Will in France

I trust the EU to protect its citizens, I just wish I could say the same about the UK government.

– Will in France

I had my first taste of continental life at the age of 6 when my family decided to relocate to the Dordogne department of France, near the town of Bergerac. For the next 2 and a half years, my family and I remained in France. As I was so young, I quickly became a fluent French speaker, making good friends at school.

Unfortunately, family commitments forced us to return to the UK in 1991 and we resumed our old lives. I continued to study French at school, but over time it faded somewhat and I lost my accent. After school I moved to London where I was to spend the next 10 years working in the City. I also met my partner there.

In 2008, with the financial crisis in full swing, we started talking about taking a year out from the bustle of city life. When my partner got laid off, we firmed up our plans and sought out a long-term gite rental in the Dordogne. We originally looked for one close to where I had lived as a child but in the end, found one in the Périgord Vert: a part of the country that was new to both of us. Within 6 months of being out here, we both fell in love with the French lifestyle. There isn’t the same myopic focus on work like in the UK, and the quality of life – the work/life balance, the food (and the wine!) – seduced us.

Realising we couldn’t possibly return to London after the peacefulness of the country, we set about searching for a place to buy. We struck gold in November 2010 and two months later, we moved in. The first few years were a struggle from a financial perspective – we’d come out here without any sort of plan after all – but we both had backgrounds in IT, so we took advantage of the excellent Auto-entrepreneur system to set ourselves up as self-employed. We now offer a web design service and are lucky to be able to work from home. It took a few years but we now have a big enough client base to ensure mostly steady work. Our clients are a mix of English and French small business owners and we specialise in dual-language websites. My rusty French soon came back to me and in the years since returning, my vocabulary has expanded greatly. This was helped considerably by the fact that we have made many French friends out here and nearly all of our socialising takes place in French. My partner is the president of a local association that runs events in our small commune. We’re also amateur musicians and occasionally play music at these and other events.

We followed the UK’s changing political landscape over the years with mounting concern. When I reached the 5-year mark in 2014, I began to research applying for French citizenship. By February, I had passed the language exam and had submitted my application. The following year, the EU referendum was announced. In January 2016, I had my interview in Bordeaux (the final stage of the application process) and then a stressful 12-month wait for a response. During that time, our worst fears came true and the UK voted to leave the EU.

In early 2017, my application was granted and I became a French citizen. I was relieved but at the same time, painfully aware that while I was protected from Brexit and could keep my freedom of movement, all my family and friends back in the UK were set to be stripped of their rights. We know some English people out here too who have been in limbo since the result. Many of them are retired and have seen their pensions diminish and worry about their future access to the healthcare system. My partner’s also now preparing to apply for citizenship.

For us, there was one upside to the Brexit vote. Like me, my parents are passionately pro-EU and are Francophiles. Ashamed to be British and not wanting to remain in a country they no longer felt they recognised, they made plans to move to France. They managed to find a house just 15 minutes from ours and are currently in the process of renovating it. They hope to move in by next September, well before the Article 50 deadline. I am thrilled they’re coming out, but it also worries me: all their money is in sterling and they’re about to retire here. Like all the other Brits out here, they’re becoming “bargaining chips” with an uncertain future. I trust the EU to protect its citizens, I just wish I could say the same about the UK government. My hope is Brexit will never happen. My fear is the UK crashing out without any deal. I honestly don’t know what will happen to my parents in that situation.

Will is just one of the volunteers to our Citizens’ Panel.