So, the official letter has arrived bearing the good news, I’ve crowed about it on Facebook and the champagne has been uncorked and drunk: I am now, at long last, joyfully, French. Yet in some ways this feels like a Pyrrhic victory, for which I can only summon two out of the three customary cheers. In a more enlightened world, such a step would have proved unnecessary, less costly in terms of time, money and energy. Although the disruption that Brexit has caused me is small compared to the heartbreak and stress endured by others, it has convinced me that nation states need to rethink residency, citizenship and belonging.
The news that broke in the small hours of 24 June 2016 was grim but not unexpected, at least to me. The British had been conned, by a slim majority, into leaving the EU. Over the years, the steady drip-feeding of anti-immigrant, anti-EU sentiment into the national psyche from the right-wing press had borne its evil fruit. On the referendum day itself, the Brexiteers’ illegal profiling on social media, combined with outright lies, blatant propaganda from the right-wing press and campaign funding irregularities, proved just enough to tip the scales in favour of Brexit, before anyone could notice what was happening.
And so it was that, along with millions of others, I was stripped of my rights. Having been out of the UK for more than 15 years, I was not allowed to vote in the referendum even though it affected me directly. Along with the other British nationals resident in the EU 27, my status was reduced to that of a third country national without my having any say in the matter. This had a four-fold effect on me: first, anger at the injustice; second, anxious uncertainty, with the realisation that the road to recovering the rights I had lost would be long, hard and expensive; thirdly, I felt the pain of division with the discovery that certain of my friends and relatives supported the Brexit cause, either through ignorance or because they had been infected by the virus of English nationalism; fourthly, I felt acute shame and embarrassment at being a national of a country that seemed to have taken leave of its senses, which had a confused understanding of its place in a changed world, and where there was widespread ignorance about how the EU works.
For millions of Europeans, the EU is a dream come true. I have been living this dream since 1976 – one year after a referendum in which the British overwhelmingly endorsed EEC membership in a referendum. I lived in Italy for six years, carrying out research on my doctorate, then, later, worked in the Netherlands for 19 years, married a French woman and migrated with her and our two children to France – all without having to worry much about immigration formalities or where I belonged in terms of nationality.
The only way to recover my rights? Citizenship
All this changed on 23 June 2016, and in the weeks that followed I became aware that in order to recover my rights I needed to apply for French citizenship. In the course of this procedure, I experienced some strange sensations. It was no longer who I was that counted, but what I was: it did not matter that I had been living in Europe almost continuously since 1976, though without applying for citizenship of any of the countries I had lived in, and that I was a contributing and fully integrated member of European society; no, as I applied for citizenship, it was what I was, my parentage, my grand-parentage, and all the minute details about my past and my income, that the French authorities wanted to know about. As I was obliged to dredge up the details of my past, I had the strange sense that time was flowing backwards, rather like the way the Brexiteers were trying to put toothpaste back into the tube. Another thing I have learnt is that there is no guarantee in life of linear progress. Sometimes one turns full circle and has to start again.
While the worst aspect of xenophobia is the way lies are used to erect or reinforce barriers between peoples, during my quest for French citizenship another kind of barrier was brought home to me: that between government and governed. Modern states have come to distrust those they govern, and citizens have reciprocated by becoming suspicious, resentful and susceptible to conspiracy theories. (The “yellow vest” movement in France is a case in point.) A lot of this distrust is a consequence of 9/11 and other terrorist attacks, in response to which governments adopted stricter immigration and naturalisation requirements and began to demand ever more paperwork from the citizen.
Although, at least in some cases, there may be genuine security considerations behind the stricter controls, it is legitimate to ask whether they are necessary, or how we could reverse them. Or are we to resign ourselves to an ever-increasing bureaucratic load? This question is especially relevant to citizenship applications, the conditions for which have become progressively tighter and more onerous, not just in France but elsewhere. Not only has the bar been raised, but more and more paperwork is required, and there is no sign of this going into reverse! I have no complaint about the way the French immigration authorities handled my application, given the legal framework within which they were compelled to operate. Although it took a long time, they fulfilled their part of the bargain. But the amount of detail I had to supply defies common sense. Why should I be obliged to list every place where I have lived in all my 70 years, given that the addresses I gave can no longer be proved or disproved, as memories fade, people move or die, and documents are destroyed? Why should I supply the same details of income and proof of residence that I had already supplied when applying for my residency card, especially as having a residency card was already a prerequisite for applying for citizenship?
