Alex Taylor, a British broadcaster working in France, was so angered by Brexit he decided to become French, a process which ended in a ceremony at the country’s Pantheon. Vanity Fair’s MARION VAN RENTERGHEM was there to watch it happen
One day, earlier this autumn, Alex Taylor entered the Pantheon, in Paris. This is not usually a good sign. Those who have the honour of being enthroned in this neoclassical church, which transformed during the French Revolution into a ‘secular republican temple’ are generally in a bad state – dead, in fact. Seventy-five ‘great men’ including three ‘great ladies’ – soon to be four when Simone Veil joins the ranks – have been buried in the Pantheon for their very special services to the ‘grateful homeland’.
So whatever drove Taylor to this place? It is certainly not sufficient that he is probably the British journalist the French love most. A remarkable polyglot, he acquired a certain fame here by presenting a panorama of the European news on French television and radio, from France 3 to France Inter, leaving his viewers and listeners longing for more.
Since 1990, we have grown used to listening to his delightful British accent as he takes us through the German, Italian, Spanish, Flemish, Portuguese, Finnish or British newspapers, his eyes squinting with humour.
But that hardly merits joining Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Rousseau, Marie Curie and Jean Moulin and the other giants of French history. No, the reason for his elevation and celebration is Brexit.
That autumn day, November 9, he put on his smartest suit, the purple one. He had butterflies in his stomach. From his apartment in the Marais area of Paris, he walked up to the Pantheon through the Latin Quarter. It meant walking past Lycée Saint-Louis, on boulevard Saint-Michel, where, a languages student at Oxford, he had spent his year abroad in 1979 as an English assistant. He was 22 years old. He fell in love with Paris and with France.
His studies over, two years later he returned to Paris to make it his home. It was a period known as the ‘pink wave’, an era of hope engendered by the election of François Mitterrand, the abolition of the death penalty, the explosion of free radio. We had disco storming the night clubs, our own tennis star Yannick Noah winning at Roland Garros and the launch of a cheeky new TV channel called Canal Plus.
Born in 1957 in Luton and raised in Cornwall, this shy young middle-class Englishman had always felt different. That first year as an assistant in France coincided with Margaret Thatcher’s first year as Prime Minister and a Britain en route to her particular form of Conservatism was not an easy place for Taylor, a gay man, homosexuality only having been legalised in 1967. He found France more enlightened, more accepting. Once he came back with his degree, he never returned.
Like many of us, he remembers the name of the teacher who taught him his favourite subject at school. Mrs Bridgewater. He still remembers her first lesson and the first word she wrote on the blackboard. ‘Oui’.
It came as a shock – that ‘we’ could be written ‘oui’. ‘I found it magical,’ he says. ‘Thrilling. At that moment I said to myself: ‘Somewhere exists an elsewhere where things are made differently’.’
From that moment he was looking for the elsewhere, where he could be accepted as he was. Foreign languages proved to be the passport to reach it. He was the best of his class at French and at German.
Mon film sur la très belle cérémonie au Panthéon ce matin où je suis devenu français – et la plus belle Marseillaise que j’ai jamais entendue 🙂 pic.twitter.com/3fSf4PszBc
— Alex Taylor (@AlexTaylorNews) November 9, 2017
He would watch the Eurovision Song Contest for the thrill of hearing and dreaming about the names of the capitals, and imagining the day he might visit them. ‘Hello Oslo!’ ‘Hello Rome!’
His father, decorated for his contribution to the war against the Germans, used to take his family camping across Europe, to show his son the continent where peace had finally been won, at the price of millions of lives, and thanks to the building of the European Economic Community, which Britain first rejected, then from which it found itself rejected and which, eventually, in 1973, it succeeded in joining.
They would go by car and take the Hovercraft across the Channel. He remembers crossing borders and changing pounds into Francs, Lira and Deutschmarks. He remembers the taste of his first croissant in Charleroi, Belgium.
Then, years later, he remembers the taste of freedom in the France of the 1980s and his first steps in journalism on a gay radio station, Frequence Gay, while Thatcher was winning applause at the Tory Party conference by attacking schools who were suggesting ‘to our children’ the idea of ‘an inalienable right to be gay’.
The morning after the referendum in which the British people voted to leave the EU, on June 24, 2016, Taylor remained in bed. Stunned. Disbelieving. Downcast. The day after, he began the quest to acquire French nationality. Birth certificates of parents, certificates of employers, tax forms… it took him two months to collect all the papers and forms he needed.
He had to register in an authorized centre to take a test showing his mastery of the French language: 45 minutes of multiple choice questions (including one on an excerpt from Quebec radio) and 15 minutes of interview. Despite his 35 years spent on French radio and television, and three years running Radio France Internationale (RFI), he was still ‘scared stiff’.
His fears were unfounded. He got the highest rating. There was an ‘assimilation interview’ too: an hour of interrogation on the history of France, the big dates and the lyrics of the Marseillaise. Once he was able to put everything in an envelope, on August 17, 2016, he went to the post office to send it to the police headquarters. He went into a cafe, sat down at a table and broke down in tears.
