'Fifty per cent British, 50 per cent French, 100 per cent European'

Colin Randall, recently a dual national, explains why it's unfair to judge people based on their allegiances

Children wave French and British flags before British Prime Minister Theresa May's arrival in Albert, northern France, Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. French President Emmanuel Macron will later welcome Theresa May and pay respects to the French and British soldiers killed during WWI at the Thiepval war cemetery. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
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Seizing an opportunity between lockdowns last year, I had brought another long stay in France to a close and returned to London as a Briton. After several months in the UK, I have now made the opposite journey as a French citizen.

There is nothing too dramatic about this change of status. No one has stripped me of the nationality of my birth. As the official at the French consulate in London put it – when she presented my declaration of French nationality and warned me to "guard it carefully" – I am still British.

What dual nationality means, in selfish practical terms, is that I am once again free to roam the 27 EU countries at will. I can live in France without worrying how long I stay and how long I must then stay away from all EU territory before being permitted to return.

But it naturally goes deeper than an embittered personal rejection of Brexit. My acquisition of French nationality has a gold-plated finish, secured by coincidence rather than design in the same year that my French wife and I celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary.

It is not a step that ever occurred to me as a product of small-town northern England, where youthful awareness of France was limited to wallowing in the cloying melancholy of Francoise Hardy’s songs and ruing a family budget that put a school trip to Paris out of the question.

In an adulthood spent nipping between the two countries and living and working in both, an unmistakable connection to France has developed. Given my close attachment to the French side of my extended family, the wonder is that I did not cross the bridge years ago.

People have all sorts of reasons for possessing, and often treasuring, double nationality, or for seeking it in later years. For many, perhaps most, sentiment is more important than mere convenience. The Patricks and Siobhans born of Irish parents in Britain and other English-speaking parts of the world are likely to grow up feeling at least as Irish as anything else. Karim or Rachida, in their Parisian banlieue or provincial French town, will cling fiercely to Algerian roots.

To an open mind, it is surely the most natural and respectable of expressions of individual identity. Logically, problems should arise only in those rare cases where allegiances born of dual citizenship assume the combative edge, and even hatred of host countries, that can lead to extremist thoughts or acts.

Britain Cricket - Pakistan v India - 2017 ICC Champions Trophy Final - The Oval - June 18, 2017 Pakistan's Shoaib Malik celebrates winning the ICC Champions Trophy with their fans Action Images via Reuters / Andrew Boyers Livepic EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
A UK politician once argued that a 'large proportion of Britain's Asian population' would fail the test of being 'truly British' based on the national sports team of their choice. Reuters

Not everyone, of course, sees the innocence in, for example, preferring the culture or football team of a parent’s geographical origins to those of country of birth and upbringing.

In 1990, Norman Tebbit, an early populist of the British right who served as chairman of the Conservative party and at several ministries, devised what became known as the "Tebbit test". He argued that, which cricket team people from ethnic minorities supported was a barometer of whether they were "truly British"; a "large proportion of Britain's Asian population" would fail the test, he told the Los Angeles Times.

If that seems an absurdly harsh condition of Britishness, consider the spluttering outrage caused when the French anthem La Marseillaise was roundly jeered by a few hundred Tunisian supporters before a France-Tunisia football match in 2008. From the right of French politics, then president Nicolas Sarkozy led a chorus of indignation that would not have sounded out of place in a pantomime. He even spoke of the need to abandon games in such circumstances and, neatly overlooking the likelihood that most of those barracking the anthem were born in France, suspend future fixtures with the countries concerned.

It may be just as well that England face Germany and not France in the last 16 of the European Football Championship. I would no more boo an anthem than players taking the knee, but divided loyalty might have caused me to fail the Tebbit test.

The climax to the process of obtaining French nationality takes different forms. An online report of such an occasion in south-western France tells of people from nearly 40 different countries singing La Marseillaise together, led by the mayor, and in some cases making short speeches.

The anti-Brexit ‘March for Europe’ demonstration in London. Remainers and Leavers will forever disagree on whether those with uglier motivations were numerous enough to swing the result. Reuters
The anti-Brexit ‘March for Europe’ demonstration in London. Remainers and Leavers will forever disagree on whether those with uglier motivations were numerous enough to swing the result. Reuters

An acquaintance recalls another group ceremony, with pre-Covid-19 celebrations at the same London consulate where I sat, socially distanced by a Perspex screen, and discussed the formalities of my gesture with a solitary official. In the dossier, the official handed me a friendly if impersonal letter from President Emmanuel Macron describing France as "proud and happy" to welcome me as a new citizen.

Did I step from the building feeling more French than an hour or so earlier? A little. Less British? Not really; Brexit had already posed a stiff enough test to my sense of national identity. And I still feel more saddened by the outcome of the 2016 referendum than alienated from all those who voted Leave. The impulses of a majority of them had little to do with xenophobia or outright racism and everything to do with a belief – nonsensical as I find it – that "throwing off the shackles of the EU" would smoothly lead to the "Sunlit Uplands", which campaigners had promised. Remainers and Leavers will forever disagree on whether those with uglier motivations were numerous enough to swing the result.

At one of those huge and entirely futile anti-Brexit demonstrations in London, I spotted a banner held by another dual national. Adapted to refer to France and not Belgium, the slogan sums up my feelings precisely: "Fifty per cent British, 50 per cent French, 100 per cent European."

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National and writes from France and Britain