Looking beyond the Channel
As a graduate taking advantage of what may be my last taste of freedom of movement, I have the privilege to follow goings-on in Britain from the perspective of our friends across the Channel. Something immediately striking is that, though they are typically bemused by the Brexit process seemingly going round in circles, the French are generally aware of what is going in the UK.
Switch on Franceinfo and you’ll be brought news from around the continent, whether that news has immediate implications for France or not. This is in stark contrast to the behaviour of British broadcasters, who usually act as if the rest of the continent goes on holiday when it’s not doing something that directly affects the UK. Some may be surprised to learn that the Tour de France 2019 has been and gone, evidently erased from the media cycle for the crime of lacking a British winner.
But Brexit seems to be shifting our behaviour in a more European direction. Where once events on the continent felt far removed from British life, the realities of the Brexit negotiations have suddenly given them a sense of great consequence. Slowly but surely, British media outlets are beginning to give European news events the kind of coverage they already receive in countries across the continent.
Perhaps we can thank this greater sense of connectedness with Europe for the fact that Britain now has one of the largest and most active pro-European movements in Europe. It’s no secret that Brits have hardly been enthusiastic about the UK’s membership of the EU. Of course, citizens in other countries have historically been more positive about their country’s relationship with the EU, and this is manifested in the more pro-European tone of their political debates. But that isn’t to say Britain is the only country afflicted by Euroscepticism. Widespread support for the Eurosceptic Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National) in France demonstrates this.
Though you’re still much more likely to find a European flag waving on the streets of Paris than those of London, the necessity of halting the national disaster of Brexit has awakened a pro-European movement which is unparalleled on the continent. Though the French are – for the moment – generally supportive of EU membership, this support is mostly of a passive kind. Those actively fighting for Britain’s place in Europe are more vocal, more energised and more numerous than their continental counterparts, and bizarrely, we have Brexit to thank for it.
Manif à la britannique
The ways France differs from the UK are countless, but possibly the most significant is the French attitude to protest. While Brits are famous for their capacity to whinge and moan, this dissatisfaction rarely translates into mass mobilisation, and there is a tendency to sneer at street protests and bemoan the disruption they cause.
For the French, la manif is a national pastime. When the French are unhappy, they make sure that someone in power knows about it, as the ongoing gilets jaunes saga illustrates perfectly. The spark which led to thousands of French donning their high-vis and taking to the streets was nothing more than an increase in the tax on diesel, but the movement grew into a general revolt against the entire Macron government. At one time, a full two thirds of French viewed the gilets jaunes favourably, despite the resulting travel chaos and widespread incidents of violence and vandalism, most famously at the Arc de Triomphe.
Though I don’t expect a sea of yellow vests to descend on the streets of Britain any time soon, there are signs that our attitude to protest is edging closer to that of our Gallic neighbours. While for the left “demos” have never fallen out of fashion, mass protests have been opened up to a much wider audience after the Brexit vote and the subsequent dismissal of the 48% of Brits who voted to remain. The Put It To The People march this spring is estimated to have been one of the largest of its kind for decades, as a group of Parisian day-trippers I shared a coach with learnt to their horror on the morning of the march.
These protests have even welcomed Conservatives into the fold. The 86-year-old Tory grandee Michael Heseltine attended a demonstration for the first time in his life to support a People’s Vote. With the March For Change just passed and the Let Us Be Heard march scheduled for October, Brexit is putting large-scale protest back into the mainstream of British political life. And the surprisingly positive public response to the Extinction Rebellion protests in London may suggest that this new-found appetite for demonstration may not just be limited to the European issue.
Though the sight of Boris Johnson in No 10, surrounded by only the most rabid Brextremists, will rightly alarm us, there is reason to be cheerful. Despite itself, the ideological project which seeks to rip Britain from the heart of Europe and its disastrous implementation are, in some ways, having the opposite effect.
Every day, more and more Brits are tuned in to news from around the continent. Every day, more and more Brits feel strongly attached to the EU. And every day, more and more Brits are ready to stand up and fight for their convictions.