Opinion

How Does It Feel Being European In London?

By Marie Le Conte Last edited 15 months ago

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How Does It Feel Being European In London?

Marie Le Conte is one of around 930,000 people living in London who were born in the EU. We asked how the EU referendum was making her feel.

Photo by Fabienne from the Londonist Flickr pool

Being a French person in London is odd at the best of times. I moved to England six and a half years ago, and was expecting my life to remain more or less the same. It took me a few years to learn — the hard way, mostly — that you and I are slightly different people.

Not quite similar enough that I could have thrown myself in and felt at home straight away, but still not alien enough that I would have had to make a conscious effort to fit in. I do think I've made a decent job out of it; I do, after all, write about politics for a living, and if I can understand the twists and turns of Westminster as well as the natives it must prove that deep down, I'm now one of you.

Taking it personally

Luckily, I suppose, my comfort zone has been somewhat pushed back over the past few months, thanks to the EU referendum. I know I shouldn't take it personally, that it's not a vote on my own person and the fact that I've decided to make my life here — but it's hard not to.

First, there is the Out camp, who have been making an awkward yet pernicious job of reminding everyone of the differences between Britain and the continent. This has been mostly OK — partly because Leave.EU, Vote Leave, Grassroots Out and the 17 or so other campaigns have been amusingly clumsy, but also because they've only been spelling out the obvious. I'm aware I don't quite belong here; it's what makes it fun.

I'm aware I don't quite belong here. It's what makes it fun.

The real blow, however, has come from the various In campaigns, perhaps unexpectedly. Their arguments in favour of the European Union have been drier than the small sand edifices you call biscuits, and rational to the point of being subtly heartbreaking. The UK should stay in the EU because it will be better for you economically; because the UK's place in the world is strategically more important if within the EU; because businesses like it, and businesses know best. I won't argue with facts, mostly because they play in my favour, but bloody hell, what about the heart?

Being both French and Moroccan — and therefore as Mediterranean as it gets — it would be hard for me to deny being excessively sentimental. I will gladly admit it, but still — there is beauty in Europe and you lot never really mention it.

Growing up in France meant growing up European; it has always been a part of my identity, and hopefully always will; I could never see myself being anything else. I may be aware that both Brussels and Merkel are almost certainly out of control, and it concerns me, but deep down I'll always be quite romantic about Europe.

Photo by Tomas Burian from the Londonist Flickr pool

It is, after all, what drove me to move to London. While my panicked parents hesitated when I told them at 17 that I wanted to move to London, my staunchly europhile grandmother told them not to worry, as London practically was Paris and Paris practically was our hometown.

She was right, of course: while always conscious that I am not and never will be truly British, living in London feels like an extended stay at some relatives' house. We may disagree on some basics regarding food or formal attire, but deep down blood will stop us from taking arguments too far.

And that's the bottom of it really: as a French person, the European Union feels like a family to me. I'm critical of it, at some times far more than others. There are things I'd love to change, but me being a part of it never has and never will be a question.

We may disagree on some basics regarding food or formal attire, but deep down blood will stop us from taking arguments too far.

The debate on the EU referendum has shown that you see the EU like a partner; as attached to it as some of you may be, if the relationship isn't satisfactory then you may as well break it off.

Funnily enough, it has been one of the few things in my years here which has made me realise just how different we really are.

England is to me what France, or any other European country, will never be to you. And that's why, at the end of it, I don't necessarily care about whether you stay or go — for it to work, the European Union does need some misplaced naivety and nearly childish camaraderie (teasing included), which, as we've all seen recently, isn't something you seem to possess.

It is in your nature, and probably because of your stupid islander mentality and post-colonial malaise, but I can't really hold it against you. We will, after all, always be close, even if you'd rather deny it. And I'll stay even if you leave; you're not getting rid of us dirty continentals quite yet.

Last Updated 14 September 2016

Stefan

The worst bit: The author (and I, as a EU citizen living in the UK for many years) will not be allowed to vote apparently. Someone started a petition on that: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/p...

Kay

Very well said, and I was about to explain why the Brits are like that but you summed it up perfectly in the last paragraph.

It's also a bit of a defence mechanism. If the Brits can always show they are distant from Europe, they remain unique and thus their internal self accomplishment unharmed. The empire continues to exist on some Oedipean level in most Brits hearts, left or right.

As a dual British - Mediterranean myself, I love Europe and everything it stands for and have always found it my second home. The beaches of Barcelona or Nice, the bitter coldness of the German outbacks, the Parisian cafes, the Ibirican loud nights in Alicante and Malaga. I yearn for it more than I do for dingy pubs and crumpets. But that's a part of who I am too so I cherish that as well. But you do always feel that Britain will never really be fully European, it resists it on all levels. The argument is always about strategy and common interests, never about culture. The moment the Yes campaigns decide to play that card is the moment they fear they will lose the middle England vote. Those who live in parishes and market towns or small cities across the land and don't see the European warmth and naivety as anything to identify with. For them Europe is a holiday destination perhaps, possibly a retirement option, but never home. For the other side, that is for you and me, the UK may not be home, but London is, and only because it is really an extension of Europe. The moment London loses the European touch, and lets be honest it hasnt always been there, is the moment we will feel alienated and go elsewhere. Part of North America are more European than the rest of the UK, that's just the way it is.

JLIT99

The whole problem with this article is that it has conflated Europe and the EU into one, when that isn't the case.

France itself has a growing trend of Euroscepticism. Does that mean they are not European? Of course not.

Tim Turner

I'm voting to remain for pragmatic reasons, and have no sentimental attachment to the EU. I love Manchester where I live, but I don't have a strong bond with the local council. I think people ought to be allowed to separate how they feel about a bureaucracy, and how they regard the countries and places that make up the European mainland, and the people who live in it. Coolness towards a clunky, deeply flawed institution is not the same as coolness towards Europe and its people.

