Making the Right Noises
My head hurt. I could say it was because of all the extra late-night revision I’d been doing, the final pre-interview preparation in search of les bon mots that would tip me towards acceptance as a French citizen. But no. I’d had too much wine, figuring firstly that it tasted nicer than the now ubiquitous painkillers but, mainly, that it seemed a very French thing to do. The interview would be to judge my current level of assimilation into French society, so explaining to the interviewer that yes, I had done a massive load of revision and research, but I’d forgotten it all in my pursuit of the grape seemed the perfect show of solidarité.
I sat in the Préfecture waiting room. That I was nervous would be understating it and the place was so busy I couldn’t do my preferred nerves-offset by pacing relentlessly up and down. The walls were bare, apart for warnings about fire alarms and vigipirate and the chairs were those horrible plastic affairs seen the world over, they bend like they’ll snap and are designed to ruin your posture. On my left was a nervous young man from, I’m guessing, from one of France’s former colonies and who held the same terse letter of appointment in his hand as I had. To my left were an English couple, possibly in their 60s. I wasn’t doing any talking so they had no idea that I was English too – you never know, I thought, it could be an underhand test – not that I would have spoken to them anyway. I had Frenched my journey right up, with radio shows and podcasts, and I wasn’t going to let English in at this point. They seemed oblivious to anyone else anyway. They were obviously the kind of expats, let’s be honest here, migrants, who think no-one will speak their language and so they operate in a kind of bubble and act accordingly. Which in this case meant some very personal remarks about other people around us, and at a very indiscreet volume. They were no lookers themselves these two but it didn’t stop them sneerily attacking others for their size or dress with a carefree nasty, pernicious superiority, echoing the UK media in a vitriolic little nutshell. Seriously, what has become of us?
One of the defences in my slowness to learn the French language, and also one of the weakest, is that I don’t actually want to hear what people are saying. I don’t want to hear the mundanity, stupidity and spite of other people. I want to imagine that everyone here is discussing Proust or Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, not ‘that fat cow over there’ or that ‘Amelie’s having her bunions done next week.’ It’s my own bubble I know, but these two bitchy weasels next to me made me even more determined to be French, or more accurately, not seen as British.
‘Monsieur Moore?’ A well-dressed lady smiled warmly at me, approaching where I sat. ‘Bonjour.’ The greeting may have been warm but oddly, there was no handshake. In a way I was grateful for that as I’ve become a social wreck trying to get to terms with the multi-layered complexity of a French greeting, but no handshake at all was an entirely new twist. She led me into a small room off the larger waiting room and gestured for me to sit down. There was one single light bulb hanging from the ceiling, the computer was off and the blinds were shut. She noticed me looking at the black covered window and apologised, ‘the blinds are broken’, she said, ‘it’s not ideal.’ Not ideal, no I thought, unless of course you were filming a Cold War interview scene and you wanted to disorientate the interviewee. A loud crash happened just outside as the alleyway that was clearly adjacent had its bottle banks emptied. I nearly jumped out of my seat. No, not ideal.
The preparation I had done, all the notes and the rehearsing for this interview was all designed to make the right noises. To try and get across the fact that despite my limited language skills and the way I dress, I am (hoping to be) a proud Frenchman, willing to promote and uphold the values of the Fifth Republic etc. I had written and rehearsed statements that sounded like I was standing for public office or like a newly crowned Miss World asked how she would use her title for the greater good. To a certain extent it’s a game, you’re playing to the crowd and trying to sound as convincing as possible.
