More than 100 British and French mayors and other local councillors met in Nancy to discuss ways to work together to save energy and improve youth mobility.
The event was the first diplomatic meeting since entry into force of Brexit, said Antoine le Solleuz, Nancy’s deputy mayor in charge of international partnerships.
“The previous UK prime minister said she wanted a Franco-British leader’s summit next year, but this was the first actual meeting among elected politicians.
“It was originally going to be in 2020, but was put off twice, once due to the pandemic and last year because of frictions over fishing rights to scallops and lobsters.
“It’s all calmed down now, we almost laughed about the disputes at the forum, but I just made sure there were no scallops served at the meals,” said Mr Le Solleuz. “There was a very warm and friendly atmosphere.”
“The British local authorities’ minister Paul Scully was there, and he made some government-level remarks about how we must be careful about the issue of migrants between France and the UK, but we local councillors weren’t bothered about that; we wanted to talk about mobility, youth, and shared policies – pedestrianisation, public transport, education and culture.
“We don’t get into the kind of conflict that sometimes exists between national governments. We also found that most of the British councillors were sorry to have left the EU.”
Environment was a key theme
One big theme discussed was environmental policies, he said.
For example, Hounslow and Issy-les-Moulineaux discussed work they are doing together to be ‘smart cities: using technology to improve their energy consumption, using sensors to monitor the rise and fall of temperatures and changes in light to adapt lighting and heating in municipal facilities.
Nancy gave news about a local firm, Eclatec, which is specialised in this area, and both British and French councillors expressed interest in visiting it.
Nancy was also interested to hear how Newcastle fits its electric scooters with GPS systems that force them to stop or slow down in pedestrian areas. “We’ve recently pedestrianised our town centre, so we would like to work with them on that,” said Mr Le Solleuz.
Improving post-Brexit links also discussed
The other big topic was maintaining, and improving UK-French links despite Brexit and new visa formalities.
“We worked out a joint declaration to our respective governments.
“We want visas to be free and simpler to obtain for young people. To stay more than three months in the UK, you now need a visa costing around £400.
“We’re thinking of students in particular, but it could also concern apprentices and young workers. For example, in Nancy we have a partnership with Japan and send our apprentice hairdressers and bakers and welcome young Japanese people here.
“My brother went to Coventry to be a waiter for a year – but now it’s complicated.”
The French are also asking for a return to home fee status for French students at UK universities, who must now pay ‘overseas’ fees that can be up to three times as much as the – already high – standard UK fees. This means they can be more than £20,000 a year, compared to a few hundred euros in France.
Mr Le Solleuz said such a deal exists between France and Canada, because of their “strong friendship”, so they are “calling on the goodwill” of UK universities to offer the same.
Call for a special fund to be set up
They are also calling for a common Franco-British fund, similar to one set up between France and Germany after the war.
It could be paid into by both governments and private sector partners, and could be used to fund cultural or educational projects. “It could be, for example, to fund school exchanges with our twinning partner Newcastle, or exchanges between dance or music companies.”
He said it could also be used to set up schemes such as the biannual joint council meetings that take place between Nancy and German town Karlsrue, or internship exchanges between French and British city councils.
“We want to get things going again in terms of youth mobility. In my generation, our first foreign trip was to England; now there’s a whole generation who, if we’re not careful, are going to become distanced from the UK.
“We’re similar civilisations; we have the same way of thinking, whether it’s the war in Ukraine or climate change. We get into rows over scallops but at the end of the day, we have the same values of peace and democracy.”
The forum was partly a chance to boost the many twinning partnerships that exist between France and the UK, however Mr Le Solleuz said the trend today is more to joint action on specific themes, rather than new twinning schemes.
Among the councils represented this year were, from the UK, London, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bristol, The Cotswolds, Kent, Norfolk and Lincolnshire; and from France Marseille, Calvados, Pas-de-Calais, Orléans, Nantes, Loire-Atlantique, Strasbourg and Paris. British Ambassador to France Dame Menna Rawlings also attended the event.
Another mayors and councillors’ forum will be held, in the UK, in 2023.