They are looking at how Brexit is affecting Britons working and running businesses in the area, as well as the role of their work, and of British residents in general, in the region’s economy.
After an ‘exploratory phase’, talking to experts working with the community such as trainers, leaders of associations and translators, they will be interviewing British businesspeople from this summer. They are already interested in hearing testimonies from British business owners, as well as employees or jobseekers in France, as to what effects Brexit is having on them (testimonies may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org for forwarding - see more below).
Associate professor in entrepreneurship Vincent Lagarde, leading the study, said his first impressions are that the situation is “more worrying” than he had known – Brexit’s effects are “already being felt” – and that the importance of the British community to Nouvelle-Aquitaine, both socially and economically, has been under-estimated.
“It’s not just whole families that can find themselves in difficulty, but if Brexit complicates their lives it’s also going to complicate things for our rural territories which depend on them more than we realised.”
He said, for example, he recently spoke to a French restaurant owner who grumbled about the British before admitting they made up 20% of his customers and “if they leave I will have to close down”.
Dr Lagarde said the study will look at certain areas known for their large British population, such as the Dordogne and parts of the Gironde, as well as others where they are less numerous but still play an important role. It will include both country and urban areas but will be limited to Nouvelle Aquitaine partly because it is the area with the largest British community.
So far the researchers believes the British are especially active in rural areas. “There are retired people and those with second homes, but also workers – often micro-entrepreneurs with small businesses. The British also very much involved with local associations,” Dr Lagarde said.
The limited results so far show that British people are especially likely to have small businesses as handymen or gardeners, he said. “Historically a lot of Britons started businesses for other British people who have French homes but are not there for part of the year. They maintain their homes and gardens so they have a home ready to live in when they’re there in the summer time.
“For many people, working within the British community acts as a way to get started – it’s easier because of the language and contacts. But we want to find out to what extent that remains the case and to what extent they branch out into the French market as well and whether they encounter problems with that.”
Dr Lagarde said previous studies present contradictory views of the British – “One said they all work among themselves or on the black and don’t really boost the local economy, but another said on the contrary they bring dynamism and competitivity to their local areas.”
The new study will aim to clarify the picture, Dr Lagarde said, however he said what is certain is that Britons are consumers of other local products and services – many are young and have children – and some of their businesses create jobs.
“There are certain rural areas, which had become underpopulated, where now the British are up to 20% of the population, sometimes more. We don’t know them well, but they’re very useful and I’m trying to measure that,” he said.
He said he has already noted “a great deal of worry” among Britons as to their rights after Brexit, including whether they will be able to continue to do certain kinds of work and whether their dealings with banks will become more difficult. Requests for French nationality have doubled in the Gironde, but some Britons are struggling with requirements to prove a certain income level, he said. Others are trying to prove Irish links to obtain Irish nationality…
“British people are more attached to France than I realised – they are very attached to France and also attached to being European citizens.”
Some people are already reporting issues related to work, he said. “One person who is unemployed told me employers don’t want to take him on due to his nationality. He said ‘I’m starting to face discrimination now, because I’m British’. I hadn’t realised that. Another is a freelance consultant in industry, but he said some European clients have told him they are hesitating about renewing a contract with him in case he loses his working rights.”
Dr Lagarde is also making contact with French politicians at all levels. Local politicians are currently more aware of the situation than national ones, he said. “They know British people in their local associations, or because they have children in their schools – and they’re very attentive to our study because they’re worried about the effect on the dynamism of their communes.
“We will be doing a summary which will send to MPs. They are aware of ‘big picture’ issues, like export of our products, but we want them to know there is a ‘human’ dimension too, and an impact on our territories.”
He will also be reporting to French MEPs who he said sometimes feel out of the loop because the commission has been leading the negotiations with the UK.
He said the prefecture of Bordeaux told him they are worried about possible tariffs on their wine and foie gras but also about Airbus becoming less competitive because part of its manufacturing is in the UK.
Officials are also worried there may be fewer British tourists if the pound drops further and there are extra travel formalities – as the UK is currently number one for tourism to Nouvelle Aquitaine.
Dr Lagarde said he has become aware of personal impacts due to testimonies sent to him. “I have just had a touching one from a man whose wife is starting to have Alzheimer’s and he says he’s looking to sell and go back in case they have no healthcare after Brexit. But he’s worried because he says friends in Britain found their families did not get such good care as in France.
“At the moment there are Britons in the countryside with tiny incomes, where they can live better than in the UK – they have their own home and get by but are not rich. But if things become more complicated for them they could go from living modestly to being in real hardship and then they will also be a burden on the local councils.
“I think no one really realises all the consequences it will have – and that it’s not just the British who will be affected. We are all concerned and it’s in all our interests to be in solidarity with the British community.”
Dr Lagarde is being assisted in the study by Valentina di Pietro, who is doing her PhD thesis on the subject. They are collaborating with researchers in Oxford and Huddersfield and expect to take on further researchers in coming months.
The researchers will be interviewing British business people in the summer. In preparation they would like to hear testimonies from British people who work in France – especially the self-employed but also employees. They are not seeking generalised testimonies about Brexit but wish to know if Brexit has started to have concrete, negative effects on people's working lives. Testimonies may be sent to email@example.com for forwarding.
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