Theresa May has essentially been doing the same thing all week. Trying to reassure the other 27 nations in the EU that Britain is making progress, hoping that these words and her rushing to Brussels twice in a week would give the right impression. It may have worked. Both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron recognise the need to prop her up to a certain extent, better the devil you know and so on. May even sent out emails to 100,000 or so EU nationals living in the UK attempting to reassure them and their futures. Only it wasn’t about that at all. Firstly, the email was sent to the press first, making it very clear that this wasn’t about reassurance for EU nationals, but a show of fake warmth aimed at the EU negotiators in Brussels. Look at me! It was saying, I bloody love EU nationals me! But it just made her look even more like Cruella De Ville hugging a frightened Dalmation puppy. And the email itself contained at least one mighty whopper. It claimed that it has never been the government’s intention to use EU nationals, and by extension UK nationals in the EU, me then, as bargaining chips. Oh Theresa, yes you have. Liam Fox called us negotiating ‘cards’, and the Home Office ‘negotiating capital’. Her email turned out to be less of a reassuring, we’ll look after you missive, and more like one of those organised crime-backed spam efforts ‘sent’ by scantily clad young ladies, promising love and action the likes of which have never been seen. In other words, bollocks. Unbelievable, insincere bollocks.
‘Name the three mountain ranges in France?’ As a non-sequitur it was quite something. We’d just been discussing my fragile physical frame, a dilapidated product of years spent on the road, but which, I insisted and had well-rehearsed, would come to an end in a year or so as my new Chambres d’hôtes business took off. ‘How much do you earn a month?’ She asked. I told her. ‘And you hope to make the same from a Chambres d’hôtes?’ She said in a way that clearly meant she didn’t fancy my chances.
I love a pub quiz, and as so much of the interview was general knowledge about France, it actually felt like a game. Presidents, Kings, rivers, cities, bordering countries, when was the death penalty abolished, when did women get the vote and so on, I even started to enjoy myself. Whether my interviewer was just extremely skilled in making me feel comfortable or she was genuinely interested in what I do and why, I couldn’t say. But, and I’ve heard this from others who have been through this, it was a very friendly atmosphere, at odds with the office I was sat in and with the stressful process as a whole. I even felt so relaxed at one point that I tried some new material about continental parking meters. I mean, she didn’t laugh and I’ll work on it, but the fact that we were just talking, like it was over a coffee or something, wasn’t at all what I had expected.
We had a conversation about Fraternité that was wide-ranging and interesting, because it’s become so important again in France. The idea of Fraternité is that it binds communities together, so that society doesn’t fall apart and turn in on itself. The terrorist attacks have meant a drive to reach out to people who don’t feel part of the French club, as it were, which is where the push for Fraternité comes in. Sadly, it contrasts horribly with the UK though where people who have a different slant on Brexit are hounded as traitors.
I signed some papers at the end committing myself to the ideas of Liberté, Egalité and Fraterité and then had another quickfire general knowledge round for good measure. Name some French actors? Do you help out locally? In which I got to talk about seeing Charles Aznavour in concert and squeezed in that I’d made a Full English Breakfast for an entire local school as part of one of their projects.
‘C’est fini.’ She said, again with a warm smile. And I heaved a very obvious sigh of relief. ‘Were you nervous?’ She asked.
‘Very.’ I said, launching into my closing bit. ‘I share the values of France, and I know about France and her history and culture, but my French is an embarrassment, so expressing…’
‘Not at all.’ She beamed, ‘I understood you perfectly well.’
I could have hugged her.
‘Right,’ she said putting her pen down. ‘If your application is successful you’ll attend a ceremony and…’ My French at this point did break down, but I’m pretty sure she said something about performing community service, as if supplying the nation with three strapping lads isn’t service enough.
I understood the next bit though, ‘The decision will take maximum a year, more likely 8 to 10 months…’
Another year? Really? Oh, man alive! Maybe it’s a part of the process, things do move more slowly over here, so perhaps it’s a test of my newly-found French patience. I’m just glad this bit is over, what’s another year as long as it’s the right outcome? Although the way my health is currently deteriorating, in another year I’ll have to be wheeled into my Citizenship ceremony, like some veteran of a drawn out bureaucratic campaign. I certainly won’t be up to much in the community service stakes, unless it’s wine-tasting of course, that’s definitely a forté.
This is the 59th Full English Brexit blog, and has so far it has had hundreds of thousands of reads, which is just lovely. It will – hopefully – be part of a book. But when that book comes out is difficult to say. It’s with a brilliant agent and the feedback is good… but, you know, Brexit innit?
My other best-selling books are available here IAN’S BOOKS.