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03/12/2016

Brits of France’s ‘Dordogneshire’ fret over Brexit

UK & Europe

Brits of France’s ‘Dordogneshire’ fret over Brexit

Sunrise on the vineyards at Eymet, Dordogne.

[gaschy22/Flickr]

On market day in the southern French town of Eymet, English voices float over the stalls bursting with fruit and vegetables, charcuterie and duck confits.

Some are tourists, but most are British expatriates, many of whom have enjoyed the warm weather and easy pace of life in the Dordogne region for decades and are now more than a little jittery over a possible Brexit.

“People here are genuinely concerned and a bit bewildered by the whole situation, the campaign, the uncertainty,” said Roger Haigh, who represents the Dordogne region at the French-British Chamber of Commerce.

“Especially the older people (who) have no influence on what’s maybe going to happen to them,” he said. “It’s not necessarily the best time of your life to be put in that situation.”

Dordogne has long been a magnet for British pensioners, and the 13th-century bastide town of Eymet is host to some 200 families from across the Channel.

Overall, between 6,000 and 8,000 Britons live in the area, giving it the nickname “Dordogneshire”.

“I’ve chosen to live here because I love it here. There are things that drive me crazy, but on balance I love it,” said Brian Hinchcliffe, a retired teacher who has lived in Dordogne since 2000. “This is where we want to be, and I think that goes for all expats.”

Many fear the economic effects of a Brexit.

“Uncertainty as UK votes on Brexit” is the front-page headline of a free local English-language monthly, The Bugle, published as “Leave” sentiment started gaining momentum a few weeks ago.

“Some people… would really have to tighten their belts,” said Terrie Simpson, an estate agent in Eymet.

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‘Scaremongering’

“If we vote out, and there’s a dramatic effect on the pound, retired people here will suffer,” she said. “For some pensioners their pension could drop by a third but they won’t have the means to go back to England.”

Memories remain fresh of the financial crisis of 2008 when the pound weakened dramatically and many Britons in the Dordogne area sold their homes and packed out.

“Quite a large number of expats found they couldn’t sustain the life anymore, and they’ve had to sell and leave. That may happen again,” Hinchcliffe said.

The uncertainty is already hurting business, Simpson said, noting that many potential home buyers are putting off the decision until after Thursday’s vote.

Health care is another concern as British expats currently benefit from the French system under a bilateral convention between London and Paris.

Expatriates “are covered very well here,” Haigh said. “That is obviously a worry for people who are getting on in age, who are retired and that know that they will need health cover at one stage or another.”

Well before last week’s assassination of British MP Jo Cox, a supporter of the “Remain” campaign, expats in Dordogne were upset over the tone of the debate.

“There is a lot of scaremongering and not a lot of facts,” said Tim Richardson, a 50-year-old winemaker in the Eymet area.

“People are trying to scare voters one way or the other,” said Richardson, who left Britain 25 years ago and was elected to the Eymet council in 2014.

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‘France has been good to us’

The Bugle’s editor, Steve Martindale, said many expats have the “added frustration” of having no say on the Brexit because those who have lived abroad for more than 15 years are not eligible to vote.

“If they all could vote, the vast majority of expats would vote to stay” in the EU, he said.

While Britons in favour of Brexit are scarce in France — a recent survey of 4,000 respondents by expat website Angloinfo, found that 71% were opposed — that is not to say that they are enamoured with the EU.

“I am not that happy myself with the way Europe is run,” Richardson said. “I would vote ‘remain’, but with a big proviso: remain, but work from within on how things can be improved. In general, European bureaucracy is out of touch with the way people want to live.”

Among their options if the “Leave” campaign wins is to apply for French nationality.

“Being a British non-EU citizen living in France, my life would get a lot more complicated,” Martindale said. “I would probably take up French citizenship.”

Hinchcliffe says that whatever happens, he is here to stay. “France has been good to us and continues to be good to us.”

Timeline

  • 23 June: Referendum on Britain's continued membership of the European Union
  • 28-29 June: EU summit in Brussels