However, whatever one thinks of bureaucratic overkill on the part of the French authorities, we should not lose sight of the fact that the principal cause of this disruption to my life lies in a UK that has been taken over by nationalism and xenophobia, treats its asylum-seekers appallingly, imprisons EU citizens trying to enter the country and which, as I write, is lurching worryingly towards fascism.
So how has the whole process affected me? Not as badly as it has affected others: no loss of livelihood, no real anxiety about my residency status, no loss of security. As for becoming a French citizen, it has been a bit like crossing a border between one EU country and another, in that whatever may have changed legally or formally, crossing an invisible line does not alter the landscape. I am still fundamentally the same person. Even my French accent has not changed! I feel no sense of being “mystically married” to my adoptive nation, no sense in which I can pledge it my allegiance in an absolute sense, to the exclusion of other countries where I have lived and that I have loved: the UK, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands. History shows that nation states come and go, so should never become an ideological fixation or be raised to an absolute. However, I am naturally relieved and grateful that my rights have been restored – even though I should never have lost them in the first place.
Citizen versus Subject
One significant change is that I am now heir to a political culture that is very different from the UK’s. The French are proud of their Republican heritage, born of revolution and the formulation of a doctrine of human rights. It is a sort of civic religion which is not oppressive (as in some countries) but nevertheless fills me with reservations. The Enlightenment values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity are noble ideals, but, like other countries, France often falls short of its professed values. There is a gap between the country’s self-presentation and the reality. Many French are sullen about their government and feel that there is a large gulf between government and governed. Unlike the British, they are quick and eager to express discontent in strikes and demonstrations, often noisy and sometimes violent.
The contrast with the UK is telling. In my newly adopted country, I am a citizen; in the UK, merely a “subject”. Whereas France’s national anthem defends the republic, the UK’s asks for divine protection of the person of the sovereign. In the UK, where there should be clear rules and a constitution, there is a gaping hole, made worse by a disproportional voting system. The whole faulty structure is presided over by an antiquated monarchy good only for tourists and TV series. Dotty and arcane, it has its admirers among those who prize mystique and tradition over the rationalism of the French Republican system. My preference is for the latter.
In the current political climate, it should come as no surprise that migrants and non-nationals throughout the world are treated inconsiderately at best and barbarically, à la Patel, at worst. There is a Catch-22 here: non-nationals in most countries do not have the right to vote in national elections, so there is no incentive for politicians to listen to them, as their interests are not an election issue, as they do not have the vote… The drive for change will have to come from without, perhaps from the UN. Here I will mention only two standards that I think should be universally adopted – out of the dozens I could mention. The first is the principle of no taxation without representation. During the roughly 30 years that I have lived and paid taxes in EU countries outside the UK, I have never had the right to vote in national elections, though as an EU member I was often allowed to vote in local ones.
The rights of non-citizens:
Unfortunately, UNHCHR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) does allow nations to confine voting rights to citizens. I believe this rule should be reappraised, so that after a short period, say two years, the ability to vote at national level should be an automatic right for any tax-paying resident, whether they are a citizen of that country or not. The second concerns residence rights. In most countries the right to permanent residence or citizenship is determined by the length of uninterrupted residence (with a few exceptions made for short periods). There seems to me to be no reason why overall residence, whether interrupted or not, should not be the deciding factor. It would be fairer and simpler. In the UK especially, lives have been destroyed because people fell foul of the complicated rules and interrupted their residence for one reason or another, not realising the consequences; so they ended up being deported.
The conclusion I am tending towards is that the gap between citizenship and the right to reside deserves to become narrower, and that non-national residents should be able to acquire with greater ease some of the rights currently reserved for citizens. If you have been living, working and contributing for long enough in a given country, citizenship should be a right, not a privilege. After all, you prove your right to belong by, er, belonging.
Time for governments to appeal to our best instincts, not our worst
Governments have less to fear from their citizens than they imagine. If they could find a way to lose their fear of immigrants, immigrant-bashers and Brussels-bashers, if they were less afraid of the right-wing press and of retired colonels complaining about immigrant “hordes” in the suburbs (as recently occurred in France), they would then be free to appeal to the best rather than the worst instincts of the electorate, and inspire them to become the best version of themselves. Only then can we stem the tide of nativism, disaffection with politics and conspiracy theories that is infecting the body politic. Then I would gladly raise my cheer count to three.