A pillar of Anglo-French ties has become yet another casualty of Brexit

The recent closure of the Charles Peguy centre is sad but hardly surprising

Charles Peguy, the late French writer and poet, inspired the likes of former president Charles de Gaulle. Getty Images
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Lured by Beatlemania and tantalising images of Swinging London, young French people looking for new experiences began flocking to the UK in the 1960s.

Many of those travelling to the capital wanted to stay. Needing help with accommodation, jobs or study opportunities, they headed for the bustling West End and the Charles Peguy centre.

Now, after six decades of assisting French people trying to find their feet in a new country, the centre has closed. It is another casualty of Brexit.

While the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has also played a small part, the causes for closure lie principally with the hard Brexit Britain chose as its departure route from the EU.

A mischievous caricature of Leave supporters shows obsessively flag-waving Little Englanders thriving on conflict with foreigners, especially the French.

While this is an exaggeration, it is unlikely that the staunchest “go it alone without Europe” advocates will shed tears over the centre’s demise.

In place of the entente cordiale, the famous accord signed in 1904 with the aim of fostering smoother Anglo-French relations, there is now mutual distrust.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson may be on his way out of 10 Downing Street but his government has picked fight after fight with France, the triggers ranging from fishing rights and immigration to the horrendous delays seen at Dover as holidaymakers try to cross the English Channel to Calais. Ministers claim, often without justification, that it’s all the fault of France or the EU. In the golf club analogy that is commonly used, Paris and Brussels say Britain acts as if it thinks cancelling membership should not stop it playing whenever it wishes.

Brexit’s opponents insist that for all the promises of “sunlit uplands” for a Global Britain freed from EU shackles, there is little sign of benefit and ample evidence of loss.

Persistent claims that leaving the EU facilitated the UK National Health Service’s successful coronavirus vaccination programme are in dispute.

Membership of the EU encouraged but did not oblige a collective response to the virus. In any case, neighbouring countries quickly caught up after a sluggish start.

The Anglo-EU row over the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, designed to protect Ireland from a hard border that would almost certainly threaten a fragile peace, has already led to the withdrawal of European funding for UK scientific research.

The UK has admitted its actions would involve a “specific and limited” breach of international law, reneging on a deal freely signed with the EU and acclaimed by Mr Johnson. While Brussels fumes, Britain accuses the EU of intransigence for failing to agree on a protocol rewritten to suit London (and the minority among Northern Ireland voters who backed Leave).

“Blame Brexit” has become a cliche of everyday life. UK exporters and importers deplore the added bureaucracy, delays and costs of continuing to trade with a massive neighbouring bloc. Aviation, agriculture and hospitality say ending freedom of movement has caused severe labour shortages. Whitehall either minimises the disruption or denies responsibility.

Britain has dropped out of the Erasmus programme that enabled a two-way traffic of students funded for academic exchanges. The replacement Turing scheme is one-way and excludes potentially crippling tuition fees.

Some Brexiters now say they always knew it would take time, perhaps decades, for gains to appear. Sovereignty, they say, was the paramount issue. Whether such a nuanced justification was properly explained to, or understood by, the narrow majority that voted Leave in the 2016 referendum is open to doubt.

All of which leaves the Charles Peguy centre as just another example of the collateral damage caused by a bitter political and cultural divorce.

Peguy was a young French poet and writer, killed in battle in the First World War. One of his works, The Portico of the Mystery of the Second Virtue was a favourite poem of Charles de Gaulle, who was to become the enduring symbol of French resistance in the Second World War and subsequently the country’s president.

Since opening in 1964, the centre named after him has advised tens of thousands of French visitors, mostly young, to London.

My wife and her best friend from school in provincial France, having worked as au pairs in northern England but wishing to settle for a while in London, went there for help in locating affordable accommodation. “All the French students coming to Britain knew of the Charles Peguy centre and we all gravitated towards it,” my wife recalls.

But the centre is now counted among what French Morning News London, an online source of news and information for French expatriates, calls the “heavy consequences” of Brexit.

“Covid stopped people travelling but now that’s more or less back to normal,” says Thibault Dufresne, director of the Centre for International Exchanges in France, which had run the London centre since the 1980s. “But sadly the impact of Brexit that has forced closure.

“London, the UK, used to be very attractive to young French people who wanted to gain experience of work and learn the language.

“With an identity card and the UK being next door, it was so easy. You could find a job in 24 hours and quickly move on to something better. Now that they need sponsorships and visas, it has become almost impossible for most.

“We held back on a decision for a couple for years hoping there might be some easing of restrictions, maybe to allow young people to come for six months or a year. But it hasn’t happened.

“It’s been a great adventure since 1964. The centre was the place to go for French speakers in London and we’re very sad that it has come to end.”

The beneficiary of Britain’s flagging appeal to Europe’s youth is Ireland, still in the EU, still participating in Erasmus and still offering freedom of movement. It is difficult to escape the thought that London – the city that Mr Johnson as its mayor acclaimed as a model of cosmopolitan harmony – has lost part of its soul.

Published: July 29, 2022, 5:00 AM