Frenemies: Why UK-French relationships survive their countries’ spats

Stephane Mahe/Reuters
A trawler sails off the fishing port in La Turballe, France, Nov. 5, 2021. The British and French governments are currently at odds over fishing rights in the English Channel, and it is affecting the lives of French citizens living in the United Kingdom.

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Diplomatic spats over fishing rights and trade agreements continue to strain the relationship between Britain and France already fractured by the rhetoric around Brexit. In Britain, the official line is that the U.K. has left the European Union but not Europe.

For those French people who have made Britain, and London in particular, their home, that distinction hasn’t rung entirely true, though, as the vitriol brewed by geopolitical tensions has shadowed their day-to-day experiences.

Why We Wrote This

Political relationships are under strain between Britain and France. But the presence of large French communities in London suggests diplomatic spats won’t reverse the affection held, albeit dented.

There have been four major flashpoints between Britain and France over the past year, the most recent being post-Brexit fishing rights, following the seizure of a British trawler by French authorities in late October. The fractured Anglo-French relationship has made headlines on both sides of the channel, with disputes over fish inspiring warlike comment in many of Britain’s newspapers.

Still, French citizens living in the U.K. are finding that the political split isn’t reversing the human connections they have made with Britons.

“Even if political relationships have deteriorated as a result of Brexit and the various conflicts since, it’s not new,” says French-born British resident Nathalie Reis. “There have always been conflicts between the two countries. They will manage to find a way.”

Nathalie Reis may be a French citizen, but she has lived in the United Kingdom longer than she lived in France.

The London-based translator moved to the U.K. in 1991 after completing her studies in Paris and falling in love with both the English language and the British man who is now her husband and father to her British-born children. “I never felt like a foreigner,” she says. “I have never wanted to be British and never felt the need to be British. I thought of myself as European.”

But that has changed since Brexit, and as Britain’s political relationship with France has deteriorated. Ms. Reis has recently applied for a British passport so that border officials will stop questioning her status. “I have become a foreigner and more of an immigrant,” she says.

Why We Wrote This

Political relationships are under strain between Britain and France. But the presence of large French communities in London suggests diplomatic spats won’t reverse the affection held, albeit dented.

Diplomatic spats over fishing rights and trade agreements continue to strain the relationship between Britain and France already fractured by the rhetoric around Brexit. In Britain, the official line is that the U.K. has left the European Union but not Europe. For those French people who have made Britain, and London in particular, their home, that distinction hasn’t rung entirely true, though, as the vitriol brewed by geopolitical tensions has shadowed their day-to-day experiences.

But still, they are finding that the political split isn’t reversing the human connections made between Britons and French nationals living in the U.K.

Courtesy of Nathalie Reis
Nathalie Reis says life has changed for her and many other French-born nationals living in Britain since Brexit and recent deteriorating political relations between the U.K. and France. But she, like many others, has married and built a life in Britain that offers hope and continuity.

“Even if political relationships have deteriorated as a result of Brexit and the various conflicts since, it’s not new. There have always been conflicts between the two countries. They will manage to find a way,” says Ms. Reis. “I know French people who have gone back, but we are still here. I’ve remained very French but also at the same time become very English.”

“The bad Europeans”

While there are no official numbers on French citizens in the U.K., an estimated 250,000 live in London alone according to the French Consulate.

In his 2017 election campaign, President Macron sought support from French voters during a visit to London, describing the British capital as “the sixth French city,” echoing comments made in 2014 by then-Mayor of London Boris Johnson to Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppé that he was mayor of “the sixth biggest French city on earth.” Those comments display “genuine recognition” of the French community in Britain, says Paul Smith, who teaches French history and politics at the University of Nottingham.

Still, while the French are very numerous in Britain, and many of them do highly skilled jobs, they cannot be described as a community, argues Françoise Boucek, research fellow and political scientist at Queen Mary University of London and the Centre for European Research, because of how quickly “they tend to assimilate and spread.”

