A French national living in the UK opens her heart about the challenges and opportunities of living in Britain after Brexit.
I migrated from Paris to London six years ago. I was attracted by the English way of life: I expected (and found) freedom, opportunities for hard-working people, and a flourishing arts scene. When I made the decision to relocate, the referendum was looming, but it hadn’t been announced.
With my French mindset, I imagined the debate was going to be about how to fix the European project: most countries agreed that the EU as such needed improvement, but we would fix it better by staying in the European institutions, or by building new, more flexible relationships between European countries. I thought this was a relevant question, which needed to be addressed.
As a newcomer to the United Kingdom, I was oblivious of the other factors at stake. Most importantly, I didn’t realise that the outcome of the referendum would impact on my rights as a French person living in Great Britain.
Soon after the referendum, the media gloom and doom started giving me panic attacks.
Without looking for them, I saw so many articles about application processes going wrong. I lost sleep for a few months before I was allowed to apply for ‘settled status’ (the Home Office decision that allows EU citizens to continue to live, work and study in the UK).
Then, and even now, when people ask me, ‘when are you going back home?’ (for instance at holiday time, or Christmas), I always reply: ‘I’m home!’ I have nowhere to ‘go back’ to. I couldn’t imagine being kicked out of the country I have come to call home.
Objectively, the process to receive my settled status was easy. It was free, straightforward, and well-explained on the government websites. Once I received the positive reply, I realised there had been a massive gap between the panic I had felt and reality. That experience made me lose trust in newspapers. I reconsidered my use of the media, and I stopped watching stories of European people that went wrong. Since that time, I’ve been trying to focus on the present moment and on the challenges that I personally face. It helps my mental health, and I would recommend that to everyone.
Yet, since I received my settled status, I have become more aware of my privileges. I haven’t experienced any racism, but I’m conscious I’m white and I come from a country that most English people respect (France). I’m regarded as a ‘demanded skilled worker’, so no one has ever told me I stole jobs that could be filled by English people. That said, I bear in mind every single day that people from different backgrounds, countries or ethnicity surely face different challenges.
My application process went well for me because I had built a strong network of friends during the five years before Brexit actually happened. For instance, when I applied for settled status, I didn’t have the right phone allowing me to upload my virtual documents, and I had to borrow a friend’s phone.
As I had always seen myself as a strong and independent woman, I hated having to ask for support and feeling vulnerable.
However, this process made me grow in humility: I have experienced now that no man is an island. It also made me grow closer to the people I loved in this country. By letting myself be vulnerable, I have also allowed myself to be loved. Now I see it was an essential part of the integration process. It has helped me grow my roots.
This lesson has made me more aware than ever of the importance of local communities.
I’ve experienced an outpouring of support and care. Everywhere across the country, in shops, in community centres, I saw leaflets offering advice to EU citizens. I was targeted by ads on social media; my local council wrote to me several times to offer help. People around me – not just friends – were genuinely willing to offer support. Colleagues at work, in my charities, and parishioners at my local church, went the extra mile to make me feel part of the community.
This new era for our country – Brexit – triggered discussions about people’s families. Friends and colleagues were keen to share their personal stories, about how their ancestors came from all over the world to work hard and settle in this land.
Many British people have their family history printed in their heart (more than French people, I would say), which made us feel connected after Brexit. I believe that this attachment to the past should be nurtured in the families and in the various institutions (churches, charities, schools), as a way to facilitate the transition to the new world.
Actually, this debate is broader than Brexit. It is about how we decide to behave, individually and collectively, in this multi-ethnic and diverse world.
Living together requires minds and hearts open to ‘the Other’ – something we first experience in that basic building block of life, our family. Each one of us has a unique identity, which is both a strength and a difference: our age, health condition, political views … or our birth country.
Brexit has forced us to ask ourselves: do these differences matter? Do I stay on my own, with my peers, or do I extend a helping hand to the Other? Perhaps we now need to focus more on similarities than on differences.
I’ve been impressed by the emphasis on diversity and inclusion programmes across British society – whether it’s at work, in the media, or through charities. Comparatively, France is less institutionally and culturally open.
Here, Brexit, among other global events like Black Lives Matter, has triggered new discussions about backgrounds, race and identity. For instance, I am often invited to attend talks or discussions on how to facilitate cultural integration; some of these talks are even mandatory in the Civil Service. I am hopeful it will spread across industries and other sectors of the workplace, as communication is the key to live in harmony.
We should use this challenge to renew our approach to schools and families.
People often turn to the state to find answers, but families – complemented by the school system – remain the foundations to bring the change we aspire to see in society.
How do we prepare future generations to face a more diverse world? How do we talk about migration to our children? Exposure to diversity tends to reduce anxiety: it’s the essence of cognitive behavioural therapy, and it works for many areas of life – including to prevent racism. There are simple ways to connect our families with diversity: European TV programmes are freely available online; groups of EU expats often organise street parties on their national feast days.
Conversely, as a European citizen, I am conscious I am a bridge between two cultures. I feel I have a special duty to convey a positive image of migration. I work hard, I pay my taxes, but I want to go the extra mile. Looking locally around me, I volunteer with local charities; I support newcomers at work or in my parish to help them integrate and go through administrative processes.
I do all this because I want to create a positive environment in which to live together. Looking outside of this country, I also share my experience with my friends living on the continent. The European media have reported widely on the fears and tensions in British society. But my personal experience is more positive, and I want to rebalance the narrative by telling my version of the story.
Our country has been through a rollercoaster, and we’ve started rebuilding a common project. My experience of this period has been an outpouring of support from people around me, friends, colleagues, or acquaintances.
It has helped me remain hopeful throughout the process, and it has made me believe more than ever that we have a future together.
I also do my part by engaging positively with the people I meet, so that they see ‘us Europeans’ as an asset to this country. I believe that the power of witness and charity will lead us somewhere good together.
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