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The moment that left me feeling unwelcome in Boris Johnson’s Britain

Pro-Brexit demonstrators outside the Houses of Parliament in London. Photograph: David Mirzoeff/PA. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

On a trip to the UK, French writer Marion Van Renterghem detects unwelcome changes in the country since Boris Johnson’s election victory.

I am a bloody foreigner, so I am.

Dogs are unaware they are dogs. They sit on the sofa, take their place in family discussions, play with you as part of their duty, require the permanent opening of the fridge, fish for flattery and compliments. They naturally think they are humans. What else?

So it is with me and London. I have been here so often, developed so many London habits, that I forget I’m not a Londoner. I have my cafés, my Osyter card, my favourite walks, my cinemas, my friends. I sit on the sofas like dogs will do in the family. I blend in. I used to forget I’m only a Parisian dog – namely, I loved to forget it. But that was before what just happened.

The election is over. Brexit will now happen. I’m convinced, like many others, that it is a painful, pointless and lose-lose situation, but life goes on.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the unveiling of the Conservative Party battlebus in Middleton, Greater Manchester. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire. – Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

So I am in Soho, walking to meet someone for a drink. It is late. The streets are busy. I am watching where I am going. The man heading towards me is not, and he bumps into me, hard.

Instinctively, the French equivalent of the F-word escaped my lips.

“Are you not going to say sorry?” he shouted at me.

“You’re the one who should be saying sorry,” I replied.

His face now contorted into a mix of scorn and loathing.

“Huh! A bloody foreigner. Go back to where you came from.”

As I watched him walking away, I felt immensely sad. Was I overreacting? These harmless words look insignificant. Even recording them like this, I wonder if I need to apologise to all the real victims of racism to whom insults and even worse are part of their daily life. I am white, blonde, a bit Belgian and indeed in France am often taken for a German, a Pole or a Scandinavian. So I wouldn’t dare compare with the racism thrown at those who have a dark skin – even if Poles and other eastern European immigrants started being loathed in the UK, accused of “taking our jobs”.

The reason I feel I should record what happened is that I know I am not alone in the experience I had, because other non-British Europeans living here, some of them for decades, have told me the same kind of thing has happened to them. And they also report a direct link between the Brexit referendum and the onset of xenophobic insults.

I have lost count of how many times I have visited London in my life. This was the first time I have ever been made to feel like an unwelcome dog. I know that man does not represent all of Britain. But he represents a part of the change that has occurred here. That post-Brexit night in Soho, I became a bloody foreigner.

The man I was seeing for a drink did little to help cheer me up. As I recounted to him what had just happened, he burst out laughing: “Here we go… you’re about to sing the usual Remainers’ song, that Brexit gives rise to racism.” Two rude Brits, just a few minutes apart. Two blows in quick succession. As we continued the conversation, I then found out that the guy, a former Remainer who used to be a New Labour supporter, applauded the victory of Boris Johnson, for whom he had just voted with no hesitation.

He said that Labour and the Remainers had been punished for staying in their own bubble – which I sense is partly true. But to see this brilliant writer so delighted with the triumph of a British populist, and so patronising about my post-Brexit misadventure was both depressing and instructive.

Something has changed in Britain because of Brexit, definitely. Even within London’s elite bubble, of which this man was definitely a member. You can’t get through a three and a half years hearing the music of nationalist campaign and be left untouched of any influence. Even beyond Britain, Johnson’s political landslide has been echoing in the United States and on the continent, fostering Donald Trump and the European nationalists.

I went to Dublin as part of the same trip. The Irish people I met seemed stunned and bewildered by what was happening in the UK, worrying for the future of the peace agreement, and the economic shock Brexit could deliver. The British people I met in London included people who had voted Labour all through their life and who claim themselves to be social democrats.

Interestingly, not one of them cast the same ballot, reflecting how far any opposition to a populist Tory leader has now exploded. The guy in the bar had turned full-on Johnsonian. A friend of mine, the son of a Jewish refugee, couldn’t vote for a Labour party so hopelessly complacent about anti-Semitism and switched to the Liberal Democrats. A member of the current Tony Blair team, who made me swear I would never tell anyone, confessed having voted for the Animal Welfare Party – which might be ironically the only party now to take us into consideration, we European dogs. What a strange, unfamiliar place this is becoming. With the objective help of Jeremy Corbyn, Johnson was able to introduce populism within the oldest parliamentary democracy and the most resilient to populism among all European countries. Thank you guys. Goodbye, Great Britain, salut Little England, ciao. Now I know I’m a foreigner, so I am.

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