It was quite a moment, sitting inside the Préfecture de Police administrative office. I handed over my old Carte de Séjour, a photo and a signature. Then that was it, the end of my European Union citizenship and the beginning of a new chapter of my life in France, now as a “third country” Carte de Séjour holder.
It felt bittersweet, tinged with the sadness that I felt in June 2016 when the referendum result came in and the UK voted to leave the EU. But there was a feeling of immense gratitude too, that France had made it so easy for me to stay, smoothing my path with a user-friendly website and a quick trip to the Préfecture.
The efficiency of the process felt like the French government wanted to make life as easy as possible for the British who have made France their home.
Abandoned and Adopted…
Our family has been living in France for almost ten years. We came here with our daughter, then a toddler, to set up a new communications business. Our dream was made possible by my EU citizenship. That EU status allowed our family, including my American husband, to live and work in France. Our lives and our business are established here. So when Brexit happened and the British lost their automatic right to re-settle around Europe, we did not really fear we would have to leave, knowing that a French business, salaries and a long trail of tax contributions should secure French residency, despite the best efforts of Brexiteers.
What we could not quite have predicted was that the French authorities would be so very efficient in the administrative process they developed to help us stay. They launched a website back in October 2020 and I just uploaded my EU Carte de Séjour and a few other details. By January 2021, I had received an email inviting me to the Préfecture for an appointment. By early February, the process was complete. Anyone who has lived for a long time in France knows that bureaucracy here can often be a lot slower than that. The speed felt like the country was offering the British a warm embrace, encouraging us to stay.
Our appreciation of France has always been there and is ever-growing. The Brexit process simply speeded up an integration that was already well underway. Life in France fits well with my strong sense of being European. I have always thrived on the idea that work might take me to Brussels one week and Dusseldorf the next. A family weekend in Amsterdam was only a train ride away. The range of international destinations on the departures board at the Gare de Lyon or the Gare de l’Est train stations never stopped feeling romantic to me.
I loved the idea that the continent was mine and I could hop over borders without thinking too much about it. In a sense, I had exploited that sense of European possibility to the fullest, by choosing to live in France and enabled by my then EU passport. I cannot help but feel resentful that this automatic right has been taken away from my British-American daughter.
Post-Brexit, she cannot assume that all of Europe is hers to study or work in, the way it was for me.
Coming together in isolation…..
Of course, the painful Brexit process has taken place against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has heightened the sadness of feeling separated from the UK. When I first moved to France, I was always just a train ride away. We visited my parents every single school holiday, which can be as frequent as every six to eight weeks given the generous French school vacations.
As I write this today, it is not viable to travel to the UK due to coronavirus restrictions and I have not seen my parents since July 2020. Their Christmas gifts to us took several weeks to arrive, with a chaotic combination of Brexit and COVID-19 regulations causing delays at ports. The pandemic has made more acute the idea that the UK has cut itself off, becoming “self-isolated.”
The UK will always be dear to me. As soon as regulations allow, I’ll be back to visit. But my attachment to France has accelerated. We grew closer to our neighbors as we offered each other help during the darker lockdown days. We truly experienced the very French concept of solidarité, appreciating the frontline workers and medics and that feeling of being “in it together” with our Paris friends, even when we could not meet up.
Although I might not have agreed with every last pandemic decision by the French government, I felt greatly reassured by their relative competence in comparison with Donald Trump’s US insanity and Boris Johnson’s UK blundering. I became more immersed in French news, films and culture. France has become even more of a home to me. Whatever sadness I may feel about Brexit, I can only feel gratitude for that warm French welcome.
The natural next step is surely to become French myself.