Talking Brexit with the British in Toulouse: about the British in Toulouse

In October, Michaela returned to France to continue her research about what Brexit means for UK citizens who have made their homes and lives on the other side of the Channel. After a couple of weeks in the Lot, she relocated to Toulouse to focus UK citizens living in La Ville Rose and what they think Brexit will mean for their lives and futures. In her first of a 2-part series for the blog prepared for our 12 days of Brexit Brits Abroad feature, she considers how moving the research to Toulouse has enhanced her understanding of what’s at stake in Brexit for Britons living in the EU27.

Summary

In what follows, Michaela highlights:

  • how relocating her research to this growing urban centre allows further insights into the diversity of UK citizens living in the EU27;
  • and how finding ways into this population revealed the shape of the community networks on and offline.
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Who are the UK citizens living in Toulouse?

It is always a little bit nerve-wrecking starting research in a new place. But after my conversations earlier in the year with the British who have made lives and homes for themselves in the Lot, I felt that it would be of benefit to the research to open it out to include UK citizens living in a major urban centre. Toulouse with its thriving aerospace industry and university sector catering to the 110,000 students resident in the city and its proximity to the Lot seemed a good choice.

In the Lot, I had interviewed many people who were self-employed and retired; often couples who had settled in the Lot in pursuit of a different and better way of living. While among them there were people who had raised children in France, for the large part, these children had now left home.

Toulouse offered something different.

It is one of the fastest growing cities in France—both in respect to population and economy. The aerospace industry attracts highly-skilled workers from around the world. The daily flights from Bristol to Toulouse signal a relationship between the two cities but also draw attention to the presence of UK citizens within this workforce. Some of these are temporary workers, staying perhaps for a few years before moving on or moving back. Some chose to settle in France long-term.

Within the university sector, there are departments and schools that teach in English. Some UK nationals have made careers for themselves within this system, gaining permanent academic positions, but there are also those employed on temporary research and teaching contracts. And as is the case for many major cities, there are language schools and a demand for English teachers and language tuition, another source of employment for UK citizens with the right qualifications. These are just some of the sectors within which UK nationals living in Toulouse work.

Those who came forward to take part in the research included:

  • young families who had relocated for work—the husbands often working in aerospace, children enrolled in international or bilingual schools in the city;
  • dual national couples, where one partner was British and other French;
  • those on temporary contracts including postdoctoral fellows and language teachers—who might hold contracts for some of their work, but also be registered as self-employed;
  • university students;
  • as well as those had retired to the city and its environs (and who may, or may not, have worked in the area during their working lives).

It is also worth noting that amongst this population there were people who had lived elsewhere in Europe and the world before finding themselves in France, including Australia, Malaysia, the United States and Germany. This geographical mobility is perhaps unsurprising given what brings people to the city.

What this brief review makes clear is that moving the research to Toulouse offered the possibility of gaining further insights into how Brexit is experienced by those across a range of employment statuses. It is also clear that this move allowed insights into the experience of dual national families, where one partner is French, the other British, and the children single or dual nationals.

Closed doors and (desperately) seeking UK citizens in Toulouse

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Part of my anxiety about moving the research to Toulouse was about whether I would be able to find UK citizens living in this, the fourth largest metropolitan area in France.

I arrived in Toulouse with just three contacts: the brother of a friend; an old school friend of someone I had met in London; and a man who had signed up to take part in the project’s citizens’ panel. As I described in this audio clip, I had not had the time in the run up to the visit to start putting out feelers; part of the rationale for this trip was precisely to build up the networks I did not have.

[As a brief aside, I think that it is telling that despite the proximity of the Lot, those taking part in the research there rarely had networks that included UK citizens living in Toulouse. In fact, when speaking about my upcoming trip to Toulouse, one man told me that he didn’t think there were any Britons living there, inadvertently revealing that for him what it meant to be British and living in France excluded the possibility that there might be Britons living and working in France, that people might be attracted to the life a city might offer as he was to the French countryside …]

At least I had a few dates in the diary to get me started!

There were a few days were I was worried that building up these networks might not be possible. I was coming up against closed doors when contacting prominent businesses in the area that had large numbers of British employees; my request to attend an information session for Brexit and Britons living in Toulouse hosted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was politely declined.

I state this here as a way of illustrating some of the challenges of finding a way into some communities and the need for time on the ground to understand where it might be possible to gain access. Through my early contacts, others started to get in touch as my details were passed on, personal recommendations by people who had taken part the most fruitful ways to recruit others to the study. It is also clear that thinking through where doors are open and closed in research, you get a sense of where the boundaries are around the groups you work with, who crosses these and who stays put.

Closing thoughts

We started the project with a clear acknowledgement of the diversity of UK citizens who have made their lives and homes in the EU27. Over the last few months, we have been really mindful of representing this diversity through the research as Katherine’s reflections on our citizens’ panel and as Chantelle’s post on her work recruiting Britons of colour to the research testify. This ambition extends beyond the description of these diverse lives into the consideration of how these articulate with the experience of Brexit, and as I reflect in my next post, the likely differential outcomes of Brexit among these populations.

You can also now read the second instalment of Michaela’s reflections, exploring the different lives and different stakes of Brexit for the British in Toulouse. 

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