900 Britons set to lose places on French councils after Brexit

After Britain leaves the European Union some 900 Britons serving on local councils in France will also have to give up their seat at the table.

900 Britons set to lose places on French councils after Brexit
Town councils in France will have to do without Britons in future. Photo: AFP
BrexitLike all EU citizens living in another member country, Britons in France have the right to vote in local elections and stand for election to their local council. But in leaving the bloc Britain will forfeit that right, meaning that British residents will no longer be able to represent the communities some have served for years.
Sandra Sheward and her husband moved to the western French region of Brittany 13 years ago.
“Our children fled the nest and we decided to drop out of the rat race in London,” said Sheward, 58, a former training specialist for a property services company.
The pair restored a farmhouse on the edge of Saint-Caradec, a riverside village of 1,200 people, where Sheward was courted by the mayor to join his slate of candidates for the municipal council in 2014.
Being the only non-French councillor, and one who has yet to fully master the language, has not been an obstacle, says Sheward, a born organiser who developed the village's Christmas art market and helped set up a yoga class, among other activities.
“She doesn't speak much during council meetings but when she does it's always very constructive,” Mayor Alain Guillaume said. In a region that draws large numbers of British tourists and where a number of Britons have second homes, it's also helpful to have a native English speaker to call on for translations and other assistance.
But if Britain leaves the EU as expected, Sheward will be forced to bow out of politics at the next local elections in 2020.
“French villages are like ghost towns so it has been nice to be on the council. You get to meet more people!” said Sheward, who has applied for residency in France.
“I'd like to be re-elected but it depends on Brexit,” she said, adding with a sigh: “I just wish they'd get on with it so that we too can get on with our lives.”
Sandra Sheward risks losing her place on the municipal council in Saint-Caradec, Brittany. Photo: Fred Tanneau/AFP
'Mad Englishwoman with dogs'
According to official British statistics, France is home to a little over 157,000 British citizens, making it the biggest expatriate British community after that of Spain. Outside Paris, large numbers are to be found in Brittany and the southwestern Dordogne region.
France has given them a year after Brexit to apply for residency but many have decided not to wait for divorce day to get their papers in, swamping local authorities.
The government has attempted to fend off panic, with former European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau assuring in March: “We want them to stay. They are an asset for France.”
About 10 kilometres to the west of Sheward's village in Brittany, an Englishwoman is also a lynchpin of her community. 
Jacqueline Bertho, 60, from Yorkshire, ended up in France in 2000 after a divorce, and began a new life in “Kreiz Breizh” — Breton for the centre of Brittany, where she lives with her Breton husband and their daughter.
In the village of Saint-Guen (population 450), which is “very rural, like 1960s Britain”, the chatty 60-year-old is a well-known figure. “I'm the mad Englishwoman with the dogs,” she jokes. 
('Mad Englishwoman with dogs' Jacqueline Bertho is a member of the local council in Saint-Guen, Brittany.  Photo: Fred Tanneau/AFP)
While still feeling “very much British”, Bertho says she has thrown herself into community life, volunteering to teach English to local schoolkids, helping the elderly and, since 2014, becoming a member of the council.
A year after her election, Bertho obtained French citizenship, meaning her place in France is assured.
But she worries that other British couples who retired to the region, where they restored old houses and helped revive villages that were in their death throes, will struggle.
“Most won't be able to become French,” she said, citing their French language skills, which are put to a citizenship test, as a key hurdle.
Tim Richardson, a British winemaker who sits on the council of the Dordogne village of Eymet, is one of those waiting for news on his citizenship application, which he submitted last year.
The father-of-two, who has been living since 1991 in the region nicknamed Dordogneshire after its large British population, is confident of becoming French.
And if he is forced to give up his council seat? “Tant pis (too bad)”, he said in a telephone interview. “It's not the end of the world. There is no reason I cannot continue helping out in local life.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


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.