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BREXIT

Brexit: The Withdrawal Agreement won’t stop Brits in France ‘falling through the gaps’

Researcher Michaela Benson has been studying the impact of Brexit on Britons in France. She tells The Local why the Withdrawal Agreement will do little to ease anxieties and says only time will tell how many Britons will "fall through the gaps" and perhaps end up living in France undocumented.

Brexit: The Withdrawal Agreement won't stop Brits in France 'falling through the gaps'
Photo by Frederick Tubiermont on Unsplash

Since June 2017, Dr Michaela Benson – a British researcher from Goldsmiths University in London – has interviewed more than 100 Britons in France to find out how the long, drawn-out Brexit process has impacted them both emotionally and materially.

Before the shock 2016 referendum result Brits in France were hardly “scrutinised” by French authorities because, just like in the UK, there was no requirement to register as residents.

But since then they have been forced to emerge and show their faces to French officials whom they must now convince they are and have been legally resident here.

READ ALSO So you're living in France, but are you legally resident here?

AFP

While thousands have gone down the route of seeking citizenship most –  encouraged by French officials and the British embassy, applied for a Carte de Séjour residency permit.

That was until uncertainty around a no-deal Brexit and the sheer number of applicants forced authorities in many parts of France to put a temporary halt on applications.

Thousands more have done nothing, preferring to wait until the future is a little clearer.

With the British parliament giving the Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Withdrawal Agreement the green light on Wednesday, it's now almost a formality that Brexit will happen on January 31st.

Withdrawal Agreement won't ease anxiety

While Brexit might at least mark the end of three and a half years of limbo for Britons in France, it's unlikely to really encourage them to feel more secure about their futures.

“It's alarming from the point of view of people's lives. The WIthdrawal Agreement doesn't provide them with any certainty,” Benson tells The Local.
 
“Regardless of how they are treated and the reassurances from governments it's the fact they lack legal certainty which is alarming them. People want to be sure of their futures but they are not sure about what they need to do.
 
“There's been three and a half years of prolonged uncertainty and they will not have their lives put at ease simply by the Withdrawal Agreement being passed.”
 
 
AFP
 
As she states in her recent article titled “Brexit and the Classed Politics of Bordering” Britons in France are affected by Brexit unevenly and while many can adjust to the change in status others are not well placed to respond to the challenges of Brexit.
 
While the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) “offers new legislation to support the continued residence of those Britons who have lawfully exercised their treaty rights as EU citizens, it remains to be seen how individual member states will implement the terms of this deal for British citizens living within their borders.”
 
Even at this late stage Britons in France are still waiting to find out how the French government will implement the terms of the WA.
 
No one is blaming France however. After all the political uncertainty and no-deal posturing in the UK over the last three years, it's no surprise the French are waiting until Britain is finally out of the door with the divorce papers signed before moving on.
 
Devastating to be turned down for residency
 
But given that up until late last year Britons were being encouraged to come forward and apply for residency, it has meant some have unfortunately found out they don't meet the legal requirements.
 
Benson has been in touch a small number of Britons who have lived in France for many years but have been turned down for a residency permit.
 
She met Leigh who has owned a house in Brittany since 2004 and lived permanently in France since 2012.
 
She quotes Leigh saying: “I been here full time living and working, paying into society since 2012 . . . I had cancer in 2014 so had a low income as a micro-entrepreneur [small-scale entrepreneur] for several years in my recovery stage. I’ve been refused a carte de séjour twice.”

Benson believes Leigh is just one of the first to “fall between the gaps”.

READ ALSO What the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement means for British people in France

The Local was also contacted by a British pensioner, living in the south west who was turned down for a carte de séjour over a combination of the fact his main income was through French welfare benefits and that he mistakenly had not declared his very small British pension to French tax authorities.

He has since moved to retroactively declare his pension and has appealed the verdict.

Benson believes cases like this could just the be the tip of the iceberg.

“To be turned down for residency is devastating, that's the only word for it,” she says.
 
“There's only been a small number turned down but it could be the tip of the iceberg. Most are under appeal, they are not final.
 
“Many British citizens haven't actually done anything because they are not sure what to do. It's important these cases come forward.”
 
Before Brexit people didn't realise Freedom of Movement was conditional
 
Benson says part of the problem stems from the fact many did not appreciate Freedom of Movement wasn't unconditional added to the fact that up until recently Brits have not been forced to justify their presence in France to French authorities.
 
“It's remarkable that before Brexit a lot of people didn't understand that Freedom of Movement was a conditional right,” she says.
 
“Brits in France find themselves in an unprecedented situation. Having the legal terms of their status called into question is not a situation you would wish on anyone,” she said.

“People are confused. Part of the problem is that in France people were never questioned about their right to be there permanently.

“They just thought I'll go and live in another country and have the rights and benefits provided by the EU. It's been a very steep learning curve since Brexit as people have realised Freedom of Movement was conditional and they would now be evaluated on strict terms.
 
“This has proved devastating and worrying for people,” Benson says.
 
In some cases Britons are already being judged on new criteria even if they remain EU citizens effectively until the end of December.
 
She was contacted by one young British woman who said she had been told not to bother turning up for a job interview unless she had a Carte de Séjour, even though at that point there was no legal requirement to do so.
 
Will more Brits become 'undocumented'?

 
She believes the inevitable effect of people fearing or indeed knowing they do not meet the legal requirements for residence is France is that they go off radar.
 
“What's likely to happen, and we've seen this with other EU nationals, is that more people will become 'undocumented' or unlawfully resident in France,” says Benson.
 
