as Brexit approaches. Cadic also spoke of the change of atmosphere in the UK since the referendum, which he says has led to discrimination against French citizens.

'Brits in France are victims of Brexit' - French senator vows to fight for UK citizens
Senator Olivier Cadic in the centre with representatives of British citizens in Europe and EU citizens living in the UK. Photo: British in Europe.

“They (British citizens) are a priority,” France’s Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau told The Local this week. London must show they see the French in the UK in the same way, she added.

French Senator Olivier Cadic, who represents French citizens abroad, echoed Loiseau’s goodwill towards Brits in France in an interview with The Local..

“I will deal with the British in France as if they were the French in the UK. The same way. They are not responsible for the situation. They are victims,” Cadic, France’s senator representing French citizens abroad, told The Local.

Cadic said Brits in France represent an “added value” to local economies across the country, often in areas that have suffered from depopulation or economic depression in recent years.

“In many cases, they came to villages in France that were dying and made an impact. They represent an added value for many places in France. I will do my best to support them,” he said Cadic, suggesting the French government is keen to do the same. “They have lost so much because of the devaluation of the Pound Sterling. Especially business owners and pensioners.”

With less than two weeks to go until the UK parliament votes on the draft Brexit deal, Brits in France and French citizens in the UK face a tense countdown.

READ ALSO: 'You are a priority': French minister tries to reassure anxious Britons in France

Both essentially face two similar potential futures.

If the agreement is approved, Brits in France and those who make the move before December 2020 will be entitled to the package of rights contained in the draft Withdrawal Agreement.

That means Britons who come to France before the end of the transition period, December 2020, will be able to stay and carry on working, studying, drawing a pension, and accessing healthcare here. They will likely have to go through a registration process to obtain a post-Brexit residency permit although the details of what this might involve have not yet been made public. Britons are being urged to apply for a Carte de Séjour as soon as possible.

Brits will, however, lose their current treaty right to freedom of movement throughout the EU27 (under the current proposed deal). 

French citizens in the UK will be offered a similar residency package known as “settled status”.

Brits in France will no longer be able to vote in local elections nor move freely throughout the EU27, although foreign office officials in the UK and the EU have told The Local that the reciprocal right to vote in local elections could be negotiated for both sets of communities in the next phase of the negotiations.

The situation becomes more complicated if the UK parliament rejects the deal British Prime Minister Theresa May is lobbying MPs to approve. MPs, senators, public officials and campaigners in EU27 states have suggested citizenship rights should, and could, be ring-fenced regardless of the fate of the Withdrawal Agreement..

Both the3million group, which represents EU citizens in the UK, and British in Europe, the grassroots group which represents Brits in the EU27, will step up their demand for citizenship rights to be ring-fenced should the deal agreed by the EU and the UK this month fail to make it through Westminster.

READ ALSO: Italian foreign office reps suggest agreed rights for Brits could be ring-fenced in event of no-deal

Senator Olivier Cadic, an outspoken critic of Brexit, moved to Kent with his electronics company in 1996. He says widows and sections of the elderly French community in the UK are some of the most vulnerable among French citizens in the UK. But when it comes to young people, Senator Cadic is more worried about Brits in the EU than French citizens in the UK.

“I think that young French citizens in the UK and highly-mobile citizens will just have to find a new country,” Cadic told The Local. After all, young French citizens in the UK retain the right to move freely, work and settle in the EU27, a right that their British counterparts in the EU look set to lose.

“I'm more worried about the young British, I'm really worried about them. If they are living in France, they will no longer be able to go freely to Germany, Spain or Italy for example for work,” adds Cadic.

Citing a survey of French citizens in the UK conducted by OpinionWay, Senator Cadic says 13 per cent of the estimated 300,000 French citizens in the UK have said they will leave the country because of Brexit. A further 25 per cent are not sure they will remain.

“A lot of French citizens in the UK are worried about their future. They are worried, for example, about the devaluation of the currency – their assets and pensions are in sterling. Many pensioners who have their money invested in a British retirement fund are worried if they will be able to stay,” says the senator.

READ ALSO: Emotion and relief: How Brits in France feel to have secured their futures amid Brexit anxiety

Cadic, who says he helped bring 1,000 French companies to the UK in the last 22 years as part of his work, adds that he himself could leave the country because of the increased climate of hostility towards foreigners.

“I was very happy there (ED: in Kent) until Brexit,” Cadic told The Local. “Now everything has changed. The reception of people from abroad is different. Maybe they didn't like foreigners before, but now they show it.”

Other French citizens settled in the UK have reported a climate of racism towards French citizens “that did not exist ten years ago.”

“People are much more careful about speaking their own language,” Nicolas Hatton, chair of the3million – which represents EU citizens in the UK – and himself a French citizen resident in Bristol, told The Local. “It used to be banter. Now it has turned ugly,” added Hatton.

Senator Cadic sees no benefit for the UK in Brexit and has challenged Brexiters to demonstrate the point. “Maybe some Brits dream about the exit. The French do not. That's why I said to Jacob Rees-Mogg: 'Give me one single reason why this is an advantage'. He couldn't,” Cadic said

READ MORE: OPINION: It's time to ring-fence citizens rights before Brexit

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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.