Michael Dodds, who heads the Normandy tourist board (Normandie Tourisme) and Normandie Attractivité said they went for an unusual tongue-in-cheek marketing strategy on Brexit day. It consisted of an image of arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage sporting a Bayeux Tapestry tie, along with the slogan ‘Some Ties Endure’.
Mr Dodds said when Brexit happened it was natural that Normandy had to mark it because “Normandy and the UK go back a long way – to William the Conqueror”.
“The Tower of London, for example, is one of the many British monuments built by Normans. You could say the English are really all Normans since 1066, and the Queen is still referred to in the Channel Islands as the Duc de Normandie and there are all sorts of traces of Norman law in British law.
“At a time where Britain is coming out of the EU I and my colleagues felt we had to make a gesture to say that we can’t just dismantle history that easily. We do have very strong connections and we want to keep them going.
“Hence the idea of a friendly gesture in the national press – and with a London agency, Mr H, we came up with Nigel Farage wearing the Bayeux Tapestry tie, which far from being a symbol of discord between England and Normady (he reportedly said he was wearing it to ‘remind people of the last time Britain was invaded’) is, in our view a symbol of common heritage.
“At a time when we’re examining the feasibility of the tapestry going back to Britain for a temporary period [most historians think it was probably made in England], we think the tapestry can be a powerful symbol of Anglo-Norman cooperation after Brexit and of the special relationship that we have.”
Mr Dodds said the ‘ties’ campaign had a good impact, including over 100,000 conversations detected on social media, with 98% being positive.
“I think it was quite brave, and un-French, of the regional council to say ‘yes’ to it, because it wasn’t a normal, institutional communication,” he said.
“The British response was that we hit the right mark and it was an appropriate reminder. And now the campaign carries on. We’re encouraging Norman businesses that have links with the UK to use the ad as a simple message they can use. It’s expiry date wasn’t February 1 – it can carry on all year. And while negotiations continue to work out what Brexit will mean, we simply want to keep that friendly message there.
“It’s not just about keeping trade going; we really think that there may also be universities and other higher education establishments that will want to maintain a foothold in continental Europe and having a base in Normandy might well make sense. So we’re entering discussions with universities to see if they would like to establish campuses here. It could be very interesting. It’s early days but the ambition is there and the regional council is strongly motivated.”
It is possible that if such campuses were established they may run some courses in French and some in English, or may even be exclusively English-language.
Mr Dodds said: "Most business schools deliver courses in English and the Ecole Science- Po in Le Havre delivers courses exclusively in English to a majority of students from Asia."
Mr Dodds said that moving forward one worry for tourism in particular is the potential for Brexit-related drops in the value of the pound.
“If there was a crash in the pound, that would be a major concern, if Normandy becomes too expensive, it has a huge impact. That’s the main worry this year.
“After that, we don’t really know – we’re hopeful that good sense will prevail and that as both Britain and France want to carry on developing tourism between the countries, things will remain simple and there will be no visitor visas or problems with British passports, for example.
“However our five ports are very much exposed, if there are new complications.
“They have identified the investments that need to be made and are in the starting blocks over how to handle Brexit, with new procedures taking place. There will be great efforts to digitise things as much as possible, but if not everything is done correctly then there may well be big queues.
“There will be a lot of pressure on Dover-Calais, so it’s possible that if the western ports have a reputation of being a little smoother, who knows, it could become an opportunity for Normandy, but we don’t know. We are waiting now to see what exactly is decided and we will obviously know better in 2021.”
Mr Dodds said many business people are concerned about the likely increase in red tape after the transition period. “Normandy depends on the British market, especially as an export market for our agricultural products. We’ve always been trading neighbours. So there is of course concern. We’re all just hoping that good sense will prevail but there’s complete uncertainty and when you see some of the posturing going on before the negotiations have taken place it doesn’t give up much confidence – Britain saying alignment is out of the question is not a good starting point. So we will have to be vigilent.”
Britons remain so far the most numerous nationality in terms of tourism to Normandy according to the latest available figures (2018), however Mr Dodds said in hotel nights they were overtaken by the Dutch in 2018, for the first time. Figures are not yet available for 2019, he said, though it was in theory a good year, as there were major events and good weather.
“However Brittany ferries did have a small drop last year, which is significant. They are very much in the firing line on this and they are concerned.”
He said there are no figures on Britons coming to live in Normandy. “I imagine a lot of people are asking themselves questions. If they are dependent on British income, some are reconsidering going back to Britain as they are concerned about how for their money will go.”
Apart from Brexit worries, Mr Dodds said that since the reunification of Normandy (which was divided into Haute Normandie and Basse Normadie from 1956 to 2015), there is a ‘new dynamic’ in the region.
“It’s all about trying to reaffirm our identity, and ‘Normandy pride’,” he said. “While some regions are still trying to make sense of huge new regions that are agglomerations of different identities, we have a big straight boulevard ahead of us and can just get on with it.”
He added: “The tourist board is financed mostly by the regional council. And with the reunification it was felt necessary to have another agency with a broader remit and not just tourism, to be in charge of promoting the Normandy brand and getting all the economic sectors on board – that’s called Normandie Attractivité.
“We want people to know we’re a world region, a region that counts – it’s got unbelievable awareness already, everyone knows it because of history, but Normandy isn’t known for what it’s doing today – it’s not just an open history book but it’s inventing things and contributing to the world, whether that’s in medicine or agriculture or energy or cosmetics, engineering and digital innovation.”
The chip credit card was developed in Caen, for example, and a doctor from Rouen created world-leading innovations in heart valve surgery, he said. “He is now helping Norman companies to help heart surgeons to use robots to operate at a distance, which is really pioneering stuff.”