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What Manchester Taught Me About Being French — And European

Shifting questions of belonging and identity in the shadow of Brexit and EU elections.

Parade in Warsaw, Poland, by members of the Robert Schuman Foundation
Parade in Warsaw, Poland, by members of the Robert Schuman Foundation
Mathieu Pollet

PARIS — "From now on, you're France's ambassadors..." It was a memorable line from an otherwise forgettable welcoming speech at the Alliance Française, in the British city of Manchester. It was September of 2017, barely more than a year after the Brexit vote, and I was about to start the year as a foreign language assistant, thanks to an international cooperation-based program.

I would soon find out that being a FLA — as we were called — was much more than just teaching French. Unwittingly, for scores of young British people, I became the embodiment of an entire country, the person they could rely upon in conversations to say: "I know a French guy who…" And for me, that wound up urging me to (re)consider what it was that did or didn't make me French.

Far from home, I somehow became the Frenchman I was expected to be and, truth be told, I enjoyed it. Because, while in a position to compare, I got to really grasp some amazing sides of France — as well as the parts "to be improved" too. More than ever before, I truly experienced the sense of belonging to France, and the pride that can come with that. Would I have ever felt the same way about my country if I'd never left?

European issues do not seem to connect to its citizens.

But being in the UK post-Brexit, I was necessarily confronted with another part of my identity: being European. A native of Angers, in the west of France, 500 kilometers from the Channel crossing in Calais and 800 kilometers from the border with Germany, I have nonetheless always felt connected to Europe. Part of it is that I consider myself a citizen of the world, and have always lacked any strong chauvinistic sense. But there is something more.

In the face of unprecedented criticism and doubts about the European "project," my faith in the European Union feels stronger than ever. In my still-young life, it has already given me much. Would I be who I am today hadn't I had this attraction for my neighboring cultures, languages and histories? Or benefited from the ERASMUS program that allowed me to study in Ireland? Or even given the possibility to work in the UK to share French culture?

These same questions were brewing in me two years earlier, during much darker times. I was studying in Ireland, living well and well-integrated in the lovely city of Galway. It was November 2015. It was late at night when my phone started buzzing with push notifications. Not again … I turned on my computer and logged onto the news, as the first bleak images were coming in of the horror of the Bataclan attack in Paris. The memories are vivid; not only do I remember the tension, what is still very fresh in my mind is the feeling of being powerless, somehow even more so than if I had been in Paris or in Angers. For the following difficult days, I didn't feel like Ireland didn't understand — quite the contrary, support meetings were set up by the town council or university — but I definitely felt that I belonged in France.

On one of my many tours in the Irish Cliffs of Moher — Photo : Mathieu Pollet

Now as the Brexit train wreck continues to play out in slow motion, and on the eve of European Parliament elections, these questions swirl in new ways. Perhaps a bigger threat to the EU than the populist challenges is apathy. The last European elections, in 2014, turnout was the lowest ever — 42,61% with very signification variations from one country to another.

In spite of my very own enthusiasm, people just can't seem to get passionate about it. European issues do not seem to connect to its citizens, as these elections are mostly won on national themes.

Here in France, as the national debate is being driven by the Gilets Jaunes movement, I came across an interview Le Monde had with Florence Delmotte, a Belgian political science professor who has studied political identity in Europe. Among the many benefits the EU could offer on global issues (environment, migration, etc) Delmotte notes that European citizenship tends to be mostly linked with the free movement of people — even if only 3% of the population ever lives in another country.

I get to experience the perks of being born in the EU

It sort of made sense to me. It didn't really explain why others wouldn't feel as European as I do, but it brought into light what had clouded my judgment. I am a privileged person. With the perks of being born in the EU first, but mostly because I get to actually experience these perks. I had faced situations that made me feel grateful and lucky to be European, even insignificant; when taking the fast line in the airport at customs, when applying for European grants as I was going to study abroad, when opening a bank account in the UK without difficulty, when spending euros in Zagreb, Vienna or Bratislava, when seeing non-European friends of mine struggling with visa applications.

I got to make the most of being European because of my privilege, even among the French population. I've had the chance to fly from airports – the place where the most privileged people on Earth unknowingly meet: Only 5% of the global population has been on a plane. Many can't seem to realize how practical and convenient being European can be – on top of other substantial achievements of course — because they are not given the chance to experience it in the first place.

This drives us back to the Yellow Vests. How can we expect them to believe in Europe when they feel like their own country failed them in the first place? When they don't get to take advantage of the EU's open borders. It then seems that any European spirit may only be achieved with practical, within-everyone's-reach measures. And yet, in its latest "Barometer", the European Commission asks its citizens what the most positive result of the EU is, and 58% mentioned "the free movement of people, goods and services."

As the European project seems to be hanging in the balance, Florence Delmotte reminds us that "the sense of belonging to the EU can't be imposed." For better or for worse, the question of who you are is a tricky matter indeed.

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Black and white photograph of Henry Kissinger wearing a suit and glasses.

May 22, 2008, New York: The late Henry Kissinger poses for a portrait.

Beowulf Sheehan/ZUMA
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