I had a sneaking suspicion it would turn out this way. A feeling at the back of my mind that during the World Cup, a period of heightened ersatz patriotism and identity, my own loyalties would be tested too. And I was right. The letter from the Ministère de l’Intérieur arrived Wednesday lunchtime. You have acquired French citizenship, it said, and I cried a little. There’s a tear in my eye now as I write this.
Yes, it’s been a tough couple of months at home, it’s been a tough couple of years. Yes, it’s early morning and I’m at Glasgow airport about to battle home through more French train strikes. Yes, I have a smidgeon of a hangover. But, it really does mean that much. I really am that emotional about it. I didn’t think it would matter as much as this and it’s surprised me, thrown me even, that it does. Look, don’t get me wrong, I’m just about the most sentimental old fluff there is, but ‘becoming French’ is about more than convenience and opportunity. It’s about family security. And nothing, nothing gets me going more than that.
As has been the way of things, it hadn’t been an easy week. On Monday it had taken me 16 hours to get home, the SNCF train strike, in its final, vicious throes was cancelling trains even as I was booking them. It became a game of cat and mouse as I tried to outwit the strikers and what now seemed like their personal vendetta. I’d stared out at Lake Geneva as the sun came up, already two hours into the journey, and the beauty briefly led to some ‘well, just how bad can it be?’ thoughts. Bad, was the answer. Pretty bad. I eventually crawled home that evening, shaking like a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder, ‘the horror’, I kept repeating, ‘the horror’.
As I’d travelled I’d been following the depressing news from London about the Tory party rebellion on the government’s EU Withdrawal Bill. I don’t deliberately try to make my life harder by doing these things, but this seemed more important than usual. Theresa May was in danger of losing a vote on how she was going about things, essentially a vote of confidence with, therefore, enormous repercussions. The rebels were loudly demanding that Parliament should have the final say on any bill in order to avoid a ‘No Deal’ scenario. The government were dead against this, we’re leaving the EU to ‘regain’ Sovereignty they said. Though not this kind of sovereignty, no, a totally different kind of sovereignty. As it happened the rebellion fizzled out. The principal rebel, Dominic Grieve, had in the end, rebelled against his own rebellion and by Monday evening was presumably putting his spine up for auction on Ebay. I mean, who votes against their own amendment? What kind of rebel is that? If Grieve had been in Spartacus he’d have been at the back shouting, ‘Me? No, I’m not Spartacus.’ The Star Wars franchise wouldn’t have got off the ground if Princess Leia’s first message to Obi Wan Kenobi had been ‘Grievian’. ‘Hi Obi-Wan, the rebellion’s off. I’m shacking up with Vader because I believe his assurances. Big hugs, Leia x’.
I’d been away for two weeks, which is too long, far too long. The all-too brief highs of the stage are never enough to make up for the downtime, often lonely despair, of the time off it, but Natalie had had it worse. A stressful, draining, confidence-sapping first year of teaching had taken its toll, and two more weeks of that, but alone, as a single parent and dealing with the renovation work at home had given her a fierce, head-down, ‘let’s get on with this’ intensity. I also suspected a nervous tic, like Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther films. She desperately needed a rest and immediately detailed me to ‘deal with’ the plumber-electrician, who was supposed to be finishing the renovations for our gîte/B&B. He’s a man so intent on screwing things up I think he may actually be an anarchist plant but anyway, he’d disappeared, probably to have a nervous breakdown, which if his record is anything to go by, he’ll mess up too.
We’ve already started getting enquiries for the B&B, so time is more pressing now. I was emailed via AirBnB this week asking if ‘6 adults could share a room for the same price.’ No. No they can’t. What do you think I’m running here, a bloody orgy? I mean, I’m not ruling it out, but let’s see how ‘ordinary’ business goes first, shall we? (You can book here by the way – Ian’s BnB)
The letter from the Ministère de l’Intérieur then was exactly the kind of fillip we all needed. More than that though, it’s life-changing. I’d started the process of obtaining French citizenship out of fear. Fear that Brexit, and those incompetent zealots running it, wouldn’t give a toss about me or the other 1.2 million British people living on the continent. Fear that the world is hurtling towards a ‘populist’, deranged self-harming pile up and so, as a family, we need to be of one nationality and preferably the nationality of the country we live in. There are dark days ahead. Brexit won’t just split families along the lines of the Leave/Remain argument, it will literally divide families as ‘foreign’ spouses are no longer welcome. That’s been British government policy all along, keep it vague, keep the nasty tone up, hostile environment and all that. And there’s no reason to believe that the remaining EU27 won’t reciprocate. So I needed French nationality to take away that fear, that terrible, gnawing constant fear I’ve had since the referendum two years ago. ‘It won’t happen to you!’ People have said, trying to cheer me up along the way. Really? You know that, do you? Look at Windrush, look at doctors and nurses being refused the right to stay, people who have lived, worked and contributed to the UK are now being told they’re no longer welcome, go home. This is far more than fruit pickers or Baristas as some would have you think, and it will happen across Europe to British nationals too. The absolute bottom line of Brexit is that British people will have fewer rights and fewer opportunities from now on and honestly, ask yourself, what sane country, what responsible government, pushes for that?
