Monday, 24 October 2016

In France: the view from the hill

We spent last week in France, in our little Burgundian hilltop village where we are lucky enough to have a small house. It's lovely at all times of the year but especially in autumn when the landscape is shot through with reds and golds, and wood smoke from the first fires hangs in the air, and the village goes quiet as it draws itself in for the winter.
 
It was our first trip to the continental mainland since the Brexit vote. You'll know if you read my last blog that we were curious to see how it would feel. Vézelay is not a place where you hear politics being debated in the street. Our village, a UNESCO world heritage site, is officially listed as one of France's most beautiful. Its economy is almost entirely dependent on tourism - it's said that nearly a million visit it each year. So the talk is more likely to be about the ups and downs of the hotels and restaurants, car-parking (always guaranteed to get villagers going) and of course the weather. Contrary to what's commonly thought, the British are not unique in loving to gossip about the weather. And you'll also hear about it if Monsieur le Maire has been up to something that means change in the time-honoured village way of doing things such as new office hours in the Mairie, the introduction of differently coloured bin bags or alterations in the one-way traffic system.

So the streets were not reverberating to heated debates about Brexit. Anyway, that's old news now.  But it wasn't difficult to get a reaction when I raised the topic myself. On our first day there I went to the Mairie to get my resident's car-parking permit. Benoît (not his real name) who sits in the office each morning and deals with enquiries had plenty to say about it. "Ah, la grande bêtise anglaise! What fools you English are!" he said without ceremony. "I've never cared overmuch for the English" (looking at me with affection - or was it pity?) "but surely, for God's sake, we were better off together than apart. Have you forgotten the war?" (It's characteristic of the French to elide "English" with "British" but of course he was right in that it was the English vote that largely swung it for Brexit.) I managed to get in my désolé de la part de mon pays before he rushed on: "and here we are in Burgundy, of all places. In the Middle Ages, it was England and Burgundy against France, as Joan of Arc knew to her cost. How could you do this to your historic ally?"

This last bit was laced with a heavy sarcasm: even my hesitant French could pick that up. But he had a serious point to make. "I'm deeply committed to the European scout movement and have been for many years. It's completely internationalist in its outlook, bringing young people together from across the continent. It's how the world should be in miniature: a place of friendship and reconciliation where we each out to one another and despite our differences try to understand and live alongside one another as neighbours." Then he proffered a Gallic shrug of the shoulders. "Ah well, so be it. I dare say that where the English lead, we too may follow one day. Tant pis for us all. And then what will have become of all our fine dreams about a better world?"

Our expat friends in the department of the Yonne had plenty to say about the referendum as you'd expect. Those who had lived in France longer than fifteen years were especially sore about having been denied a vote for reasons that seemed to them entirely arbitrary. More serious was the likely effect of Brexit on whole areas of their lives in France. Already their sterling earnings or pensions are worth a quarter less in euros than they were before June. They do not know whether the excellent health care they enjoy in France will continue to be available to them in the future, whether there will be implications for owning property, what the tax regime and welfare benefits will look like, what formalities there will be for travel to and fro between the UK and France, and a thousand other concerns.

More than anything else I was aware of what I would describe as a low level sense of dislocation, suddenly feeling more "foreign" than before. It wasn't big, yet, but it was there. Some mentioned worries about relationships in their local community. None of them had experienced any direct hostility, though one friend said she had been harried on a narrow local road and almost driven into the ditch by a driver who, she presumed, had seen her UK number plates and was making a point. No one was talking much about returning to Blighty - all the people we know are well embedded in Burgundy; they have made their life there and feel part of their communities to which they contribute in many different ways.
 
But the air was charged with unspoken "what-ifs". They had all voted Remain, or would have done if they'd had a vote. But now there was a degree of uncertainty around that was troubling. One or two said they were surprised by the strength of the anger they felt at a turn of events that would not only prove hugely damaging but had been unnecessary to begin with. But now the genie was out of the bottle. There was nothing anyone could do but wait and see what happened, and practise the art of resignation. I suppose that's true of all of us who think that something incredibly precious has been needlessly wrecked as a result of the referendum. But expats understandably feel it all the more sharply when it seems as if the place they've come to call home isn't quite the same as it was before.
 
Today we sailed back across the narrow stretch of water that divides Britain from France. As I write this, the refugee camp at Calais, the so-called Jungle, is being dismantled. Some of its children have been granted asylum in the UK, but too few, too late and in circumstances that hardly bring credit to this country. Meanwhile, France is dispersing the many who are left behind to other camps across the country. The man most likely to be elected as President next year is talking about relocating the UK border where it belongs after Brexit, on the English side of the Channel, and letting us deal with the refugee problem ourselves. It's just another symptom of a pulling up of the drawbridge and the fracturing of good relations and fruitful collaboration that once characterised our place in the European Union. We may claim that Britain is "open for business" but it sounds pretty hollow at the moment, whether we're talking about the economic business of trade or the political business of day to day relationships between states.
 
No-one in France made us feel unwelcome or gave us the cold shoulder. We love being on our Burgundian hill and last week was no exception. But somehow, being there brought it home to me that by voting to leave the EU we have treated our European neighbours and allies with little less than contempt. We have turned our back on people who thought of us as friends, bound together by more than a century of entente cordiale. That feels deeply uncomfortable. And I haven't the faintest idea what to do about it. 

1 comment:

  1. The jungle is partly there because the French government cynically allowed or encouraged people to settle as close to Britain as possible in order to put pressure on. On the other hand, the British government's reluctance even to do our share is shameful. There was a man on the telly in the evening news saying it was "disgusting" to be bringing children to his town in Devon. "It's not our problem". Now that's disgusting.

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