“There's always been Europeans living like this. There are many reasons why people might live undocumented. Some may have the right to reside in a country but just don't have the documentation.”
 
People like 70-year-old widow Pam, whom Benson tracked down at her rundown home in the Lot, southern France, where she had lived since 2000, surviving mainly on a meagre state pension.
 
“When we came to the discussion of what she might do, it became clear that she did not have the luxury of dwelling on the possible routes that she might take to secure her future. She was focused on living from one day to the next,” Benson writes in her article.
 
How many Brits in France will be in Pam's situation? The reality is we might never find out how many Brexit has pushed into the shadows.
 
Benson writes: “Only time will tell who falls between the gaps when existing legislation is enforced and new legislation brought in. What is clear is that in the process some British citizens living in France will be recast as ‘deserving citizens’, deemed of value to the states in which they live, while others will be cast aside.”
 
 
 
Dr Michaela Benson is a Reader in Sociology based at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is known for her research into British emigration, and most recently her leadership of the UK in a Changing Europe funded research project (2017-19), BrExpats: Freedom of Movement, Citizenship and Brexit in the lives of Britons living in the EU-27 (https://brextibritsabroad.org), which explored in detail what Brexit means to and for Britons resident in the EU27.
 

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VISAS

‘Be ready to wait’: Your tips for getting a French visa post-Brexit

Now that Britain is out of the EU, just how much harder is the process of moving to France from the UK after Brexit? British readers share their experiences of applying for visas as 'third country nationals’.

'Be ready to wait': Your tips for getting a French visa post-Brexit

Whether you’re moving to France to live, or you’re a second-home owner wanting to spend more than 90 days out of every 180 in France, if you’re British you will now need a visa.

You can find more on how to apply for a visa, and how to understand what type of visa you need, in our visa section HERE.

But how these systems work in practice is not always the same as the theory.

To learn more about the process of getting a visa as a UK national, The Local asked British readers for their experiences of going through the system.

The consensus among respondents was that the whole thing was bureaucratic, though there were notable differences in experiences that ranged from the “easy” to the “complicated” and “time-consuming”, while the advice for future applicants was, routinely, have all your paperwork ready – and be prepared for a lengthy wait at one of the UK’s TLS centres

Appointments

Like most visas, French visas for UK nationals must be applied for before you leave home. You can find a full explanation of the process here, but the basic outline is that you apply for the visa online, and then have an in-person appointment in the UK in order to present your paperwork. 

Sue Clarke told us: “As long as you get all your paperwork together correctly and in the right order, the time it takes to receive your passport back with the visa in it once TLS has sent it off is only a few days.

“TLS – the centre which works on behalf of the French Embassy to collate your application – is so very busy,” she added. “That part of the process took hours even when you have an appointment.”

READ ALSO EXPLAINED: What type of French visa do you need?

“The visa process itself was fairly well run, and a decision for the initial visa was quick,” wrote Ian Sheppard, who successfully applied for a visa in July 2022. 

“Although getting the follow up residence permit was a pain, [and] took longer than expected, and there was little to no communication with severely limited ways to get in touch about the application.”

Sheppard thought that, biometrics apart, the process could have taken place online, and wondered whether the follow-up residence permit application could be more closely linked to the initial visa application, “rather than effectively submitting the same application twice”.

Georgina Ann Jolliffe described the process as “stressful”. 

“A lot of the initial stage was unclear and I needed a lot of reassurance about the visa trumping the Schengen 90 days. (The Local helped on that one),” she wrote. 

“[The] lack of ready communication was very stressful. It could be slicker, however staff at Manchester TLS were excellent.”

Jacqueline Maudslay, meanwhile, described the process as “complicated”, saying: “The waiting times for the appointment with the handling agent (TLS in the UK) are long and difficult to book online. We applied for a long-stay visa and were given a short-stay visa, with no reasoning and no option of talking to anyone.  

“We had met every criteria for the long-stay visa. There needs to be a contact link with the French Consular website directly for discussing visa applications.”

Handling agent TLS’s website – the first port of call for applicants from the UK – was a target for criticism.

“The TLS system is probably the most user unfriendly system I have ever used,” wrote Susan Kirby. “It throws up errors for no legitimate reason and even changes data you have keyed in. Dates are in American format so you have to be very careful and it can be very difficult to edit.”

Bea Addison, who applied for a visa in September 2021 with a view to retiring in France, agreed that it was complicated and believes the French system is chaotic and badly organised compared to other countries. “Even staff in the French Embassy in London were not knowledgeable of the process and documentation,” she wrote.

“The renewal in France was applied for in July 2022 … we have received an attestation that we will be granted renewal visas, which expired in October 2022, but we have not yet received a date to attend the préfecture due to a backlog.

Second-home owners

Many of our survey respondents were not moving to France, but were instead second-home owners who did not want to be constrained by the 90-day rule.

They have the option of remaining residents of the UK and applying for a short-stay French visitor visa – which must be renewed every year.

Second-home owner Peter Green told us: “Our appointment with TLS was delayed by two and a half hours and the whole experience was chaotic.

“We now have to go through exactly the same process again to get a visa for 2023. With second-home owners there should be a fast track that just involves proving financial viability, nothing else has changed. The system needs to be fully computerised.”

Second-home owner Alan Cranston told us his application met with no problems, but came with “unwanted cost and effort”. 

“Our six-month visa was for our first stint at our house in France in the spring, and that then overlapped our second visit in the autumn which was under Schengen. How that is handled seems to be a muddle (we did not leave the country for a day at the end of the six months, as some advise),” he said. 

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