I held the letter in my shaking hand. This was my shield, my family’s shield, against all that ferocious insanity. Two years of sleepless nights, at times near panic, had built up to this. No wonder I wept, I had every right, too.
I also had a plan.
I’d mislaid Thérence’s carte d’identité some months before and that afternoon we had an appointment at a nearby Mairie to arrange a replacement. As usual French bureaucracy demanded a wealth of accompanying documentation, one of which was proof of my address. What could be more proof, I thought, than a letter addressed to me from the Ministère de l’Intérieur? After all, that’s precisely where Thérence’s application would be sent surely?
I really should know better by now. French bureaucracy acts like Columbo, it’s always ‘just one more thing…’
A letter from the Ministère de l’Intérieur is apparently insufficient proof for the, er, Ministère de l’Intérieur, which I’d secretly suspected anyway, I just wanted to show off a bit. Fortunately, I’d brought a water bill as back up. Unfortunately, a water bill cuts no ice either. An electricity bill? The helpful receptionist asked. No, that’s all done online these days. A taxe d’habitation letter? She tried. Not for this year, Natalie said, pointing to the list of documents which stipulated that proof of address must be less than three months old. Oh, it doesn’t matter for taxe d’habitation, said the nice lady and Natalie drove home to root one out.
Twenty minutes later she was back, producing the document with a flourish. ‘Ah,’ said the receptionist nervously. ‘Thérence’s birth certificate. It’s not less than three months old.’
This time I pointed to the list of required documents, which they had actually given to me when I made the appointment. ‘It says original birth certificate’, I pointed out. ‘This is the original.’
Inevitably a superior was called and a glamourous woman appeared from the back office. She was uber fonctionnaire, a lifetime of labyrinthine bureaucracy and tanker-loads of paperwork had left her dead behind the eyes, with just a cold automaton stare. Her face, beneath her jet-black hair and shark eyes was pinched like she’d spent the day sucking on lemons. A wrinkled tightening of the mouth, the result of a lifetime of looking at small print and working out how she could best use it to suck any hope or optimism out of anyone she might encounter in her working life.
‘This isn’t less than three months old.’ She repeated icily. I froze like Mr Tumness in front of the Ice Queen.
‘Your document list doesn’t say it has to be.’ Natalie countered, and I sensed her recent frustrations might just find an outlet. Also, as a fonctionnaire herself, she was well equipped to deal with things.
‘But it has to be less than three months old.’ The Ice Queen jabbed back.
‘Why?’ Natalie wasn’t backing down.
‘It’s the rules.’
This confused the woman, nobody ever asks that! What do you mean why? She was a robot being asked to explain a lack of logic and I could smell burning as her circuits started heating up.
‘Because… because… circumstances change. He may have been adopted since! He may have got married!’
‘He’s 8 years old.’ Natalie said slowly, landing a fatal, slow-motion blow while another woman behind us in the queue started giggling.
‘Oh Thérence, you never told us.’ Said Maurice to his rightly confused brother. ‘Congratulations!’
The fonctionnaire turned away, ‘I’m going to ring the ministry!’ She said, threateningly.
A few minutes later she emerged, beaten, with her face now so pinched and taut it looked like an angry face had been drawn on a golf ball. ‘Come with me.’ She said, trying to keep her dignity.
The whole nationality process has been a bit like that. More documentation than the Nuremberg Trials, sometimes with a similar atmosphere. It’s been crazy, illogical, expensive, time-consuming and at times, demoralising but… but, ultimately successful and I will be forever grateful to France for that. France, the bureaucracy-laden, peculiar, intense, rule-driven yet anarchic, France. Or as I like to call it now, home.
And so that’s it. That’s pretty much the end of my Brexit road. I’ll pop back occasionally but I’m taking a much needed break from the frontline as it were. Thank you to the many thousands who’ve kept patience with this story. I will now try (again) to make it into some form of book. I’m thinking, ‘A Year in Le Limbo: Becoming French After Brexit.’ I’m open to suggestions though, especially if you’re a Literary agent, editor or publisher…
Here’s a link to my two previous bestselling books IAN MOORE’S BOOKS.