NIORT, France—Two years of Brexit uncertainty have given British citizens living in France sleepless nights and a bureaucratic headache, with thousands of them hurrying to apply for nationality to secure their status before the divorce date set for next year.
Amanda and Robin Holmes are pillars of the community in their tiny village of Crezieres, nestled in rolling countryside in the west of France. But until last week, neither of them were French.
In the wake of the 2016 referendum in which Britain voted to cut its ties with the European Union, the British-born Holmeses, who moved to France in 2004 under EU freedom-of-movement rules, applied for French citizenship, worried they would be booted from their seats on the local council and keen to send a political message.
“I’m European and I’d like to stay European,” former actress and yoga teacher Amanda, 67, said on the eve of a citizenship ceremony organised in the local town of Niort.
Interior ministry figures show eight times more Britons applied for French nationality in 2017 than in 2015, the year before the Brexit vote.
Many applicants are driven by fears that Brexit will jeopardize their right to live and work in France.
The advice from both governments is that British residents in France apply for a “carte de sejour”—a residence permit issued to all foreign nationals but not normally needed by EU citizens—to prove their rights after Brexit.
Citizens-rights organizations say some local authorities are reluctant to follow that advice and process the applications for Britons, however, and that those that do take months, with confusing lists of demands and documents.
An End To Free Movement?
Briton Jacqui Brown, who was one of Holmes’s yoga pupils, has lived in nearby Loubille with her husband Adrian for 14 years. Their son, now 18, went to the village school, and Jacqui volunteers in her local library.
Her husband works in professional training as a freelancer, taking advantage of the local area’s excellent air connections and his EU passport to travel across the bloc, though most often back to Britain.
With his clients based there, the drop in the value of the pound has already pared 20 percent from the family’s income, Jacqui says. She fears that the effect of Brexit on the British economy along with an end to free movement could threaten their livelihood in France altogether.
“Nobody can give you the answers because nobody knows … So you’ve spent two years thinking, ‘What is going to happen?’,” she said.
A long-planned summit between British Prime Minister Theresa May and other EU leaders this week, originally seen as the deadline for signing off on a deal, looms.
In the run-up, governments on both sides have sought to allay fears, with May assuring EU citizens in Britain in September that they are welcome to stay and France’s Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau promising to ensure Brits in France get “reciprocal rights.”
But the citizens-rights pressure group British in Europe says the warm words have no legal clout and are contingent on them being respected by both sides.
The group is calling for rights to be ring-fenced and guaranteed by both sides, even if no deal is reached between the EU and the British government.
“What we would say is: Do what you promised. You promised us we would not lose our rights, that we would be able to live as we do now, and that’s all we’re asking for,” group member Karen Dobson said, sending a message to May before the summit.
But at last week’s citizenship ceremony in the local government office in Niort, sighs of relief could be heard as the chorus of the Marseillaise died away.
“We’re now French. And happy,” said Robin Holmes.