Last week Glen Carding became French.
Glen went to France in 1995 to work in IT, with only O-level French. Successive contracts kept him there, he married Valérie, but it wasn’t until 2018 that they opened Les Hôtes du Paradis, a gite and B&B outside Rochefort, just south of La Rochelle.
Rochefort is on the estuary of the Charente and was historically a naval base, but is now a handsome and picturesque town of 16th- and 17th-century architecture, its port given over to yachts and tourists. Forts on islands at the river’s mouth were built to keep out the English, but Brexit seems to have done just as good a job at keeping them away.
Having been abandoned by the UK
It’s sufficiently off the beaten track not to have been stumbled upon by writers from the Sunday supplements, so he sees few British visitors. Most are French, though he also welcomes Belgians, Dutch, Germans, Spanish and Italians. Glen thinks the British tend to stay further north, in Brittany, or drive on south into the Dordogne.
“It’s easy to explain why I chose to become a French citizen,” he says. “There are the practical reasons, like not having to renew my residential status. That wasn’t required before Brexit, of course. I was a European citizen and I had the right to live and work where I liked.
“So it had come as a shock after Brexit to realise I was no longer a European citizen. There was also a real sense of having been abandoned by the UK, far from what till then I suppose I had still considered as ‘home’.
Unwanted, along with all the other Brexit undesirables
“I gradually began to realise I’m more welcome in my new home in France than I ever would be if I returned to Britain. That seemed genuinely shocking when it first occurred to me. It was made worse by the government’s rhetoric, and the clear view we had that we were now on our own, ex-pats in Europe.
“We were excluded from voting in the referendum, which told us we had no right to play a role in determining the outcome for our country. That’s even though we were the ones most directly affected by the decision. I felt we were being cast as unwanted, along with all the other ‘undesirables’ who were seen as the reason for the most Brextremist version of Brexit.”
That realisation made up his mind. At 64, Glen decided to apply for French citizenship, and last week at last the ceremony arrived. It took place at the sous-prefecture in Rochefort, in front of about a hundred people, the other new citizens and their guests.
France was also built by those who moved there
“We sang the Marseillaise, the first time my wife had sung it, though she managed to get the words from her phone,” Glen says. “But we only sang the first bit, up to the part about ‘nourishing the fields with the blood of foreigners’.”
There was a speech by the Prefect. “It was interesting that he stressed how France was not only built by the French, but also by those who moved to the country, and their contributions should be recognized alongside those of French citizens.
“There was emphasis on how through an absolute monarchy then revolution, France has evolved into the country it is today. There was a lot on respect and tolerance towards others, to respect the duty to vote and to treat fellow citizens appropriately.
“Religion was covered in some detail and citizens have the right to practice any of them, but that the respect to others and their beliefs or lack of them was above any claims made by any religion.”
Britain wasn’t important any more
There were about 30 new citizens, and they were called forward one by one. Glen was the first. There were words of welcome, an official photograph and a folder including a letter from the president, extracts from the constitution and the declaration of the rights of man. Glen returned proudly to his seat, the applause of the audience in his ears, and he was followed by the other new citizens – many from Africa, but from all over the world.
Afterwards there was champagne and cake, including a local speciality, a galette charentaise. He and his wife Valérie and sons Léo and Noé went out to lunch on hake and chocolate mousse.
“The ceremony had been about welcoming new citizens from across the world, and against that Britain’s problems with Brexit were just a little local problem in one country, of which I was no longer a part. Our new country and new home had its own standing in the world, and the ceremony had been to great lengths to underline it.
“I had intended to speak to any fellow former countrymen, but there weren’t many British there. In any case, I realized I felt all that had become irrelevant. It wasn’t important any more.”
Glen Carding’s sense of abandonment is shared by millions of others. Next week we will explore the legal and practical restrictions that UK citizens living in the EU now have to navigate.