First, French expatriates report that the health crisis and confinement left them with similar emotions to those reported by many British expatriates in France since the Brexit vote. They have felt socially, legally and economically more vulnerable and more aware of their status as foreigners. Some reported facing distrust or even discrimination due to their nationality. Many felt abandoned by the French government, with their countrymen here telling them: “Well, you should have stayed in France.”
A rocky relationship
Secondly, the economic impacts of the health crisis could be a precursor to what post-transition Brexit could bring, especially if there is a weak – or possibly no – future relationship deal. Economist Vincent Lagarde has been studying the impacts of Brexit on the south west’s economy for two years. He hopes to hear this month if Aquitaine regional council will continue to fund his work for another three years. He said: “While waiting, I started to look at the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis, and in discussions with French expatriates abroad I realised that what many people have gone through in confinement has been similar to how Britons reacted after Brexit, and the fears that they have had.”
He said French expatriates in confinement felt uncertainty and anxiety and a sense of being in a “no man’s land” which recalled to him the sense of being in limbo that Britons had spoken of. At the same time, they have developed new forms of solidarity in their respective expatriate communities, Dr Lagarde said. He hopes that by publishing these comparisons and sharing them with French politicians, the French will become more sensitive towards the problems of Britons in France.
“Then I realised that in addition to psychological similarities, there are economic ones. If there was another confinement period or if border restrictions continue into the summer, with airports and international trains shut down and a reduction in tourists, we’re going to have consequences similar to what a bad Brexit could bring. If we lose 20% of British tourists, which could happen with a badly negotiated Brexit, our tourist industry will collapse. Up to now, Brexit was really something only the British were worried about, and the French have thought ‘it’s a problem for the British’. But imagine in areas like ours, in Limousin, where there are 15% of British artisans, a third of bars and restaurants are British-run. If they’re made more fragile by the health crisis, then six months later comes a hard Brexit, we’ll have bankruptcies and closures and our territories will die. In some communes, the only bar is a British-run pub. The worst is still possible, though it’s not what I hope for.”
Dr Lagarde said he will pursue the research to see how government and businesses face up to the health crisis over the summer and if there are further lessons to be learned about how best to cope with Brexit consequences.