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.
For a blessed seven days over Christmas I did not hear or read the word “Brexit”. I was in rural France at my parents’, and my only contact with the outside world came through daily, but moderate and often distracted, contact with French media.
The evening news had the usual seasonal reportage about the production of foie gras in the south-west of the country, an industry that had slumped in 2017 because of a bird flu epidemic but showed signs of recovery in 2018.
Meanwhile, a daring pair of French entrepreneurs had set up a sturgeon farm in Madagascar and were bringing the first African caviar to market. Champagne was in the news too, as it faced increased global competition in the wake of a changing climate.
The French are getting hungrier for stories about their terroir — stories that absorb prized regional delicacies into an increasingly nebulous form of national pride. The British are no different: witness the cachet given to the Cornish pasty.
But the headlines were dominated by the gilets jaunes, the grassroots movement for economic justice that had sparked into life the previous month after an initial protest against fuel tax rises.
While British friends back in London were tweeting about the Queen’s Christmas message, French president Emmanuel Macron had issued a modest tweet of well wishes to French citizens around the world. However, images from his address in response to the gilets jaunes crisis two weeks previously had re-emerged on social media and were being paired with a still from the Queen’s broadcast. A caption read: “Big year for puzzled people in gold rooms asking why we can’t just all get along.”
The tweet resonated on both sides of the English Channel. Riding a wave of post-election popularity, Macron had appeared to be doing quite well at home, at least from the outside. As the Brexit debacle divided the UK, he stood as a self-styled leader of a liberal EU, one in which Paris might outperform London as a world financial centre in years to come. The gilets jaunes revealed the domestic divisions the president’s globalist approach had overlooked.
This was plain to see from a distance, but at home in France I noticed how people were unsettled and often confused by the gilets jaunes. Some confessed to having strategically placed a yellow jacket behind the windscreen of their car so as to seem they supported the demonstrators in case traffic was blocked during a protest. This came with the — often sarcastic — implication that the gilets jaunes were perceived as a threat to social order.
The ambivalence of that response I read as characteristic of France’s engagement with political debate — simultaneously passionate and cynical, something I notice tends to get lost in translation.
Living in the UK, I am inevitably one step removed from the complexity of France’s socio-political climate, no matter how diligently I listen to the news on France Inter radio. It is hard not to feel some form of imposter syndrome when British friends insist on hearing my take on French news as a native — I too am witnessing these events unfold from a distance. That distance, I am aware, is both geographic and social: I don’t belong to a social class that has suffered dramatically from the measures with which the gilets jaunes have taken issue.
When I ran into my uncle a few days after Christmas, he said: “It’s the revolution all over again.” He is not the only one to have made reference since the disturbances started to France’s long history of democratic protest. “You don’t have to deal with any of that kind of stuff where you live, do you?” he asked. I told him we had issues of our own.
Though the gilets jaunes movement is anchored in a specifically French social and economic context, and is tapping into a history of protest in the country, the complaints voiced in local petitions and social media groups have resonated with frustrations felt elsewhere in Europe.
On a different scale, there have been nods to the movement across the Channel: some participants in this January’s march in London against government cuts, led by the People’s Assembly pressure group, wore yellow vests in imitation of the French protesters. The BBC reported that the movement had even brought in two campaigners from France to “seal the relationship”.
Pro-Brexit campaigners in London have also worn high-vis jackets in reference to the French movement — a manifestation of cross-Channel solidarity I first read as ironic, but which of course speaks to either group’s desire to reject affiliation to traditional political parties.
It is tempting to draw parallels between French and UK anti-austerity sentiments: many have read in the 2016 referendum the expression of a disconnect between the ruling class and those who feel left out. In the long run, however, the recent demonstrations in the UK only highlight the improbability of a movement such as the gilets jaunes being fully or straightforwardly imported from another country.
It throws a light on the socio-economic differences between the two countries, despite the comparable size of their economies: different rates and distribution of unemployment, public debt and taxation, for example. Flicking between The Guardian and Le Monde on my commute, I can at least try to get the facts right.
You can read more articles from our Expat identities series here.
Photographs: Getty Images; Daan Kloeg Photography; AFP/Getty Images; In Pictures via Getty Images