He thought of the country that welcomed him, France, and of the country of his birth, Great Britain, in which he no longer recognised himself. ‘Brexit broke me. Without me having a say – because the British who have been living outside their country for more than 15 years did not have the right to vote – my compatriots have deprived me of my trust and certainties. A country where Europeans cannot work as though it is their home, reside and be treated like home, it’s not my country,’ he says. ‘I am British but my only true identity is to be European. And since Britain doesn’t want to be European anymore, I have no choice but to be French.’
The man who became a linguist by force of circumstances, to the point of writing a book on the varying expressiveness of languages all over world (Bouche bée, tout ouïe, 2010), deplores the fact that there is no real English translation for ‘Je leur en veux’ and ‘Ne pas décolérer.’ Literally translated they mean ‘I want of them of it’ and ‘not to de-anger’. But they mean ‘I am angry with them about it’, and ‘don’t stop being angry’.
‘I am angry at Brexit and I am staying angry. At no time in France have I been made to feel like I was a foreigner. Yet I have become one in my own country. The Brexiters have managed to make Europeans like me not welcome in Britain. Je ne décolère pas. Je leur en veux tellement! They have taken a part of me away.’
Pre-Brexit, across the French media, Taylor held the persona of ‘Mr Happy to be a European’. Now, he’s invited on as ‘Mr Grumpy’, angry with his compatriots.’ He’s fed up with it. ‘I’m 60, I have received notification of my pension. I would rather have kept on being Mr. Happy.’
He keeps an eye on the British press and, via @AlexTaylorNews, tweets explanations to the French about the absurdity of Brexit and the useless vertiginous decline Britain has chosen for itself, now panicking like a headless chicken.
The list of dead ends seems grotesque, worthy of a Marx Brothers’ film: the record number of European nurses leaving the NHS, for fear of not being allowed to stay in the country; people in poverty-scarred Cornwall having massively voted Brexit then worrying, just a day after the vote, that their (vital) European subsidies would stop; the British farmers, pro-Brexit, also getting indignant at the stopping of subsidies – a detail they seem not to have thought of; the Home Office considering recruiting Polish customs officers, because there are too few Britons for the job – yes Britain needs Poles to help keep out the Poles! … Anyway, an inevitable darker future, after such a childish and whimsical vote.
‘Wake up and smell the coffee!’ exclaims Taylor. He’d rather say: ‘Wake up and smell the cow poo!’
Arriving at the Pantheon, that November day that would change his life for ever, he had no idea what he would find. He had received a letter in April 2017 announcing his naturalisation decree in the Journal officiel: ‘Dear Sir, I am pleased to announce that you are French. Your town hall will contact you within six months to call you in for the citizenship reception ceremony.’
Then the notice of the meeting arrived and, wow, it was not to be held at the town hall or at the prefecture but at the Pantheon. If becoming French instead of British did not feel significant already it felt even more so now. And so, in the early autumn morning, 228 foreigners of 40 different nationalities found themselves on the forecourt, like him, having received the same notice and wondering why.
Inside the solemn, gloomy monument, seats are set out in front of a stage and the new French citizens take their place. They are given a file including the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and a letter of welcome into the French nationality, signed by the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron.
They leaf through the file, look at each other, smiling. They come from Australia, Ivory Coast, Philippines, Togo, Algeria, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Canada, countries far and wide, large and small. ‘And you, where do you come from?’ a neighbour asks me. I reply that I’m ‘already French, silly’. ‘Nice,’ she says. Then the orchestra of the Prefecture of Paris and the choir of the French army sing a vibrant Marseillaise. There are tears.
On the stage, the Interior Minister, Gerard Collomb, not one of the world’s most charismatic speakers, nonetheless rises to the moment.
‘Here blows the spirit of those who have shaped the history of our country! Here blows the spirit of those who made France a nation apart! Here blows the spirit of great women, great men, whose journeys and whose commitment mean that today you can be proud to become French! To acquire our nationality in this unique place is among those moments that, in any existence, one simply does not forget … I welcome you to our beautiful nation.’
It felt as though even André Malraux and Jean Moulin were surpassed. And now the new French citizens, to a man and woman, all of them, seemed to be in tears. With President Macron in the Élysée, it has been decided that such a grand ‘naturalisation ceremony’ will take place twice a year in the Pantheon for a few hundred lucky people chosen by drawing lots.
Taylor feels lucky. Impressed and moved to receive ‘such a welcome in French nationality’, he made a short film of the ceremony and tweeted it. He is now encouraging all his compatriots to do the same. According to the French Minister of the Interior, 83,002 British people applied for French nationality in 2016, and the number is rising fast post referendum, with 60,626 applying in the first six months of 2017.
‘I was very motivated and one of the first ones to complete the file. There will certainly be many more of naturalisations in 2017,’ he says. He has decided to keep his British passport but says if he had to choose, he would give it up without qualms.
‘France has made me European and proud of it. I feel at home again,’ he says. It is a feeling well worthy of a mass at the Pantheon.
Marion Van Renterghem is a reporter-at-large at Vanity Fair, after 30 years with Le Monde. This article also appears in Vanity Fair, France