Reacting to the referendum: talking Brexit with the British in rural France Part 1

Earlier this summer, Michaela spent three weeks in the Lot—the site of her doctoral research, conducted in 2003-4—to talk Brexit with the British Citizens who had made this corner of rural France their home. Her visit coincided with the anniversary of Britain’s referendum on its continued membership of the EU and the first round of talks between the United Kingdom and the European Union since Article 50 was triggered. Over the next month, we will be releasing a series of post presenting her initial thoughts drawn from these conversations. In this, the first of three posts, she focuses on who the British in the Lot are, and what brought them to the Lot, setting the scene for their initial reactions to Brexit.

Who are the British in the Lot?

When we think of British people who have migrated and set up their homes elsewhere in the world, our imaginings are often flavoured by particular characters and representations. This is as true of the British in rural France as for any population. Through my writings about my research in France, I have emphasised that the British people who have settled in the Lot are a diverse population. It includes families with young children, young couples and individuals looking for new opportunities in life, early retirees and pensioners. There are people who set up businesses in the Lot, within the tourism industry, offering services to other Britons living locally, as well as finding work within the local economy on a full-time, part-time or freelance basis. Their economic circumstances vary significantly, as do their continued links back to the United Kingdom.

While, for some, relocating to France coincides with leaving Britain, for others it is the culmination of years of living outside of the United Kingdom. And their reasons for moving to the Lot are similarly diverse, related to their different stages in the life course, the conditions under which they left the United Kingdom and individual biographies. While for some moving to France is considered a permanent move, for others, it is a move for the time being, open-minded to the possibility that they might move on elsewhere, or return to the United Kingdom. They live amongst the French. There are dual nationals among them, some holding their British citizenship alongside that of another European Union member state.

The initial research I conducted for the BrExpats project and reported here, was with 43 people interviewed as individuals, couples and small groups. As I stressed in my interview for the Brexit podcast, what Brexit means to these individuals needs to be understood within the context of what brought them to the Lot in the first place, the conditions in which they currently live, as well as the options open to them on the basis of their own personal circumstances.

Talking Brexit with the British in Rural France

Just as for the British population resident in the United Kingdom, for the Britons resident in the Lot the referendum and the Brexit negotiations elicited mixed responses. While conversations often revealed strong support for remaining in the European Union, there were also those who had supported the Leave campaign and voted—where they still had the right to vote—accordingly. Despite the stark extremes that these positions seem to occupy, it is important to recognise the contexts within which people support these positions in relation to their own identities and biographies—including political persuasion, knowledge and understanding of the European Union and the UK’s position within it and the potential impact of Brexit on their lives.

Furthermore, while Brexit was a topic of conversation that many people were keen and willing to talk about—I was not short of people wanting to take part—it is also worth documenting that there were those who did not want to talk about Brexit. They might frame this as being tired of talking about it, or ask how it would be possible to discuss the impacts of Brexit on their lives when it hadn’t happened yet. Similarly, there were some who were adamant that Brexit would have limited impact on their lives.

Following the second round of negotiations, a lack of clarity remains about what withdrawal will mean for these Britons resident in rural France and elsewhere in the EU27. However, as I will sketch out in future posts, and as Karen has stressed in her post it is clear that Brexit is already affecting the lives of some of Britain’s citizens living and working in Europe, (a)  changing the way that some people think about their lives in France, (b) consider identity, home and belonging, and (c) that this interplays with the actions and plans for their futures.

Reactions of disbelief, anger and sadness

Perhaps unsurprisingly, among those who opposed the outcome of the referendum, emotions ran high. As we spoke about Brexit a year on, they described how they had been glued to the television on the night of the referendum, or awoken to the news the following moment, disbelief a common sentiment that has given way to uncertainty, grief and sadness. It became clear that their anger and frustration was deeply felt; despite the passing of time. As we switched to talking about Brexit, their voices became noticeably raised, their faces showing clear signs of anger, regret, or frustration. On more than one occasion, people choked back tears, dabbing at the corner of their eyes to stop these rolling down their face.

Similarly, their agitation was communicated via the strong language they used to describe Brexit, the politicians involved in the referendum, and the (imagined) British public who had voted to leave. In making, clear their belief that Brexit was the product of self-interest, there were references to Brexit as the ‘easy’ or ‘seflish’ option, to Cameron and ‘Maybot’, and to careerist politicians.

But it was also clear that, for some, Brexit elicited sadness. This sadness was expressed in the way they described what Britain had become; it was no longer the country they had left, but a deeply divided, insular place that they no longer recognised. They described what being European (or a European citizen) meant to them, the freedom of movement and the experiences of other cultures that this had permitted, and it was clear that some among them mourned the loss of this from their own perspectives but also in terms of what this would mean for future generations for whom Brexit meant the loss of such opportunities.

The day after the referendum

Waking up to the news of the referendum was something that many people described. From the excitement of those who had voted to leave, to the disbelief of those who had supported remaining in the European Union, this was a moment that people remembered. However, beyond their own feelings about Brexit and what it might mean for their lives, there was also curiosity and concern about what Brexit would mean for how their French neighbours thought of the Britons living in their midst. As Maggie  who had only recently moved to France explained, one of her first thoughts was, ‘more how we would be perceived by the French, what the reactions from them would be’, her partner Si, describing how their fears were laid to rest, ‘We went to the market didn’t we?  It wasn’t that day, but the first market was on the Tuesday, and everyone was so kind weren’t they?’ Others similarly presented their initial thoughts about the vote through their descriptions of their encounters with their French neighbours in the hours and days following Brexit.

Without fail, the people I spoke with described feeling reassured through these encounters, their French friends, acquaintances and neighbours making them feel as though they would continue being welcome, that their contributions—to the local economy, to the community—were a valued part of daily life in this sparsely populated part of the French countryside. They told me of the matter-of-fact way that their French neighbours came up with ‘solutions’ to ensure their continued residence in France—‘Well, you’re just going to take French citizenship aren’t you?’ The tone of these conversations as much as the content a consolation to them at a time when they felt that their futures were plunged into uncertainty. At the same time, these conversations revealed a range of attitudes from their French neighbours towards Europe, including those who had described Brexit as ‘Britain’s revolution’—championing the British public’s stand against Europe; those who stressed that in an equivalent FrExit referendum, they would have voted to leave; as well as those who supported the European Union.

Some closing thoughts

These initial conversations with the British in the Lot, brought home to me the diversity and complexity of their feelings about Brexit, Europe, and living in France post-Brexit. As I will show in future posts, while  withdrawal has not yet taken place its impacts are already being felt in their lives, their actions and plans for the future changing in response.

Keep posted for Michaela’s future posts on her conversations with the British in the Lot. This series of posts has now been published as a research summary and can be downloaded here. You can also listen to her talking about this research in our latest podcast.

2 Responses

  1. Zoe says:

    I am a Br expat, living in Haute Garonne. The Brexit will change my life completely. I wasn’t even allowed to vote in the referendum … I am angry that decisions are being made about my life, which I have no control over – I have no voice!

    • Michaela Benson says:

      Hi Zoe, you are not alone–one of the things that research is showing up is how extensive this feeling is. The future posts from my trip to France will be highlighting exactly some of this anger. I am going to be travelling to Toulouse to do some work in the autumn–is there any chance I could persuade you to meet up with me to do an interview? Michaela

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