‘It must be made simpler’: The huge challenge France faces to register Britons after Brexit

The French parliament has backed a bill that will allow the government to better protect the status of Britons in France in the event of a no-deal, but the lawmaker behind the bill told The Local there are major challenges ahead, not least the fact no one quite knows how many Britons there are in France.

'It must be made simpler': The huge challenge France faces to register Britons after Brexit
Photo: AFP

The message has been clear from French lawmakers for quite some time: “we want Britons in France to stay here to live, work or retire after Brexit”.

And that's the case even in the event of a no-deal Brexit which the French are hurriedly preparing for, as British PM Theresa May struggles to win enough support in parliament for her deal and time is fast running out.

Last week French lawmakers in the National Assembly voted through a bill that will allow the French government to pass emergency laws to prevent or at least limit the chaos resulting from Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal.

Part of the bill is designed to allow France to act quickly to protect the rights of Britons living in the country and give them time to apply for the appropriate residency permit.

But that doesn't mean it will be easy. Indeed the report by MP Alexandre Holroyd highlights the challenges ahead for French administration.

“It's very clear in our minds that we want to preserve the rights of Britons living here,” the MP told The Local. “They all contribute to the economy and play a crucial role in their communities and should be protected.”

He added that there were two challenges: getting the bill into law and secondly making sure France has the resources to implement it at a bureaucratic level.

One of the initial problems is that because Brits have never been required to register here French authorities don't actually know for sure how many there are.

Sandrine Gaudin, the Prime Minister's Europe adviser told the special parliamentary commission on Brexit that “In order for us to know the number of files from British citizens that we will have to deal with, we will have to know with some certainty how many British nationals live in France.

“Between 150,000 and 200,000 British nationals live in France, but it is very difficult to arrive at a more accurate figure,” she said.

While Brits are being encouraged to apply for a Carte de Séjour (CdS) even in the event of a Brexit deal being ratified it is estimated by French officials that only 20,000 out of an estimated 150,000 Brits living in France have applied for one.

French parliament notes there is also a rise in the number of British people taking French nationality but it's hardly enough to reduce the bureaucratic burden that is mounting: 500 Brits were given French nationality in 2016, 1,500 in 2017 and 1,300 applied in the first half of 2018.

One of the challenges facing the French government is that Brits are not evenly spread out throughout the country with some prefectures inundated with CdS applications while others have had very few.

Most British live in three region of France: Nouvelle-Acquitaine (26 percent), Occitanie (17 percent) and Île-de-France (13 percent).

French lawmakers pin point 17 prefectures that are under more pressure than others, including seven that are struggling to meet the demands including Dordogne, Charente, Alpes-Maritimes and Haute-Vienne.

MP Alexander Holroyd is concerned that the correct information is just not getting out to Britons around France.

“There's a real risk that many British nationals do not have the necessary information and cannot, therefore, anticipate the consequences of Brexit on their personal status,” writes Holroyd.

But Holroyd says the problems are not just due to a lack of awareness among British nationals and has been made aware by the UK embassy in Paris of the difficulty Britons have had getting hold of the right information from prefectures around the country.

Holroyd “considers that it is urgently necessary to coordinate information among the prefectures, so that they can best guide the British nationals who come to their counter.”

He believes all prefectures could follow the lead of Vienne and publish information on their website about Carte de Sejours in English.

Holroyd told The Local there was also an urgent need to simplify procedures.

“It's very clear in my mind we want to protect citizens rights as much as possible, for them and for the state. We need to find a way to simplify procedures as much as possible,” he said; “If not then prefectures will be overrun for years to come.

“It will be mutually beneficial to find a solution to improve procedure,” he added.

His report reads: “The current procedures which often involve up to five consecutive visits to the prefecture to obtain a residence permit are not compatible with the number of British nationals potentially concerned.”

Many Britons in France are avoiding applying for a Carte de Sejour for fear they will be rejected if they can't prove they are self-sustainable.

Holroyd told The Local that to avoid Britons in France who have been here for years being denied residency and even asked to leave he believes some of the rules around the criteria to qualify for a CdS should be wavered, particularly around levels of income.

“But that's my view, not necessarily the view of the government,” he said adding that he would encourage all Britons to apply for a CdS.

For her part the French PM's Europe advisor Sandrine Gaudin said the government still envisaged a decentralized approach with prefectures around the country handling applications rather than a central body in Paris.

And time will be given.

“We will of course give some time to the British nationals to carry out their steps, they will not be obliged the morning of March 30 to report to the prefecture, in the “foreigners” queue,” she told the parliamentary commission.

She said the interior ministry will “mobilise extra means” for as long as is necessary to deal with all the demands from British CdS applicants.



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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.