So, I've downloaded and printed the paperwork to apply for French citizenship (dual, with British, which you can have), and put them all in their own little folder - you gotta have a dossier. The Livret du Citoyen has been on the Kindle for some time, and I've read it through once. Would this were all that were involved. Now I'm stalling.
It' s not only the language requirements, which are quite daunting: having to conscientiously study and practise, then getting to Rennes to take the test, but they're the least of it, and it could be quite a satisfying project. There are also the certificates, huge numbers of them, birth, marriage, divorce, death. Not only mine but Tom's and my parents' too, and they want originals, and copies, and accredited translations (which cost), as well as details of all my siblings, though not their paperwork.
By chance I do have quite a few of these papers, along with the photo albums they somehow ended up in my possession; I've looked after them carefully, not least because the envelope is one of the few things I've ever had bearing my father's handwriting. It's worrying though, to submit these ancient, fragile, precious and personal documents into unknown, and yes, foreign, hands; what if they are lost or damaged? It feels weird, as if my parents spirits are uneasily above my head at the very idea! Which is all rather foolish.
The other thing about the paperwork is that it requires going back over my own past more than I care to, having to apply I know not where for certain others, a first marriage certificate (I've got the divorce one, surely that ought to be enough?), evidence of a brief, stupid episode, never talked about because it long since stopped being important or even anything to do with me any more. ('You owe nothing to your past selves,' I read on a youngster's twitter stream the other day 'they are stupider than you and they don't exist.') 'Naturalisation' implies, in its etymology, a re-appropriation of one's life since birth, which I'm not altogether happy about.
The Livret du Citoyen is probably much like all such publications around the world: ridiculously condensed, over-simplified, anodyne, of necessity I suppose. I fear I will want to argue with it if I am placed before a departmental panel quizzing me, but won't have the words or arguments to hand, and anyway, you can't ask for a favour then rubbish what your asking for, so I must needs play along ('Cross your fingers behind your back?' suggested Tom).
Frankly, and don't tell them in Rennes, I'm not sure I much want to be French. I've lived here nearly twenty years, I've just about acquired half a clue about what's going on round me, I find much to admire and some things I don't, probably much like I would most places. I have read all (yes all, even the stuff about nuns) of Les Miserables, the book, not the screenplay, albeit in English, and several of the lesser novels of Flaubert in French, and can confidently say that, IMHO, Hugo was a fairly awful writer and Flaubert a loathsome one. Hugo gets a mention as a luminary in the Livret du Citoyen, as do several noteworthy personages who were born outside of France but became French citizens: Apollinaire, Marie Curie, Dalita... to encourage us others, you know. I would need to show that I was involved in French cultural life and society, I'm not sure whether my francophone knitting group (many of whom show a tendency to stroppy Gallo-Breton regionalism) and adopting a Breton spaniel (because some bastard heartless French hunter chucked her out) will be enough...
In the end though, I'm not sure I want it because it's not mine; I will never really be French. I ain't no child of the Republic, I'm afraid, and resist the idea of having to pledge myself to its values, though I find myself quite protective and bloody-minded about defending them when feeling they're under attack from ignorant or self-satisfied outsiders (while reserving the right to be an ignorant and self-satisfied outsider myself most of the time). Even Heather, who was here sixty years, married in and made seven more French people, more or less stopped speaking English, wrote in French, received the legion d'honneur, and chewed the fat with Jouve and Derrida, used sometimes to smile mischievously and say 'French. Don't mistake me, some of my best friends are French, but...'
Then of course, if France, whose politics I already frequently find at best impenetrable and at worst repellent, next year goes the way of Britain and the US and elects Marine le Pen, where will that leave us and will I want to be French at all?
The thing is, I liked being British in Europe. In fact, I like being European, it might be a dirty word for some, but not for me. For much of my life, whatever the shortcomings and failures of the political and economic reality known as the European Union, Europe has meant something bigger and better, cultures and cities and landscapes, languages, paintings, poets, music, ideas, discoveries, history (much of it, like much of all human history, vile and brutal and tragic and thank god it's over and done with) of which my Anglo heritage comprised a vital part but which could also offset its island parochialism. I have enjoyed, and indeed built the best third of my life upon, freedom of movement within Europe.
Harping on about national, cultural, ethnic identities is very largely erroneous and boring, I think, but then I wonder if I'm only able to see it that way because I've always felt relaxed and comfortable in mine because I'm one of the lucky ones. Of course I'm glad my heritage is English/British/European/Christendom, it feels comfortable, normal, happy to me, but like so much pride in one's identity, that's like the person who says 'I'm glad I hate garlic* because if I liked it, I'd have to eat it, and I hate it!', and being what I was born certainly wasn't any virtuous act (or indeed any evil one) on my part.
