Brexit: Why Brits in rural France face ‘being left out in the cold’

Worries are growing that thousands of Brits in rural France are still unaware of just how Brexit could impact them, especially in the event of a no-deal, because the UK government is not doing enough to reach them. The British embassy in Paris has defended its efforts.

Over the past year the British embassy in Paris and citizens' rights groups have been trying to spread the word about how Britain's departure from the EU will impact them and what steps they should take to secure their futures.

But while those in France who have regular access to the internet and follow social media may now be well informed about the likely impact of Brexit on their lives, there are are concerns that thousands more who live in deepest rural France may not be aware of what's coming.

In recent months Britons have been encouraged by both British and French officials to apply for a Carte de Séjour residency permit – albeit many prefectures have halted applications until they know more about how, when or even if Britain will leave the EU.

But only a small percentage of the estimated 150,000 Britons in France have actually applied.

Kathryn Dobson, who lives in south west France and is part of the citizens' rights campaign group British in Europe, told The Local the situation is now getting critical and the British government via its embassy must act before it's too late.

“With the likelihood of no-deal being dialled up in recent weeks, getting information to British nationals in France is now urgent,” said Dobson.

“If no deal happens on October 31st, there are likely to be tens of thousands who have no idea that they only have six months to apply.

READ ALSO: Is the British government doing enough to support Brits in Europe?

(Scroll down for a questionnaire on what you think the British or French governments should be doing)

“The British community is diverse – from individuals completely integrated in their French community who may have been here since they were young and consider themselves more French than British, to those who live very rural lives, perhaps with no access to the internet.

“How will they all be informed? Even many of those that are easy to reach are waiting to be told 'officially' to do something. As far as we know neither the UK or French governments have agreed communication plans. Even if funding were available today, plans take time to implement and to achieve results and October 31st isn't far away.”

Web Bug from British embassy in Paris has held numerous “outreach” meetings around France over the past year in order to try to get the right information across to residents. More meetings are planned over the coming months.

Embassy staff have also held live Q&A sessions on Facebook as has the French government. But the communication appears only online and via social media sites.

Kathryn Dobson, who runs Living Magazine, recently published a post on the Facebook page of the Remain in France Together (RIFT) group asking members if they had seen any posters from the British Embassy advertising their outreach meetings.

There were over 1,000 replies, pretty much of all of which read “no”.

She said: “When will the governments be ready to engage with British nationals to explain the process and the deadlines? My worry is that it will all be too little, too late, and many will be left out in the cold.”

'It could do better'

In a recent appearance before a parliamentary select committee in London, Kalba Meadows from British in Europe and citizens' rights group Remain in France Together said more needed to be done.

“We are a rural population. British citizens in France are spread over a really wide area, with some living an hour or two hours from a big centre of population,” Meadows told MPs.

“That means that events that have been arranged don’t necessarily have a very large catchment area for people.

“One of the big problems has been that they have often been arranged at very short notice – sometimes a week or 10 days – and they have often been arranged during working hours. We have noticed that the numbers of people attending have been decreasing.

“They do not have terribly good feedback, because people say to us that they are not really addressing the issues. Therefore, people do not go.

“Another problem is that they are only advertised via social media – Facebook particularly – and you are simply not going to reach all British people living in France via social media. Of course, that leads on to a whole big question about communication and outreach. It could do better.”

Claire Casson a resident in Dordogne told The Local a recent outreach meeting in Perigueux should have been held centrally. She said many people turned up late because they were lost and the meeting had long since started.

“I sincerely hope that the machinery will be ready to roll in the terrifying event of a no deal so that the support will be there to allay unnecessary fears,” she said.

There are also problems on the French side mainly linked to the fact that prefectures in different areas are doing things differently. While some Britons report an easy process, others living in different parts of France say they are unable to get appointments.

France has admitted that the problem of processing all the residency applications from Britons over the coming months will be a challenge.

'We need to know how many Brits there are'

Sandrine Gaudin, the French Prime Minister's Europe adviser, told a special parliamentary commission on Brexit earlier this year 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 actually 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.

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.

French MP Alexander Holroyd, who wrote a parliamentary report on Brexit, has raised concerns 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.

He has called on the procedures to be simplified.

“If not then prefectures will be overrun for years to come,” he has said.

Boris Johnson, who has repeatedly insisted Britain will leave the EU on October 31st with or with a deal, has promised to launch a massive information campaign to make sure Britain and Britons are prepared for a no-deal exit.

Needless to say it has not been well received by Britons in Europe.

The British Embassy in Paris told The Local it is “working on reaching more and more British nationals in France.”

A spokesperson added that their Facebook Q&A sessions have reached over 120,000 people and their 70 outreach meetings have been attended by between 10 and 400 people each time.

“The meetings are advertised via expat media, local associations, on GOV.UK, and shared on social media. When holding the meetings we also work with French regional press to amplify the information locally,” the spokesperson said.

“Our consular teams in Paris, Marseille and Bordeaux have a special focus on reaching vulnerable persons and are therefore working with numerous local associations, expat groups, and the Mayors’ Association to raise awareness and share information. We’ve sent hundreds of posters to town halls and associations, and we also ask people attending our outreach meetings to display them in their towns and villages.

“Finally, we have discussed the need for widespread and accessible communications with the French government and are expecting official government information to be publicised when Brexit happens.”

CLICK HERE to read the full response from the embassy on what it is doing and how it is reaching Brits in France.





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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.