I doubt Brexit will have a significant impact on my material life. But in the extreme case of a hard Brexit, where bargaining-chip tactics prevail and then go awry, I could be forced to close my consulting business here, leave my three French kids and my French girlfriend.
These material consequences of Brexit are all conjecture at this point, but one thing already has changed. My identity is deeply affected, as the French would say, it has been ‘bouleversé’, traumatised. Do I still want to be British in the era of Mrs May, or become French in what could be Le Pen’s?*
I’m a Brit having lived most of my life in France, now in Paris. The youngest of my three children lives with me half the time. I run a French business and have a Parisian girlfriend with young children of her own who cannot leave Paris even if she were welcome in the UK.
My father was a Guardian correspondent and I first arrived in France at 9 years old. As a child, I was always envious of friends who had real “roots”, places they called home, so I clung to whatever Britishness my four childhood years in London had instilled in me.
After nine formative years for me, we left France to go ‘home’ in the 1980s, but I’d already met the French girl who would become my wife for twenty-five years and the mother of my children. I moved back to Paris twenty-five years ago and have been crossing the channel at least half a dozen times a year ever since.
I always thought my occasional sense of not truly belonging anywhere was in my head only, not linked to the outside world. Brexit was my wake-up call.
As a Caucasian male, I haven’t really experienced discrimination. My grandparents and my father, as Jews in 1930s Austria, went through the worst possible kind. Part of my father’s huge pride in his acquired British nationality, I realize now, must have spilled into me. His inexhaustible gratitude must be where I get my blind faith in the underlying openness and fairness of Britain and the British people.
No – not where it ‘comes’ from but where it ‘came’ from, because I can’t feel it any more. It hurts.
Feeling British, until last June at least, has made me wear my England rugby shirt on match days, especially against France. I must have defended English cuisine a thousand times to the French. I am a Brit – even though, because of my schooling, I know the major dates of French history but don’t know much about Cromwell. I’ve read more Molière than Shakespeare.
So, why do I feel so bad about Brexit?
My usually optimistic humanism had me believe that being truly bilingual, i.e. thinking, dreaming in either language, having grown up around the world and being fully multi-cultural, was a privilege which gave me something tangible to contribute to society.
When the British Prime Minister said a few months ago, that citizens of the world are in fact citizens of nowhere, I felt incredulity and anger. Her hurtful and reactionary statement was about me, yet she had no regard for me, she was just instrumentalising me to address the darker side of her electorate’s prejudices.
If the situation degrades with a hard Brexit and even if I could wiggle through regulations to stay in France as a tolerated rather than welcome migrant, I doubt I would want to. There are many variations on the feeling of not being welcome. Of course we aren’t as badly off as Syrian refugees I met while volunteering in Turkey. But EU citizens have never been part of the cohorts of the unwelcome before in my lifetime. Brexit is a first in so many horrible ways.
I’m 52 and Brexit is for the rest of my life.
My application for French nationality was posted last week. My only dread now is that the National Front could win the election here next month*, then where would I belong?
* Ben’s testimony was written before the French general election when Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen and won the presidency.