When the UK left the European Union on January 31, it moved into a transition period during which nothing much will actually change. For the time being, the UK remains in the single market and British citizens retain broadly the same rights to live, work and travel in other EU countries.
However, Britons’ loss of EU citizenship from February 1 onward has some important implications for those living on the continent: They can no longer vote nor stand as candidates in local elections unless bilateral agreements are concluded.
While Spain, Portugal and Luxembourg have signed such accords, France has not. As a result, UK residents in France have already been struck from the electoral registers.
France: a home for 757 British elected representatives
This has particular significance for the 757 British citizens currently elected as municipal councillors whose mandates expire at the upcoming elections on March 15 and 22.
There are no comprehensive figures on how many Britons are elected as councillors in other EU countries, but evidence indicates that the high number in France represents a case worthy of special attention.
The uniqueness of the French context is rooted in the fact that the country’s municipal-government structure dates from the 1880s, when every village or “commune” was given its own elected mayor and council. Figures show that despite a decade of reforms encouraging small communities to merge, the number has only dropped from 36,570 in 2010 to 35,416 in January 2020. This represents about 41% of all municipal authorities in the EU.
The overwhelming majority of communes have only a few hundred inhabitants, yet have disproportionately large councils, making elected office highly accessible. Since EU citizenship extended this access to EU migrants, there has been significant opportunity for them to get involved in local government in France.
The British in the French countryside
Figures show that the British have taken up these political opportunities in the greatest number.
This can be explained in part by a trend that started in the late 1980s of migration to particular areas of rural France. A key factor was the publication of Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, which brought a significant number of Britons to France.
Figures vary, but the UK’s Office for National Statistics estimated that about 153,000 British citizens were living in France in 2017, and the true figure is probably much higher.
It’s perhaps surprising to observe the development of an “entente cordiale” in the French countryside, which is often seen as deeply conservative and hostile to outsiders. But as my research shows, the British who have learned the language and chosen to integrate in French society have been welcomed by rural villages that saw their populations fall in the post-war exodus to the larger towns and cities. Many towns also noted that their new residents had professional skills that could serve the local councils, and Britons were enthusiastic about and flattered by the invitation to stand in local elections.
The functioning of French municipal democracy in small rural communes is, in some ways, akin to that of English Parish councils. As I discovered during my mandate as a councillor in a small village in Normandy between 2008 and 2014, at times local politics can be reminiscent of Clochemerle, a beloved satirical novel by Gabriel Chevallier first published in 1934.
I was perplexed by the apparently irrational complexity of overlapping responsibilities through myriad agencies for services like water, recycling, trash and roads – a situation that “intercommunality” is now trying to address. I was also struck by how much time and money were spent on surpassing obligations conferred on communes by the secular state regarding upkeep of the church, which in our case was only used occasionally for weddings and funerals.
In communes with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants (previously 3,500), elections function somewhat like a personality contest, where voters can cross off the names of candidates they don’t like, a system known as “panachage”.
While many British councillors can win the highest number of individual votes, French law prevents them becoming mayor or deputy because those occupying those posts play a role in electing senators. To occupy an “executive” position requires obtaining French citizenship, as did one early pioneer, Ken Tatham. For 19 years, beginning in 1995, he was mayor of one of Normandy’s prettiest villages, Saint-Céneri-le-Gerei, even before the implementation of EU citizenship.
French citizenship as the only option
Acquiring French citizenship now remains the only option for Britons who wish to continue as local councillors, but it is a lengthy and bureaucratic process that many have found to be daunting. Others have already applied, however, and some were hoping to hear before the cut-off date for submitting their candidacy, February 27.
Brexit has brought an untimely end to this little known chapter of harmonious Franco-British relations buried deep in “La France profonde”, and numerous French media offer testimony as to just how many British councillors will be sorely missed in the villages where they have often become stalwarts of their local community.
But for some, there are also wider implications: those who left the UK more than 15 years ago have been disenfranchised there too, leaving them with no voting rights at all. The consequences of Brexit go far beyond what makes the headlines.