Post-Brexit blues hit British elected officials in France
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Thanks to Brexit, the 760 British local councillors in France will not be eligible to run for re-election in the March 2020 municipal elections. It’s a painful change for these expatriates, who are deeply invested in the life of their adopted homes.
"The mayor of Montrollet will lose his Englishman!" cries Norman Cox, who, despite celebrating his 27th year in France, hasn't lost his British sense of humour. Still, the 70-year-old transplant to the village of Montrollet, population 312, in western France's Charente region, hasn't had the heart to laugh lately.
Brexit remains difficult to digest for the Cambridge native, who says he has been in love with France since his first French girlfriend in the early 1970s. "On Friday night [the night of Le Brexit], I turned on my TV a few minutes before the countdown and I was deeply shocked by the nationalist sentiment of the English. It is truly sad," Cox told FRANCE 24 in slightly-accented French.
Mediating between the French and the British
For Cox, Brexit took effect on February 1, when he was struck from the electoral roll. It was a hard blow for this elected municipal official, who can’t count the hours he has spent helping with the smooth-running of the municipality. He has been a member of the municipal council for 12 years and sits on five committees, including those that deal with town planning, communication, youth and heritage. A jack-of-all-trades, Cox has also developed a specific role: that of mediator between the British and the French in Montrollet.
"Nearly 10 percent of the population here is British and many don't speak French. So as soon as there are problems between neighbours or translation needs, the mayor calls on me," Cox said. That's why the mayor, Jean-Claude Gillet, sought him out.
"We have always wanted the British community to be well-integrated into the village," said Cox, who himself benefited from local solidarity when he arrived in France without speaking the language. Nevertheless, albeit reluctantly, he will have to resign.
Violation of a 'democratic right'
As a result of Brexit, the 760 Britons currently serving as councillors in France will not be able to be run again in the upcoming municipal elections. Like all European citizens, until now they have been eligible to vote and run in local elections. Since the United Kingdom left the European Union, however, that is no longer the case.
"I will no longer be able to vote in France and, as I left the UK more than 15 years ago, I can't vote there either," rued Cox, who believes that "a democratic and citizen's right" has been violated. In order to regain his rights, he has therefore embarked on the long and complicated process of French naturalisation.
Collecting the necessary administrative documents and providing sworn translation is its own obstacle course. Cox finally managed to submit his file in September 2018. Registered at the prefecture of Niort in December 2019, Cox hopes that his file will be favourably treated in the next six months. But nothing is less certain.
'You don't get elected overnight'
Mark Lawrence is a Briton who learned that the hard way, when he was denied naturalization. Like Cox, Lawrence, who is originally from London, has been in France for 27 years. He has been a town councillor in Plazac, a commune in the Dordogne, in the south of France, for six years.
The 48-year-old father applied for citizenship just after the 2016 referendum but was turned down on economic grounds. "I've been paying my taxes and charges in France for 20 years, but a few years ago I had an irregular income," the self-employed roofing and carpentry craftsman explained, adding that he has "never applied for public aid".
"I didn't come to France to ask for anything. I live in France, I'm raising my four children here, I work here and that's not going to change. What's changing is my status," lamented Lawrence, who said he now feels more Périgordian than British. "You don't get elected overnight, as far as I'm concerned; it's the fruit of 21 years of integration," he said.
The puzzle of small towns
Plazac Mayor Florence Gauthier, who is running for re-election, has replaced Lawrence on the electoral roll, which she will be able to file complete, and on schedule, by February 27. But finding replacements for outgoing Britons can prove to be a real headache in smaller municipalities in need of candidates. That’s true in Perriers-en-Beauficel, a village of 214 inhabitants in Normandy's Manche region, where two of the eleven elected officials are British, and in Poupas, a village of 85 inhabitants in the southwestern region of Tarn-et-Garonne, where three of eleven elected officials are British.
In Plazac, Lawrence's departure is also an emotional loss for the municipal staff, who have publicly supported him, as well as for the municipality, which has launched an online petition (34,091 signatures to date). "It's a very cosmopolitan commune with 27 nationalities among 750 inhabitants. The town council was a reflection of that, we had a Briton and two Belgians. It's a shame that Mark is leaving," said Plazac Deputy Mayor Marie-Claude Roussarie.
Lawrence will be able to renew his naturalisation application in 2021 and, before then, apply for a residence permit. But after being denied once, he is not devoid of anxiety. The transition period that runs until December 31, 2020 guarantees his rights for the time being, as it does those of the 185,000 British citizens in France. Beyond that date, questions remain for these British citizens, who are worried about maintaining their social security, about the possibility of continuing to work, or simply about their ability to stay in their long-adopted homeland.
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