I am nevertheless hoping that after the dust settles, we can get to the real debate, which is the rest of the UK leaving London. It's a yes from me.

FOARP

I'm a pro-European, albeit one who has always been sceptical about the various EU projects (especially the Euro). I've also lived and worked long-term in other EU countries. I'm sorry, I just don't buy the need for naivety and so-forth regarding Europe. There might have been some place for that in the 1960's, but the EU's been around for a long time since them, I can't be romantic about the EU nor is the EU something that particularly inspires idealism. And I'm OK with that. If anything, I find the idealism of many of the EU's supporters something of a turn-off.

FOARP

Curiously, the most striking thing about this is the unexamined assumption that the author might feel more at home in another part of the EU (which is talked about in the amorphous-blob terms that echoes the way many Brexiters see it in). I suggest that if the author had spent time lving and working in Poland, Latvia, Greece, Portugal, Sweden, they might realise that this is not the case.

Bernardo

I have been living in and out of the U.K. since 2001, when I moved to Bristol to study for my PhD. In my second year - as part of the transition from post-grad to lecture - I did some undergrad teaching and, at the end of the academic year, we all got very nice letters from the Head of the Department, thank us for our contribution to the Department. In my letter - as in all letters address to foreign Post-grads - there was an extra paragraph that read something like: "The fact that you are not British gives our students the opportunity to contact with other perspectives. For that too, we thank you." I ask myself if those letter are still sent.

William Barter

"one of around 930,000 people living in London who were born in the EU"

Everyone born in London since we joined the EU was born in the EU. I know what you mean, but this sub heading clearly highlights the problem: we just don't think of ourselves as part of Europe.

Jonathan Wadman

You say that '[being European] has always been a part of my identity, and hopefully always will; I could never see myself being anything else'. I want you to know that some British people feel that way too. (It's not just me, right?)

Vince the Neckshave

You confuse being a European with being in the European Union - but you don't need the latter to be the former!

There has been such a crisis of confidence across Europe that too many Europeans now derive a misplaced sense of security from being members of the EU. It explains why they cling to such a obviously malfunctioning institution, and why the EU is therefore incapable of significant reform. And that is why we, despite being Europeans, we have no real choice but to leave.

Conor Waldock

Good article but as someone already mentioned the problem is that we are conflating the EU with Europe. When I travel to Switzerland I don't feel like I've left 'Europe' probably the same if I visisted Norway etc.

If we vote to leave, the people are voting the leave the political institution of the EU. NOT the continent! Our strange little island won't start floating out the mid-atlantic into some continental purgatory.

You, as Europeans, will always be as welcome here as I would be in Switzerland today.

John Winward

I grew up in Britain, lived in London for ages, and Paris for a bit, and now live in Asia. My last few visits back to Europe, for conferences, have been Spain, Italy, Cyprus and Switzerland. Of course all of them felt perfectly natural - I'm European too. But I had to struggle a bit to remember which ones were in the EU, and which weren't. Am I supposed to feel more at home when I'm in Bulgaria (EU), and less at home when I'm in in Norway (non EU)? Doesn't work like that for me.

Patrick Nobbs

If he doesn't "care" if we leave and refers to every one of us as having having a "stupid island mentality", then why write this diatribe in the first place?? It is pretty much up to us of we vote to leave; like it or not, we will decide - as a nation. As for the "post colonial malaise" he very condescendingly refers to, perhaps some reflection on Britain's role on liberating France from the Nazis 70 odd years ago and the millions of lives lost defending them (twice) speaks volumes for our real attitude to Europe; then there is France's hideous colonial record especially in Algeria, I would think should also provoke some further French reflection.

Lucas

We don't mind the French so you can stay, esp the women who are much more sexy and elegant than our boring English girls

Francesca Fenn

An interesting read. But I don't think 'stupid islander mentality' is a fair criticism, any more than 'stupid continental connectedness' would be. We are an island, always have been and it is inevitable that that is deep in our psyche. It's not a conceit or cussedness on our part - it is just a fact.

Kristian Hansen

Wow, Marie, I really didn't expect this article to go the way it did at the end. It was thoughtful and intelligent, and to someone (like many Brits, actually) who admires and respects France (albeit grudgingly sometimes) as an old friend and longtime worthy adversary, music to my ears. But I had to read the end three times - I thought it had to be a piece of sophisticated and subtle humour, as surely no-one from France could accuse another country of "post-colonial malaise" with conviction and a straight face?!

I love Europe, I love being a part of it, and I love feeling a connection with people from all the member states. I particularly love France and the French, but have been watching with alarm as its legendary arrogance and criminal complacency have, once again, brought down horrifying consequences onto a suddenly shocked and grieving population. The most serious reservation I have about the EU in this day and age is closer political partnership with France, one of the most racist countries in Western Europe, a huge and inept security risk right on our border, and since you choose to mention colonialism, perhaps the only colonial power actually more brutal, negligent and contemptuous of its colonial victims than Britain.

And don't you dare talk about malaise and France in the same breath, when everybody knows how many problems in France stem from French resentment of its many foreign policy failures, including, I may add, complicity in the genocide of 10,000 of its own citizens with living memory. Don't you dare.

These are not the rantings of a stupid islander who regrets the loss of our empire - I really don't, quite the opposite in fact. These are the honest observations of a long-term neighbour, who knows very well, but is still astonished by, the depths of French hypocrisy. Thanks for making me feel just a bit more stupid for wanting to remain part of the beautifully diverse European culture I have grown up in. It's my heart that says that, not my wallet - and your spiteful outburst has really cut me to the heart.