The (admittedly brighter and more educated) French kids I know, while happy to be French, don't seem to care much about being European, they are more drawn to other continents and hemispheres, a wider world, and good for them.
So why am I doing it? For practical reasons, of course, I need to know I will be able to get healthcare in my old age, if not sooner. Until now, when one reached UK state pension age, as Tom has, you would have some of the medical care I write about here in glowing terms paid for, about 70% on average, depending on what it is. The rest has to be topped up either by private complementary insurance or out of one's own pocket. (Whatever the outside perceptions about French statist socialism, there is no such thing as free healthcare on point of delivery, and no one assumes there ought to be; poorer people get their healthcare topped up by the state, but separately and means tested. French people's sense of entitlement is much more around their pensions. That's another thing that's been brought home to me here, that what one society sees as their inalienable right isn't necessarily what the one next door does.) Tom gets this now, I come into it as his dependent, and assumed I too would when I reached the requisite age. Before this we got healthcare through the work I did, or just crossed our fingers. It is one of the reciprocal benefits of EU membership, and we, and other genteel, nice retired British folk, could be seen just as much as benefits scroungers as Polish or Lithuanian or whatever people in the UK claiming child benefit, but we have never been criticised or resented for it, so far, to my knowledge (likewise, we could also be seen equally negatively as economic migrants; we didn't have to come here, we weren't driven out, we chose to because we could, we thought, have a better, or more interesting, quality of life on the money we had). We never really thought, with Brexit, that we would be cast out of our homes and packed off back to Blighty; UK citizens lived in France long before the EU, but on the whole they either married in, or worked here all their lives and paid in, or, if retired, they were simply the rich ones who could afford private healthcare - or they went back to the UK and used the free NHS; the 'healthcare tourists' whose access to NHS treatment is under review now comprise in large part, I understand, such returning or visiting expats. If I were to become a French citizen, I would have the right to apply for healthcare here.
In fact, I find too that I am fed up with being disenfranchised; I couldn't vote in the UK, in a referendum which directly affected me more than any other political event in my lifetime, and I can't vote here to keep Mme le Pen out either. I need to belong somewhere; going back to the UK isn't on the cards. It's also a kind of statement of commitment, and yes, to some extent shaking the dust of the UK, whose decision to leave Europe has alienated me in both practical and cultural terms. Being British in Europe may no longer be an option.
There is some talk, from sympathetic French politicians, of a fast track for long term British citizens resident in France, and also of some kind of 'associative citizenship' to Brits, not only expats, but any who voted to remain who would like still to belong to the European project. So what, asked Tom, would there be to stop people who voted for Brexit applying for that, how would they know? Why would they, I replied, if they voted Brexit and wanted out of Europe, then come over all Ode to Joy? But then again why wouldn't they? If only for shorter queues and access to duty free at the airport; have cake, will eat it, as the memo said. There was a forum anecdote, I think on Ravelry in fact so quite reputable, of someone's colleague who had been all up for Brexit on anti-immigration grounds, then when it happened was bragging about how she wouldn't be disadvantaged since she was entitled to an Irish passport. Such associative citizenship sounds like a hopeful thing, but in the meantime I'll go on with the dossier.
I know what you might say, with justification, welcome to a very small taste of the real world for many of the people in it, you know, that world which as a privileged, complacent middle-class white European you always just assumed you owned. I don't claim any particular victimhood for the fact that I've taken advantage of freedoms history has put my way, had a pretty interesting, fun time of it but now it looks like the party's over.** It was ever thus, when cities and thrones and powers change and end, and whatever happens, however disadvantaged I become, I'm not, I should imagine, going to be bombed, starved, have to live in a refugee camp or whatever.
I wouldn't want to lose my British citizenship, however long I stay here and under whatever terms, I'll still be English, British, Anglophone and all kinds of other things which there's no point in being either proud or ashamed of because they just are what I am, and I'll still be most happy to read English literature, watch English films and telly, and go back and visit as and when, to spend time with friends and family and the things and people I grew up with.
Which is what I'm going to do next week, for a short few days, leaving Elfie to look after Tom. This is the last of my daily posts, I've enjoyed it. Thanks for stopping by, and especially if you got to the end of this long whinge of a post. You've been troopers.
* substitute any foodstuff you wish, that's only an example.
** though, aside from personal considerations, I still believe Brexit to be a grave mistake, and am exasperated by the way, in order to keep the electorate sweet, those who voted for it must at all costs be protected from confronting either the consequences of their decision or their possible motives for it.