Living in a foreign country raises all kinds of questions, both practical and emotional: how do you define yourself and how are you characterised by your adopted homeland? This series relates, in alternating parts, the experiences of a British woman in Hong Kong and a French woman in the UK.
The way I remember, it all started with a few months of passion in my early twenties, followed by 10 or so years of entente cordiale, after which came a moment of crisis, followed by a commitment of circumstance, only to end in a ceremony in my local town hall.
Brexit talks with Brussels are periodically compared to tedious divorce negotiations. While my own civil status says I’m “single”, it’s plain to see that my relationship with the UK has taken a turn towards quasi-marital respectability.
Much as the participants of a wedding are, from one instant to the next, pronounced spouses by the person conducting the ceremony, I, along with 28 other international residents of east London, became British at one very distinct moment — somewhere between the collective recitation of a pledge of allegiance to the Crown and singing the national anthem.
As at a wedding celebration, the central event seemed fragile and weightless, happening as it did through the power of an act of performative discourse.
Each of us had come to the UK at least five years ago (three for those married to a British citizen). Judging by the list I was given by the registrar after the ceremony, almost every one of us had come from a different country: 33 prospective British citizens had been invited to attend the ceremony that morning; 29 showed up.
Among the 33, 28 countries were represented, only a quarter of which were in the EU. Some of us wore everyday clothes; others, including me, had dressed up for the occasion.
Participants were invited in turns to receive certificates of naturalisation from the deputy speaker of Hackney council, Kam Adams, who was presiding over the ceremony. Some of us then whispered cynical remarks to each other (“I paid a grand and a half for this”); others, though quiet, were clearly moved.
A little boy joined his father in the official photograph holding a homemade placard that said, “Welcome to citizenship, Daddy”, as if citizenship were its own separate country.
Above us, hung a portrait of the Queen. Behind us, the Union flag was paired with that of the EU — a detail that, presumably, would not have been replicated in every British constituency two years after the referendum. But this was Hackney, which registered the third-highest remain vote (78.5 per cent) in the UK, after Gibraltar and Lambeth. Having been a Hackney resident since 2008, I continue to feel at home there.
“What does it feel like,” my mum asked me later on WhatsApp, “you know, to be British?” She was really curious to know, but the disappointing truth was that the ceremony alone was not enough to make me suddenly feel British, if such a feeling can ever legitimately materialise.
It did not escape my attention, however, that I had become the subject of a monarch, having had to promise to “be faithful and bear true allegiance to” not only the Queen but her “heirs and successors” — no small thing for a French national.
OK, so current state of Britishness: average. But since we’re discussing identity, and turning back to the first of my two citizenships, should I also ask myself in what capacity I feel French? Throughout my twenties, I felt deeply sceptical of French national pride.
In 2007, a so-called Ministère de l’Immigration, de l’Intégration, de l’Identité nationale et du Codéveloppement was put in place by the Sarkozy government, only to be abolished three years later. The juxtaposition of the phrase “Identité nationale” with “Immigration” sparked a heated debate on the appeal of the government to anti-republican values, leading to the phrase being dropped.
Many French people of my generation are reluctant to speak of their identity in terms of France’s supposedly distinctive cultural features, which I think is rooted in this recent political episode and its toxic use of the word ‘identity’.
Being an expat, however, I have noticed that French nationals abroad are not shy about speaking of their national identity to the rest of the world. One of the reasons I’ve stayed away from London’s estimated 300,000-400,000 French nationals is that they feel very strongly about being French.
“I love my country, but I have no patriotic spirit and no national pride,” wrote Elena Ferrante in her Guardian column in February. “Being Italian,” she said, “for me, begins and ends with the fact that I speak and write in the Italian language.”
I would tend to agree with Ferrante yet, according to that standard, I am sorry to say I’m not very French at all. I currently write in English for a news outlet which Robert Armstrong, the FT’s departing chief leader writer, has referred to as “the hometown newspaper of the rootless cosmopolitan elite”.
He gave an analysis of the British character through the Brexit phenomenon that, on more than one occasion, very much made the Brits sound like the French: their “determined indolence”, for example, or what he perceived as an ingrained distrust of authority.
In the comments section that day, someone complained that another foreigner (Armstrong is American) had come to the FT to pass judgment on Brexit: “Why don’t these foreigners leave us alone?” the comment poster said. “The Daily Remainer is a shadow of it’s [sic] former self, lost and rootless.”
To the delight of several FT editors who shared the exchange on social media, Martin Wolf, the FT’s chief economics commentator, decided to do away with reader response etiquette. “You are a humourless fool,” he wrote.
I wonder — now that I am a British citizen after all — if I would ever qualify in this reader’s eyes to voice an observation or two on the subject of Brexit. On this last question, I am open to comments. With two citizenships in tow, however, I feel quite the opposite of lost and rootless.
Previous stories in this series:
Photographs: Charlie Bibby for the FT