Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.

I left Britain for France after Brexit. So what now?

Le Pen and Bardella are the stuff of 2016 nightmares

Photo: FRANCOIS LO PRESTI/AFP via Getty Images

Almost exactly five years ago, I strode out of the French Consulate in South Kensington as the proud owner of a certificate of citizenship.

Holding up this grand document bearing an embossed confirmation of my second nationality, I felt imbued with optimism as I blinked into the dazzling sunlight for a souvenir photograph.

Thanks to my French wife, I had been gifted the previously unanticipated privilege of being able to remain part of the European Union.

My cheery mood, however, was about more than being able to keep a claret passport to travel freely across Europe.

The feeling went deeper than being a solitary act of flailing defiance against Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit plans, days before he was declared Tory leader in July 2019.

What made me particularly buoyant, as we headed off to a nearby pub garden for a typically British celebratory pint, was being able to vote in a country that had seemingly not been ruptured by the misinformation which caused Brexit in the first place.

France, I believed, would never be a country gullible enough to fall for a blatantly daft lie like the notorious one about spending more on the health service instead of sending £350m a week to the EU.

Neither would a mainstream French politician stoop so low as to imply that an action as simplistic as pulling out of a trading and customs block would stop migrants from trying to journey there.

That kind of populist extremism could never get enough traction in a country which had in 2017 elected, in Emmanuel Macron, a president who created his own centrist party to marginalise both the left and the right. 

France, a country which I had come to love over more than two decades for its conservative and reassuring resistance to dramatic change, would never do anything as stupid as us in grumbling, jumpy Britain.

Sipping my beer in the sunshine, I felt immensely satisfied about being French as well as British, just as the UK looked set to take the first of Johnson’s many wrong turns.

Today, as we look across the Channel nervously ahead of the second round of the parliamentary elections after the far-right National Rally (RN) won 33.4% in the first, I wonder if that confidence was always misplaced.

What most British holidaymakers love about France are the eternal traditions – picking up a baguette in the village boulangerie or playing pétanque. These quintessentially French sights, sounds and smells are adorable and provide proof that modernity has not quite taken over.

But when you spend as long as I have as the rosbif infiltrator at the periphery of a large French family, you realise that many of our Gallic neighbours see these pleasant features of their culture as being shredded apart by elite politicians.

It is not unusual to hear someone living in the rural depths, where I am for several weeks every year, talking about how foreigners they have never met, and undoubtedly will never meet, are damaging the principles upon which De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic is founded.

There is frequent talk of how the cornerstone principle of laïcité is being undermined by Muslim children wearing headscarves in Paris and Marseille.

One often hears comments to the effect that while they have nothing against North African immigrants, France is a Judeo-Christian society, so these newcomers (whose countries were brutally colonised by France) have to adapt their customs to be fully assimilated.

The appalling terror attacks of 2015 provided the perfect corroboration of these prejudices.

In recent years, it has been clear how Le Pen and her re-branded National Front have picked on these inherent fears and laced them with the same wedge issues which were used to foment distrust in the run-up to Brexit.

I noticed European regulations were increasingly being blamed for ecological agricultural policies or restrictive measures to curb vehicle emissions.

Refusing to accept the reality of climate change was an idea which became more commonplace. The original source was often someone connected to the Far Right.

Polemicist commentators and highly questionable revisionist historians painting a very distorted view of recent events would be cited. 

Slowly but surely, the pragmatism espoused by Macron seemed to be getting knocked about, or blamed. 

Living through the craziness of Brexit, and five Prime Ministers in six years, I would tell my French family that they were lucky to have a genuinely sensible politician unafraid to tell inconvenient truths as their leader. But no one seemed to be listening. 

He was either too much in the pockets of elite big business, or far too liberal. Few admired his determination to take France forward through unpopular choices which simply need to happen.

Sitting on the fringe of these exchanges, I often thought that the festering wound which severs French society now is entirely self-inflicted. It didn’t need to be that way.

I was in Paris in 2017 to report on Macron’s inauguration.

There was a tangible wave of euphoria in the air as a crowd gathered before a stage erected in front of the Louvre pyramid awaiting France’s fresh-faced new leader.

We watched Macron’s motorcade rolling towards us through the eighth arrondissement on big screens. By the time he reached the stage, the whooping from supporters was more reminiscent of the reaction to Johnny Hallyday arriving for a stadium show than a politician turning up to give a speech.

The president spoke with the eloquence with which we have become accustomed, a man with a gift for saying the right words pitched perfectly for his audience.

I was reminded of when Tony Blair strolled into Downing Street in 1997, another politician born with the Midas touch who seemed to glide effortlessly into his role at the helm of his country.

Macron’s gilded honeymoon period was more shortlived than Blair’s, however. Within three months of taking office his approval ratings had fallen by 15%, as people reacted to the scale of his proposed reforms.

The following November, the hi-vis-wearing Gilets Jaunes were attracting international attention with protests in most French cities, initially against high fuel prices, but ultimately encompassing a broad coalition of disgruntlement.

Farmers and motorists came together against austerity, speed cameras, the repeal of a wealth tax, and a perception that their president was a benefactor of the rich.

By 2019, France was shut down for weeks on end by strikes against Macron’s plans for sweeping changes to pensions and labour laws designed to galvanise the economy.

Instead of making his country more balanced and less prone to political tantrums, the rise of the centrist En Marche party actually seemed to make everyone even more extreme.

With each trip, I realised that many French people are never entirely content with their lot.

Those who have benefited most of their lives from a world-leading health service and a social security system which allowed them to retire in their late 50s or early 60s would moan the loudest.

They never wanted to hear me telling them that the state pensions in France are immeasurably more than what now exists in the UK.

Disenfranchised a little more each day by social media and a 24-hour news cycle that cares more about soundbites than informing, they were relatively easy pickings for Le Pen. 

A few days before the 2022 presidential election, I was dispatched to Saint-Riquier-en-Riviere, a pretty hamlet in bucolic Normandy which at the time had the highest percentage of Le Pen voters in the country – 60%.

The place was so sleepy that it was about 20 minutes before I could actually find anyone to speak with. The idea of encountering an actual foreigner there felt frankly ludicrous.

My case study interviewees were an elderly couple tending to their perfectly planted back garden.

The husband, who had retired on a full pension aged 57, told me: “Marine Le Pen will be better for people like us. She understands our problems. She is against immigration, and I am very happy to vote for that.”

They went back to their gardening, and we drove home through idyllic rolling countryside.

I remembered them when I went to vote in last Sunday’s first round. I was one of thousands of French citizens invited to cast my ballot in the legislative elections at the Lycée International Winston Churchill in Wembley.

Inside, there was a steady trickle of voters, each one assigned to a sectioned-off booth inside the hall.

There was a congenial atmosphere in the building, as though no one wanted to confront the deadly seriousness of the potential consequences of a Le Pen triumph. We joked with pupils selling croissants in the playground.

It reminded me of the blasé confidence so many harboured before the Brexit vote. 

I also thought about all the newly certified French compatriots I had been standing with for that splendid ceremony at the Consulate back in 2019. 

Many of them had been halves of elderly Anglo-French couples who had belatedly decided to proceed with citizenship. At least by being French, they told me, they would be safe living in Europe for the remainder of their lives without the worry of overstaying a visa. 

Now they must be feeling less secure.

Le Pen and Jordan Bardella, her nominee for prime minister, will not admit it openly, but an outright victory this Sunday will bring a French exit from the EU that little bit closer.

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.