22 June 2017
Remain or Leave?
The dilemma facing one British expatriate couple.
by Richard Pooley
My wife and I moved to south-west France in March 2013, intending to stay for no more than five years before returning to our house in Bath. After living in seven different countries and visiting over fifty others, either on holiday or for work, I was ready for at least one more expatriate experience. My wife had lived in France for three years before we were married, has always loved the country and speaks French so well that many French refuse to believe that she is anglaise (unlike the man with her who speaks French like une vache espagnole. What have they got against Spanish cows?*). Our two children had flown. I had retired from my company but was lucky enough to be able to carry on working on a self-employed basis wherever we lived. We were as free as we will ever be.
British friends and family wished us well and threatened to come and stay with us. Many have. The only person who could not understand why we were temporarily leaving the UK was my step-father in law. For the first three years, each time we visited my wife’s parents, he would ask me how much I was missing “home”. He always looked dismayed and disbelieving when I said I was not homesick. We loved our life in France, I assured him. For the past year, the question has changed: “How is Brexit affecting you?” Both my in-laws voted enthusiastically for Leave and still can’t understand why we both voted, just as passionately, to Remain. They assume that our life in France must have become more difficult. For those British expats who rely for their income solely on a UK pension, sterling-denominated savings or on the rent of a UK property, it certainly has; the cost of living in France went up by 20% overnight a year ago. Fortunately, my earnings from self-employment are in euros.
Several people have asked if anyone in France has criticised us for the UK’s decision to leave the EU. No, we have replied. Reactions have ranged from puzzlement, to sadness, to a wish that France could do the same. When we told my in-laws this month that we had decided to stay an extra year in France, they were shocked. What we have yet to tell them is that we are considering becoming French citizens (though keeping our UK citizenship). We may even decide to delay our return still longer.
Three weeks ago we were over in the UK for a family event in Maidenhead and then a wedding in London. Almost everyone I met asked me similar questions to those of my in-laws. When are you coming back? As if nothing had changed since we left.
The night of the wedding we returned from the reception in Fulham to our rented apartment and listened to the news of the killings at London Bridge and in Borough Market.
Events since then have only made us more uncertain as to what to do. The contrast in the conduct and outcome of the national elections in France and the UK has been embarrassing to any British person living here. The poor quality of British political debate and the lack of intellectual heft of Britain’s political leaders have been exposed for all to see. The cover of last week’s issue of the Economist, showing a smiling and relaxed Macron walking on water next to a pair of feet in leopard-spotted shoes poking up out of the water, caused much mirth in the French media. Le Point had to explain to its readers who the shoes belonged to and how unusual it was for any British newspaper to praise France and the French. The only praise Britain has received in France of late is for keeping its famous sense of humour in the face of adversity.
And then there was the Grenfell Tower Block fire. Embarrassment turned to shame. The bravery of the firefighters and the speed with which local people volunteered to help, donated vast amounts of food and clothing and opened their doors to take people in has all been reported here extensively and with admiration. But further proof of the incompetence of Britain’s local and national politicians, the apparent attempt by the rich to save just under five thousand pounds even if it risked burning tens if not hundreds of poor people to death, and the cavalier attitude to building standards and safety regulations, have all shocked French commentators.
Loyal readers may recall an article I wrote in February in which I mentioned that the 22-year old daughter of our village potter was about to move to London. I described Margot’s excitement at the prospect. She managed to both find somewhere to live and a job. But she may not stay in the UK. The Colombian boyfriend of the French friend she is living with was badly injured in a racist attack two months ago and has returned to Bogota to receive the surgery he needs. According to her mother, Margot was already shocked by the xenophobic abuse she was witnessing on the streets of London before this attack happened.
So, if the UK does not seem an attractive place to return to, what might keep us in France? In a word: hope. There is a future here to look forward to.
Yes, huge problems lie ahead for the new government. Barely a day old and it’s already facing its first crisis: the resignation of all three ministers from Macron’s majority party’s allies, Mouvement Démocrate. They have left the government because MoDem has been accused of corruption: siphoning off EU money meant to provide admin support to their MEPs. I’m sad that François Bayrou, the MoDem leader and, until yesterday, the Justice Minister, has had to step down. He has fought all his political life and three presidential elections for a clean-up of the French political system. He had finally got himself into place to steer his “moralisation” bill through the National Assembly but now has had to hand over the task to someone else. The French tend to name any new laws after the minister who sponsored it (most recently Le Loi Macron, Le Loi El Khomri). Le Loi Bayrou would have been something for him to have boasted about to visitors to his Pyrennean farm. No-one is accusing him of acting corruptly. He has resigned because it is inappropriate for the leader of a party which is suspected of behaving immorally, if not illegally, to remain as France’s Justice Minister. It’s a sign to all French people that their new President means to do what he has said he will do: fundamentally change the way politics is conducted.
And you don’t need to warn me what will happen once Macron and his government start liberalising the country’s Labour Law. The extreme conservative forces of the Marxist Left, led by the newly-elected France Insoumise MP, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and the trades union body the CGT (Confédération générale du travail), will be out on the streets burning tyres and smashing windows. There will be strikes aplenty once the summer holidays are over. I will need to check the Cestlagreve app on my phone every day to see whether the trains are running or the air traffic controllers have walked out. It’s going to be nasty. But Macron and his ruling party know that they cannot give in. If they do, the only beneficiary will be Marine Le Pen and the Front National. Who will most French people blame for the strikes and riots? Where will their sympathies lie? Not, I would argue, with the strikers and rioters. Macron has offered many French people, especially the young, the possibility of a better future. I think they will work with him to achieve it.
There was another “How Refreshing!” moment at the breakfast table in our house this week. Macron has insisted that all the first-time MPs of La République en marche – i.e. nearly all of the 308 – attend a 2-day course on how the National Assembly works. And all his ministers will be subject to annual performance reviews. Imagine that happening in the UK.
If there is one thing which might make us flee back to the UK, it is the Heat. British readers have been enduring record June temperatures this week. So have we. But the dog days of summer – canicule in French – have been on and off since April. I understand it was the Ancient Greeks who saw the arrival of the Dog Star in July’s night sky as the precursor of unpleasantly hot days, hence the term “dog days”. Well, apart from our first year here, there have been long caniculaire periods from the spring through to September. We have learned that closed shutters keep the heat out. I am writing this late yesterday afternoon while listening to Mr Bayrou’s press conference. It’s 37 degrees outside. The shutters of my south-facing study window are firmly closed and the light is on. I heard a Parisienne complain on the radio this morning about the impossibility of sleeping in her mansard roof bedroom; the temperature was 40 degrees. We are in the same situation as her; our room was only a degree or two cooler. So we slept downstairs where it is a mere 26 degrees. We got a quote yesterday for installing air conditioning at the top of the house: 5,300€. That’s about £4700 at today’s rate. Sound familiar?
Oh well, I’m off for a swim to cool down and reflect on what Mr Bayrou said. In the Dordogne river, France’s cleanest. Just 5 minutes away. That’s another reason to stay.
*I have been told that the original expression was comme un basque espagnol, although I have also read that vache could once have been basse, i.e. someone lower class, and Spanish to boot.
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