Brexit leaves French Brits stuck in the middle

The Bitter End: landlord Giles Goulding in his "genuine English pub" just outside Paris.
The Bitter End: landlord Giles Goulding in his "genuine English pub" just outside Paris. RFI

Ahead of this week’s European elections, with the United Kingdom half way to Brexit, how do Brits living in France feel about it all?


Giles Goulding, from the south of England has run The Bitter End pub in the town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye just west of Paris for nearly 22 years.

He says he tried to create "a genuine English pub" for British customers that might appeal as well to the local French people. The pub buzzes with conversation and he says he talks about Brexit with his customers “all the time”.

The town has a sizeable British population and many of the Brits living there, like Giles, now see France as their home.

Any European Union citizen can settle anywhere in the EU and with Britain an EU member, that’s just what many Britons did.

But Brexit changes all that.

Because he had lived outside the UK for more than 15 years, Giles was not allowed to vote in the 2016 referendum that decided Brexit.

And yet it’s a result that is having a big impact on his life.

He has become a French citizen although he says he doesn’t feel French.

But then neither, he says a little apologetically, does he feel he identifies with much of “what’s going on in England” any more.

“I DO feel European”, he says, "I’ve always felt European and, like a lot of people who moved to live and work in Europe, who bought into the whole European idea, the Brexit thing is a massive shock and a disappointment.”

He’s angry that he had no say in the vote.

“I own property in the UK, part of my pension, part of my wife’s pension is in the UK, my parents, my wife’s mother are in the UK, one of my daughters is in the UK and I do business with the UK every month – you can’t tell me I have no interest in what happens in the country.”

Becoming more European because of Brexit!

23-year-old English au pair Emma is waiting to collect the two children she cares for outside their primary school in the suburbs of Paris.

She’s been in France since August and comes from Thetford, not far from the east coast of Britain, a place which voted strongly in favour of Brexit.

Emma says that growing up, she couldn’t really see what the EU offered her, and that it seemed like a good thing for OTHER sorts of Briton.

“When I was at school I didn’t make any effort to master another language because I thought, well, that’s not for me”, she explains, describing how she felt living abroad was for the rich. “It was definitely a case of . . . I’m not so interested in what’s going on in Europe or anywhere else because I’m never going to get to see it. I’m never going to get to be a part of it.”

Emma said she heard little when she was younger about what Britain gained from Europe.

It was Britain’s decision to leave the EU that prompted Emma to try living in another EU country.

She laughs at the irony, explaining how she had been “thinking, kind of dreaming about going abroad for a while and maybe being something like an au pair or doing work experience or something,” and that she realised it might not be so easy in the future.

Now she’s going to French classes three times per week and immersing herself in another culture, visiting markets in Paris, trying Breton dancing and loving the museums and art galleries she can visit without paying as an EU citizen under the age of 25 - at least for the time being.

Living with the disappointment

Back in The Bitter End pub, Jamie Ayre, a 46-year-old commercial director with a software company, explains how he came to France to study and never went back.

“I love the place, love the system, love the UK as well but . . . you know.”

He’s “extremely disappointed by Brexit” and can’t talk about it when he is out with his friends in his home town of Sheffield.

Jamie is unsure whether he’ll be able to vote in the EU elections this week but Giles is determined to cast a ballot. He says it matters and that many of those who complain that the EU is undemocratic never bother to vote.

Emma is still registered in the UK and has already cast her vote by post.

These British people living in mainland Europe, just like EU citizens in Britain, are living in a strange kind of Limbo.

The Brexit decision has created practical problems for them but also raised questions about identity.

Are they British or French or both or neither? Being European might no longer be an option.

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