“They don’t get together for specific cultural reasons,” she says. “There’s not a sense of strong community [compared to] other people driven by war or conflict, forced to seek asylum.” 

But the sense of “us” and “them” may be growing, fueled by recent political events. There have been four major flashpoints between Britain and France over the past year, the most recent being post-Brexit fishing rights, following the seizure of a British trawler by French authorities in late October.

In September, Paris was outraged when Australia canceled a contract for French submarines in favor of a new deal with the United States and the U.K. London wants the French government to do more to dissuade migrants from trying to cross the English Channel, and British COVID-based travel restrictions on travelers from France have also caused tensions.

Alastair Grant/AP
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, left, greets French President Emmanuel Macron as he arrives at the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 1, 2021. France and Britain have been arguing over fishing and trade rights in recent weeks.

The fractured Anglo-French relationship has made headlines on both sides of the channel, with disputes over fish inspiring warlike comment in many of Britain’s newspapers.

Tensions over fishing rights have risen since the new post-Brexit trade deal was introduced in January. French fishers complain that the U.K. authorities have refused to grant permits to fish in newly British waters to boats that had fished them when they were European waters, as the Brexit deal requires. When the authorities on the island of Jersey denied permits to a number of French trawlers, the French authorities responded by seizing a British boat – leading to the furious British press coverage.

The French are now a “stand-in for Europe, the bad Europeans,” says Dr. Smith. “The British are not a punching bag [for the French] in the same way as the French are to the British. This goes back a long way.”

The cross-channel political spats have cast a shadow over the personal lives of many French citizens in Britain. Dr. Smith says his French-born wife feels nervous about speaking her native language in public because of “Francophobia” in Britain’s media.

He says a “deliberate dragging of feet” policy by the British government, making French fishers wait for permits to fish in U.K. waters, parallels the experience of French nationals applying for U.K. settled status, which will allow them to continue to live and work in Britain. “Everyone said it would be straightforward, but when you sat down, it was cumbersome and very slow,” he complains.

A less friendly environment

Véronique Martin moved to the U.K in one of the first ever student exchange programs, trialed three years before the 1987 opening of the ERASMUS program, and like Ms. Reis, fell in love with a British man. She has stayed ever since, “completely embracing British culture, loving its people, its music.”

But Britons weren’t so warm to her. In April 2018, she was asked by a pro-European Union group to speak at a rally in the constituency of Jacob Rees-Mogg, a leading Conservative proponent of Brexit, in front of many Brexit supporters. “I was the only foreigner. I was scared before it started. I was heckled to such an extent I had to stop speaking,” Ms. Martin says. “The chairman of the rally reminded everyone to respect and listen to me.”

She told the crowd, “you cannot go on hating the European workers who show so much courage and work really hard. It’s not their fault that your wages are undercut ... it’s not their decision, it’s the government that has the duty to make sure that bosses don’t undercut wages.”

She was able to win over the room in the end, Ms. Martin remembers. “The woman who shouted at me the most came over to me and hugged me. We managed to turn it around through common humanity,” she says.

But she cannot influence Franco-British relations by voting in Britain, though she would like to be able to do so; without British citizenship, she is excluded from participating in Westminster elections. Faced with “taxation without representation” in the U.K., she is now planning to exercise her democratic rights again in her original homeland, where she will have the chance not only to vote in the upcoming French presidential election, but also to elect senators representing diaspora French citizens.

For all the ups and downs of being a French person in London today, many French citizens still love Britain – not for its traditional Britishness, but for its multiculturalism.

“When I left [home in Corsica] at 18, I just about knew what ‘Jewish’ meant,” says Ms. Reis. “I certainly didn’t know anything about Hindus or Sikhs, and very little about Muslims. What I love about London and the U.K is the mix of people and the way they can be from different religions and nationalities, and they can all mix.

“Bringing up my kids with different religions around us, ... I wouldn’t swap it.”

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