In 2005 we too had a referendum on L’ Union Européenne and 52% voted “non”. But Sarkozy ignored it. So very French. A terrible travesty of democracy. And Europe ignored it.
This is Alphonse, on Sunday morning after church. “So you can see,’ he adds, ‘why we greet the news of Brexit with shock, sorrow, and not a little admiration and pique.”
It’s been fascinating listening to the French view of Brexit here in this rural backwater - or “trou perdu” (lost hole) as they call it themselves. Peter popped into the village for a couple of baguettes early last Sunday morning, waving on the way in at Roland, one of our neighbours sitting with a friend outside a bar putting the world to rights. Stop and chat with them, or go to church?
Sometimes it’s hard to gauge priorities, but on his way back they beckoned him over and he found a coffee waiting for him on the table between them. No question then. And it was Brexit they wanted to discuss.
“A sad time for you English, then?” Roland says. “Life may get difficult for a while.” Peter nods in agreement. “You won’t leave us, will you?” asks his friend. “You buy our unwanted old houses, eat our commodities, keep our villages alive.”
Peter assures him that as long as the pound holds its own against the euro the ex-pats love France too much to abandon it en masse. After all, when our banks crashed in 2008 they faced a fairly disastrous situation, and though some left, many others have arrived since. That’s the way of ex-pats anyway. When they get to a certain age, family or health issues draw them back to the UK.
Despite far better health care in France, most of them want to be ill in English.
“Well,” says Roland, forever irenic, “None of us farmers like Brussels. The handouts are all very well but it’s we who bear the brunt of their idiotic rules and petty bureacracies.” In between puffs of his cigarette he gestures at an imaginary mound of forms and files. “The paperwork alone, mon Dieu! But maybe the shock of what Britain has done will push the powers that be into a realisation that reform is urgently needed.”
We get to church - late, but in the best of causes. No prayers for the situation which surprises me, but after the service, inevitably, Brexit is once again the topic of conversation. Alphonse, who voted no to the European Union in 2005, maintains that what we need is a return to the original concept of a common market, not the federal union we ended up with “...eleven years ago, when I first read the secularist premises on which union was built I couldn’t stomach it. Anyway, why do we need technocrats telling us how to live? If this is the beginning of the end of the Union, I for one will be a very happy man.”
“Oh, and we’re really happy about it,” chips in a Tasmanian couple, who have found it impossible to get a visa that allows them to stay in their house in France, or in Europe at all, for longer than three months a year. “Perhaps now you’ll remember who your real friends are - the commonwealth, and stop this nonsense of treating us like enemy aliens. We’ll do trade deals with yer.”
“How could you abandon us like this?” asks Aline. “You are our real friends. What have we Latin French in common with the Teutons? They occupied us for five years and you liberated us. That means something.”
They have noticed that in all the photos of political leaders M Hollande is always standing slightly behind Frau Merkel. It somewhat dints their pride.
“And we Christians here are so few that we need English support,” she adds.
We had been warned when we first came to France that an English minister who spoke French would find himself made pastor of a church by default if he wasn’t on his guard.
And we have been very careful to stress that we are retired. And to encourage the French members of our church to lead, not follow, which they have a tendency to do. Like M Hollande.
“Ah well”, Aline sighs, then continues hopefully, “I don’t suppose in the end much will change.” Well, it’s gratifying to know that we Brits seem to have friends. In fact, one of the first things M Hollande said after the news of Brexit was, “l’amitié pour toujours”, which, roughly translated means, “we like the colour of your money.” And that is borne out by our local baker. “I love you English. And the Belgians,” she says on Monday morning. “You buy my patisseries, while the French only buy baguettes.”
Stingy, is the implication she makes of her fellow countrymen, but I keep quiet because the number of pains raisins Peter alone consumes is enough to keep her in business. Then a thought occurs to her and she looks worried. “But what will you do now without the euro?” “Excusez-moi?” I don’t quite get it.
She’s seen me wrestle with the confusing French coins for years. Is that a twenty centimes, or ten, five, or two?
She’s used to taking it out of my hand. She can’t possibly think ....... but she does.
“Ah, we never had the euro. We’ve always had the pound.” “Non”, she shakes her head in wonderment. “I didn’t realise”. Change ahead for both nations. Perhaps feelings in Paris are different from those out here in the sticks, but I have my doubts. 25% unemployment amongst the under 25s is bound to cause political unrest and blame.
And some of the ex-pats are seriously worried about the future. But what you cannot change you learn to live with. That’s the challenge.
Faith is believing, but trust is acting on what you believe.
And for me, that means forging even deeper relationships with our many friends across the Channel, and indeed, the world.
The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
From Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems by William Stafford, Graywolf Press, 2014, used with permission.