Finding an answer to the cri de coeur: how the promise of a home away from home is vanishing for European students
I heard the group in front of me speaking French. They were lost, so I stepped up and asked if I could help.
They asked in very good English if I knew of any places nearby of particular interest to a French person. More specifically, they were looking for places that had provided shelter; a livelihood; asylum to anyone from their country. But they knew that they were looking for something deeper. They just didn’t have the exact words.
Being students, they were able to go back and forth to London, and they could do that easily. All they had to do was show their passport to spend a weekend drinking and partying in this other world so close, but far away. Top Shop had changed their style; speaking London English gave them an edge.
They had come this weekend from Paris and Lille and their plans included not sleeping. The UK, which they called ‘England’, had changed their lives and now it looked as if all of that was about to be over. Brexit was a complete shock to them – they never thought it would happen. But it was the choice of the British people. Brexit belonged to them.
But they were worried. They had friends working in London and everyone was afraid. I took them to the French place of interest nearest to where I live: L’Église Protestante Française de Londres: the French Protestant Church Of London, founded by Edward VI by Royal Charter in 1550. Part of his ‘protestantisation’ of the country.
The present building, erected at the end of the 19th century faces south on Soho Square. It was designed by the same architect who made the façade of Buckingham Palace and the main building of the V&A.
It is made of that sturdy maroon-coloured Victorian brick. It is part of that era of 19th century ‘grand projet’ when the sovereign ended up a Queen/Empress. It is sombre and assured and solid.
I pointed out to the French group that the word ‘refugee’ entered the English language after French Protestants were allowed to settle in the country from the 16th century onwards. To be a Protestant in France was often a dangerous business. Sometimes treason itself. But London-England meant freedom.
This idea of Britain as a beacon of freedom and movement became such a powerful notion to the 18th century French that authors would sometimes have their books indicate that they had been published in London, even if they hadn’t been. It was the hallmark of free speech.
‘Refugee’, which had begun as a verb, gradually began to describe the person himself; a person who had escaped from persecution. A paternal ancestor of Nigel Farage himself found peace and a home here. That Farage – a descendant of a Huguenot refugee – aims to limit the ability of other refugees to find the succour that his forbear had, is a tragic and bizarre irony.
I pointed out this ‘Farage Conundrum’ to the French tourists and they laughed. One of them explained to the others that the English xenophobe with a Huguenot name was an example of that evasive and puzzling thing to foreigners, known as ‘the English sense of humour’.
One of them pointed out that France, too, had a sense of humour: it was called ‘La Gauche’. Add to this joke the rise of Marine Le Pen – with her Trumpian motto of ‘France First’; her pledge to leave the eurozone, the EU itself; her promise to re-denominate the currency by bringing back the franc – and you could tell that the joke was no laughing matter.
The French have a long national memory, but some of that memory has been shelved. Something has been lost; swallowed up by a wave of anger. That worried the students, they explained to me, not only for their own country but for their beloved ‘land of promise’ – the UK.
They saw their global youth and the promise of it vanishing before their eyes. Their despair is one of the many fruits of Brexit.
As one of the greatest examples of potential national self-harm in history, Brexit could end up ranking alongside Spain’s decision to send its big, lumbering Armada into the face of a storm to invade England; and the American South’s firing on Fort Sumter.
Brexit has made the atmosphere so feral that a comment like Michael Howard’s part-tongue in cheek, part agent provocateur throw-away, about attacking Spain over Gibraltar, gets serious airtime.
Brexit is causing that perennial political football – otherwise known as the NHS – to become even more of a boiling cauldron. The endless punditry and speculation about its fate could go to another plateau by efficiently modelling what it would look like without immigrants and EU nationals. Any twelve year old good with tech could use the data to rustle up a digital picture. Show the country what this cornerstone of the state could look like post-Brexit. Another model could show us how long it could take to get the NHS largely populated by indigenous medical personnel.
We could know these things and their cost immediately. So why hasn’t it been done? The answer has to be politics. Where would euroscepticism go if it had to face scrutiny, the light of day?
And what of the Left now, in most parts of the world? It looks rudderless, going off in the wrong direction; hunkering down as it deals with ‘internals’. As the world marches by.
Former US vice president Joe Biden said to an audience recently that the biggest shock to him about the Presidential election was the Democrats’ loss of focus regarding their base: the working class. How did this happen, he asked, who did it?
In France, the Socialist Party – led, like Labour, by a well-meaning man, but no leader – could face electoral wipe-out at the parliamentary elections, as well as lose the Élysée Palace.
Marine Le Pen has a committed and driven base, loyal to their Bleu Marine. Like Trump. As Farage correctly predicted about Leave voters, her people, too, will ‘crawl over broken glass’ to vote for her. The fear is that ‘undecideds’ might turn out to be the anti-globalist left. Just as in the US, the vote for the Green Party’s Jill Stein and for temporary Democrat Bernie Sanders helped erode the Democratic base. These same forces could hand a victory to the National Front. The centre-Left could be left in the weeds.
In the UK, Theresa May can hide the deep fissures within the Tory Party through help from the media and Labour in-fighting. Labour, like the Democrats and the Socialist Party, lies caught between being a genuine movement and a vote-generator ready to govern from the centre. Where most people vote.
And there are those who might just decide to sit the whole thing out.
I had asked some friends once how the National Front had been able to make such headway. One of the answers was that many people who choose the Front used to be socialists, even Marxists. ‘They are the forgotten,’ I was told.
The French and American elections are not an exact comparison. Trump fronted a mainstream party. Le Pen and Macron, the two current front runners, are from outside the political mainstream.
Neither have enough MPs to command the National Assembly – in other words, to govern. Macron may be able to bring people together as a pro-EU corporate centrist. No one wants to work with Le Pen. For now.
The French electoral system was designed to keep outsiders like Le Pen and Macron on the fringes. They are seen as the political cabaret of the Republic, before the main show. But that’s not what people want now. The traditional parties may not feature this time. It is possible that an insurgent will become the next head of state.
Unlike in the UK, 60% of the French favour the EU. It is, after all, the premier Franco-German project. This point of view favours Macron. And because of this point of view, Brexit is actually beginning to strengthen Europe itself. The 27 remaining members seem to be coming together for now and, in the words of chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, they are starting to ‘engage’.
The students I met were grateful to discover the French Protestant Church; grateful for everything about the UK. It had become a kind of home away from home.
I thought about them later and realised that the words they were looking for to describe what they were doing and feeling that weekend in London were French not English.
The words were ‘cri de coeur’.