I spent the morning of 24 June listening to the referendum results on the BBC, slept briefly, opened the laptop and began looking into the possibility of Irish citizenship in a strangely upbeat frame of mind. I discovered later that my British relatives in France – in-laws, partner, children – were downloading documents about becoming French. The Irish option is less complicated, but the how-to documents in France are helpful; there’s even a section headed ‘Francisation du prénom’ that invites you to change your given name if you want to go the whole hog. So Jacek or Krysztof can be changed to ‘Maxime’. Or if you prefer ‘la diversité’, you can keep your original name and add an extra French one: Ahmed can become ‘Ahmed, Alain’, or ‘Alain, Ahmed’; Ngoc Diem can become ‘Ngoc Diem, Florence’ or ‘Florence, Ngoc Diem’. You can fiddle around with your surname too. One way is to translate it, so Haddad, or ‘blacksmith’ in Arabic, becomes ‘Forgeron’ or ‘Laforge’; another is to tweak it slightly, so it’s more recognisable to a French ear. If everyone in our family decided on the same French given name and clipped our surname, we could all become Françoise Hardy.
For the moment we’re just migrants, watching the host culture with a wary eye, and listening to what it says about events in the UK. Thomas Piketty wrote in his blog for Le Monde that Brexit was a moment of ‘collective unreason’, ‘profoundly nihilistic and irrational’, but no surprise: the EU’s liberal market policies have only magnified the effects of globalisation on powerless populations, including the French; people are enraged. How many people is that? In France the polls show anti-EU sentiment running high – at more than 60 per cent in one survey – but there is no referendum in the offing.
Marine Le Pen is on a roll and she promises to put the EU at the centre of her campaign for next year’s presidentials. The socialists are watching their backs, in particular the prime minister, Manuel Valls, a self-confessed ‘Blairiste’, who has hardened his opposition to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. A few months ago he was laying down preconditions for TTIP, but within days of Brexit he seemed to have ruled it out entirely (‘I tell you frankly, there can be no agreement on a transatlantic treaty’). His main worry is that TTIP will rouse populist anti-EU feeling to new heights and fuel the Front National vote. The secrecy surrounding negotiations makes it impossible to know what’s been agreed so far, but TTIP doesn’t look like anything we want. To the French it’s another piece of high-handedness from Brussels, giving corporations even more power over states and citizens than they already enjoy. Valls is smart to signal his disapproval, even if he may not mean it. Unlike other Europeans, Michel Sapin, France’s finance minister, seems to think that Britain could discuss curbs on human movement as well as access to the single market, as it disengages from the EU. For member states this isn’t on the table.
Freedom of movement is just as contentious in France as it is in the UK, not so much because of migrants born in the EU as third-country nationals arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean: France has more asylum applications than the UK and rejects around 75 per cent; the majority stay on as ‘sans papiers’. This is the main drawback for the French if they decide to end the Le Touquet agreement, which keeps British immigration staff in a forward position in Calais. Post-Brexit, France could simply scrub the deal and stop kettling migrants who want to cross the Channel, but the country would become a freeway for refugees, at least until Britain can make itself a nasty place to pitch up, and that’s still in the fine-tuning stages.
I’m not quite ready to become Françoise Hardy, but it may be easier than Irish citizenship. So many applicants from Britain have put in for passports that Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is overwhelmed and pleading not to be engulfed by a … what’s the word we’re after? Swarm, flood, tsunami, plague? OK, a plague of edgy, angry people. I’m disappointed. It took a while to turn up details of my Irish (biological) mother’s birth. I knew her surname was Walsh, sometimes spelled with an e on the end, and where she was born, but I’d forgotten the maiden name of her mother, Downey, until it appeared in a record of her brother (she had many siblings). That clinched it. I’ve just received a copy of her birth certificate. Name, Margaret, born in 1932 with an e after Walsh, in the laying-in hospital in Limerick; mother Christina, father Stephen, a tailor by trade.
I failed to ask her when we met in London 15 years ago whether she’d been an Irish citizen at the time of my birth. It never crossed my mind. She’d come to London in 1950, or thereabouts. Why would she have tried to naturalise as a British subject by the time I was born a few years later? Like her, my father was a migrant. He was from Tralee, and had left for England ahead of her. They’d been friends before either of them crossed the Irish Sea. In London, Margaret found work in service; by then my father was already enlisted in the RAF. I met him in 2002; he was in his eighties. He wouldn’t admit to paternity. He was on his second marriage and had been running a discreet love affair with my mother on and off since the 1950s. We got on well in the Harvester restaurant where he agreed to see me for an hour. He’d remained in the air force after the war, he said, and travelled a lot on the job. He’d tried to pick up Arabic during a posting in Aden. By then Margaret was working as a courier in Whitehall.
Britain still has opportunities for migrants: proper lives, greater safety, money for the family they’ve left at home. What migrants have to offer is mostly what we like: well-staffed public services, cheap food, bargain washing and ironing, bargain childminding, bargain builds, classy IT and financial services. We even call on non-nationals to fight for queen and country. Since Britain began a new era of foreign wars in the 1990s, the armed forces have been recruiting from Commonwealth countries in return: the pay-off is UK citizenship after five years on the job, but it’s not guaranteed and the process is getting harder.
My Irish father sat in the back of a metal flying machine that released bombs over German cities. His lover was a maid in London and then a lowly functionary. Both found a way to live in a place where maids and servicemen were in demand. They still are, but there are so many things on Britain’s wishlist that it’s begun to look delusional – everything from a top-of-the-range health service to a nuclear deterrent and the capacity to wage new, fruitless wars modelled on those in Afghanistan and Iraq. We’re hoping meanwhile to cut inward migration to the quick. Imagine this wasn’t a country but a person you were next to at a dinner table; you’d be wanting to leave early and head for home. Only, right now it’s not clear to me where that is.