This year I’m becoming a French woman. This might sound like a new year’s resolution to become slimmer, sexier and able to ride a bike while carrying a baguette under one arm, but what I’ll be getting is a passport, a raft of new paperwork and two boxes to tick on nationality forms from now on. The bike riding will have to wait.
It was easy to move to Paris. I did it on a whim to see if I could learn another language, not expecting to be here seven years later still speaking in wobbly conjugations. France is now where I pay my taxes, know my way around the supermarket and where I’ve picked up a penchant for wearing stripy T-shirts. But I never thought I’d be French, until Brexit happened.
Citizenship has no history, no tugs on the heartstrings, just a simple promise that I’ll do my bit, and they’ll do theirs – it would be a great way to be British.
In 2017, 1,500 Brits gained French nationality. Three thousand more started the application process in 2018, but many others who live here haven’t. It’s not a simple choice to make. There’s the prohibitive, time-consuming paperwork involved – my folder of tax returns, payslips, certificates, translations, contracts and language tests topped 50 pages and took a year to pull together – and the strange exposure of presenting your life on paper to be judged by a stranger.
There’s the nerve-wracking spoken test on French history, geography, politics and culture, by all accounts less of a grilling than the UK’s multiple-choice version.
And there’s the uncertainty over whether any of the process was actually necessary.
While the blustering vagueness of the British government’s Brexit strategy pushed me to take action, it made others equally sure Brexit wasn’t going to happen. To those of us for whom rights are a fairly mundane part of our reality, it’s hard to imagine them being removed. It’s only now, with the British government planning to end freedom of movement on 31 October that the shape of what life might look like for EU citizens in the UK and vice versa is starting to take worrying form.
The 3 Million group, campaigning for the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, says: “Ending freedom of movement without putting legal provisions in place for those EU citizens who have not yet successfully applied through the settlement scheme will mean that millions of lawful citizens will have their legal status removed overnight.”
So how do you decide who has the right to live in a place and who doesn’t? Is it a question of paperwork, money, family, history or something more intangible?
It was the French Revolution that marked the birth of patriotism, according to Historian Margaret Macmillan. Where beforehand nations were formed and wars fought with soldiers who were either hired or forced into combat, the 1789 Revolution transformed subjects into emboldened citizens and “opened the idea that the French actually had a share in their own government.”
National identity became a cause worth fighting and dying for because “if you have a say in choosing your own government then of course you also have an obligation to defend it.”
Perhaps this is why opinions on Brexit haven’t changed since the referendum. It was impossible to understand the intricacies of the question being asked, so we voted for different versions of patriotism we now feel obliged to defend.
Patriotism is Remembrance Day poppies. It’s our national treasures: The NHS, The Great British Bake Off and Danny Dyer. It’s Union Jack flags lining roads for the Royal Family, set as profile pictures on angry Twitter accounts, and swaying overhead at the last Night of the Proms. It’s why we snigger at Boris Johnson’s digs at the French, even if we find his shtick unbearable.
For me, it’s a twinge of happiness of stepping onto home soil and savouring a packet of Quavers like its a rare delicacy. And it was my sullen refusal to join street parties celebrating France winning the 2018 men’s World Cup after England were knocked out in the semi-finals. It’s an illogical, draining cocktail of bewitching nostalgia and impromptu hostility that most of us are subject to. According to a 2018 YouGov survey, 53% of English adults believe Britain is better than most other countries in the world and 57% of us are proud to be British.
So it’s a relief to feel no patriotism towards my new homeland, even though I’ve chosen to live here. Instead, as I opened a letter saying my application for French nationality had been approved, my first feeling was unexpected relief that my rights, my life, would stay the same.
Then, I felt a burgeoning sense of something else. Not patriotism, but citizenship. The thoughtful balance of rights and responsibilities that forms a contract between citizen and government. No history, no tugs on the heartstrings, just a simple promise that I’ll do my bit, and they’ll do theirs.
It would be a great way to be British.
Joanna York is a freelance journalist.