Dismay in France over Britain’s ‘electoral hooligans’

I seem to have spent a lot of time since last Friday morning saying sorry to the French, writes Briton Colin Randall, who is married to a French woman and spends nearly half of each year in France.

French president Francois Hollande arrives for a European Council meeting in Brussels on June 28, 2016. Julien Warnand/EPA
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Le Lavandou, France // Earlier this week, I impulsively posted a tweet in French, apologising on behalf of Britain’s “electoral hooligans”. Two weeks before that I had posted a similar tweet, apologising for the vile conduct of England football hooligans at the Euro 2016 tournament.

My response to last Thursday’s referendum was mostly a tongue-in-cheek gesture to lighten post-Brexit gloom. But it was also something of a labour-saving device.

As an Englishman who is married to a French woman, spends nearly half of each year in France and believes the European Union has broadly been a force for peace and relative stability, I seem to have spent a lot time since last Friday morning saying sorry to the French.

Responses since the spectre of withdrawal became reality have varied. There are French men and women who hold Marine Le Pen’s far-right and also anti-EU Front National in high regard, and it has some popularity in my part of the south of France. For them, there is encouragement that France may follow in Britain’s footsteps.

But plenty of those not driven to extreme remedies are also fed up. Brussels, the EU headquarters, scarcely has more friends in France than in the UK and a politically astute former prime minister Alain Juppe, who may run for France’s mainstream right at next year’s presidential elections, has identified one clear benefit of Brexit. The EU cannot behave as if nothing has happened, he says. “The messages come from everywhere; there is disenchantment among the people of Europe.

“It seems like an incomprehensible bureaucratic machine, incapable of restoring growth and employment, powerless to control our borders.”

Reform of the EU must now be accomplished without the strong voice of the UK. How much better it would surely have been to help plot the course of necessary change from within.

Most of my French acquaintances are not Le Pen sympathisers or truly in favour of Frexit, the possibility of a French exit from the EU that still seems a distant threat. They feel the British have committed at best an act of folly and at worst one of selfish betrayal.

Some want to know whether I’ll need a visa to continue dividing my time between the UK and France. How will their own sons and daughters living and working in London fare in the new and arguably nastier atmosphere? The answer is that this may be one of the simpler post-Brexit accords to negotiate, given how many Britons are resident in other European countries and how many mainland Europeans work in the UK.

If you believe in democracy then the UK’s clear vote to leave the union must be respected. But among those in Britain who want to leave the EU are characters who would cheerfully pull up the drawbridge to mainland Europe altogether, perhaps sparing only their package holiday destinations. And many are not the kind of people you would wish to invite for an English cup of tea or a French aperitif.

Among the first to applaud the 51.9 per cent of British voters who backed withdrawal were those leaders of Dutch and French parties who owe their appeal overwhelmingly to a fear or hatred of foreigners, and especially Muslims.

In a disturbing turn of logic, racists and xenophobes have felt emboldened since last week’s vote. In the town of Huntingdon, north of London, laminated cards have been distributed bearing the chillingly unpleasant if incoherent message, “Leave the EU – no more Polish vermin”. Police are looking for the unknown culprit or culprits.

It is likely that a great majority of Britons living in France, and elsewhere in the EU, rue the momentous decision taken last week. But it would be disingenuous to suggest unanimity. Anita Rieu-Sicart, the editor of anglophone newspaper Var Village Voice, favoured Brexit even if it resulted in personal loss from a sharp fall in the value of sterling.

“The EU needs an electric shock,” she told a local paper on the eve of the vote. “[The British] economy is strong and will know how to react.”

Few doubt that in the end, fears and exasperation over the flow of immigrants had a toxic effect on perceptions of the EU.

The referendum result may actually worsen the problem of illegal immigration for Britain in the short term: France is likely to show a lot less enthusiasm for impeding migrants’ attempts to cross the English Channel from the port of Calais and various officials say the UK will be obliged to retreat its border control to the English side of the waterway. Meanwhile, there can be no guarantee of the economic benefits vaunted by Brexit campaigners.

Overwhelmingly, though, the coming detachment of Britain from the rest of the continent, seems a matter for sadness. But was the UK ever really a proper part of Europe? “The British are leaving a Europe they never really joined,” says Jean Leonetti, a former minister of European affairs. “They’ve always been on the fringe, not party to the Schengen treaty [on open borders], insisting on driving on the left and measuring distance in miles.”

Four days after the referendum, England’s football team suffered defeat at the hands of Iceland, ending its participation in Euro 2016. In even darker times for hooliganism, an English departure from previous tournaments was commonly welcomed for its promise of a safer atmosphere and better football.

Time will tell whether the competition now proceeds more gracefully towards its climax – and whether the EU, too, will come to see the appropriate response to Brexit as “good riddance”.