One of the saddest sights in the Ariège is a vast field of fading sunflowers. So glorious during August, come September they blacken and their heads droop. The field looks as if it has been torched. This melancholic sight heralds autumn, and soon the vineyards on the road down to Perpignan will be russet red and egrets and kites will be foraging in ploughed fields.
Léran: a little corner of a foreign field
It’s one of the wildest and least known départements in France, with the distant Pyrenees, rolling tree-covered foothills and ruined Cathar castles. The Ariège starts south of Toulouse, and extends to the Pyrenees and right along the Spanish and Andorran borders. It is a poor part of France, but so beautiful and welcoming.
Life in the Ariège turns around the seasons and the changing hues of the landscape. Snow on the distant mountains, wild orchids and mountain flowers in spring, village fêtes in the lazy heat of summer and colourful autumns of purple figs and plums, with sweet chestnut and walnut husks littering the lanes.
Living in Léran is like a step back to my childhood, when we all knew each other. We know the mayor, Sébastien, as we might once have known the village policeman. He comes round shaking hands with everyone at the Marché Gourmand on Friday nights in summer.
Les Halles is the hub of village life: a boulangerie-épicerie-cum-café initiated by the mairie to serve the community, where everyone goes in the morning for coffee and to catch up. You pop down for a little pat of fresh goat’s cheese with figs, and a couple of tougnols (a local brioche with fennel seeds).
A group of friends came together to discuss their lives here. All had moved from Britain, though not all are British.
In search of an identity
Nicky is half French and wanted to explore that part of her identity better. Amanda felt London had run its course and sought new pastures. Karen has already taken French nationality. “We wanted to feel European,” she says.
Alan and Eileen had had a holiday home in Léran first. But: “The more we were here, the more we wanted to stay,” says Eileen. Marek, half French and half Polish, says they came because they wanted a complete change and to escape from the UK. They bought the local café restaurant in Léran. “It was easy,” he says. “We could just come, so we did.”
Andy W agreed. He and Sally had wanted to live in France in retirement. “It was straightforward,” he said.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité
Everyone likes the French attitude. “They don’t just say ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’,” says Clive, “they live it.” “Especially ‘égalité’,” Marek adds.
John reckons there is no oppressive class system. “Discrimination isn’t as evident and crushing as in the UK.”
Marek describes a meeting the mayor held one early morning at his bar, with a refuse company. Everyone involved attended – the mayor, the company directors, and the guys who operated the lorries. They all debated equally. They all had a say.
In French restaurants at lunchtimes, Marek adds, there are plumbers, lawyers, doctors, electricians and fonctionnaires (public servants) all sitting at adjoining tables. “You would never get that in the UK. What you do not ask when you meet a person for the first time is ‘What do you do?’”
French friends feel sorry for us
“It is also the fact that I can see where my taxes go,” he adds. “I see it in the roads, the tidy verges, the clean town centres and the street furniture. In the UK I keep asking, ‘Where’s it all gone? Where’s all the bloody money gone!?’”
“There is no longer any pride in being British, only embarrassment,” says Clive. “French friends actually feel sorry for us, which is humiliating. A few weeks ago in a conversation with our French neighbour, she turned to me and said “Nous français”, and Sebastien the mayor has referred to us as “Mon Citoyen”. It’s a bit like being accepted in Yorkshire when you move from London. You get a sense of belonging again.”
“You are made to feel welcome,” someone said. And it is true. There appears to be a happy blending of Brits into Léran. I think they like us being here. It makes a small ariègeois village more exotic and international.
Brexit was an existential reassessment
But Brexit also requires an existential reassessment of who we have become and where we belong.
“When Brexit happened,” says Amanda, “I felt suddenly vulnerable. My daughter in the UK felt isolated too because her visits became so regulated”. “I felt my ‘Europeanness’ had been taken from me,” said Sally W.
Nicky’s French mother, who never took British nationality, had to come through a channel at passport control which in the 1950s announced: ‘ALIENS’. “Now here we were again,” says Nicky.
Losing voting rights has hit us hard: who are we now? Everyone had received a letter from the mayor telling us it was no longer our right to vote in local or European elections. Some by then had no vote in the UK either. Andy said he felt our human rights had been violated. “We had no vote in the referendum, now our French vote is taken away. We have no representation.”
Going for dual nationality
So Amanda is planning on applying for French nationality. So are Clive and Linda, so am I. But it will be a long, tedious and stressful dossier-fest, and takes a couple of years. It also requires a proven certificated standard of French language.
Dual nationality gives security and legitimacy – once again an EU citizen with voting rights and freedom of movement. But if LePen becomes President in 2027, the environment could feel very different and dual nationality might be abolished. In that case, we would once again face losing something. We might face a hostile environment. The decision to give up my Britishness would be monumental. It evokes the same emotions as leaving the EU. Right now, I couldn’t say which I would choose. But for those with French ties – Marek, Clive and Karen – they have effectively made their choices and turned their backs on the UK a long time ago.
“Because of my French roots, which do feel very strong, we had always planned to apply for French citizenship,” Clive explains. “But Brexit has given it a new urgency since we wish to enjoy freedom of movement around Europe as well as all the other benefits of EU citizenship which Brexit has cost us.”
But both Amanda and I, if faced with a LePen administration and perhaps removal of dual nationality rights, would have to think very hard before giving up our British passports. It is quite likely neither of our husbands would do it. We also might not want to live here in a LePen universe.
A safe distance from Brexit
“Will the UK go back into the EU?” we wonder wistfully. Divided opinions on whether all the 27 would have us. Léran certainly would. Our French friends are just sorry for us. They can see how awful it is.
We go outside for fresh air. It was too hot to sit out here earlier but now the heat has mellowed into a golden September evening warmth. Andy and Amanda’s garden, as usual, is an elegant oasis, serene behind high walls. It all feels very safe, with Brexit a long way away.
So what is our place in Europe? We’re getting there. Be sure to read the next instalment in our story next Friday.