When you vote in France, my birth country, you have to show your passport or identity card, you sign the electoral register and cast your vote in a booth, behind a curtain. Then, you put your vote in a transparent box, while an official says loudly: “[Name] has voted!” The moment is quite formal and solemn.
On Thursday at the local elections in London, no one checked my identity, there was no curtain in front of the booth and no one looked when I put my ballot paper in the polling box. But for me, it felt like a milestone and the feeling was bittersweet. After 22 years in Britain, it was my sixth vote at the local elections in this country. And, thanks to Brexit, probably my last.
In June 2016, I couldn’t vote in the referendum on the European union. My British friends living in France couldn’t either. But my Australian neighbour could. I know Australia is now competing in the Eurovision song contest, but still, it felt a bit weird that Commonwealth citizens living in the UK could vote at the referendum, despite the fact that they were no more affected by its outcome than me.
On the morning after the referendum, I was walking up Oxford Street, on my way to an interview with Tony Blair. I was doing my job, reporting about Britain, getting reactions, writing articles for my French newspaper. I watched David Cameron’s resignation in Tony Blair’s office. I was feeling numb and exhausted. But it was much more than tiredness after a night up following the results. For the first time in my career, I felt that, in a way, I was part of the news. I felt rejected.
The referendum took place 20 years after my arrival in this country. I had been been posted in London by my then employer, Agence France-Presse, as a UK and Ireland correspondent. One of my first assignments was to report on the Dunblane shooting, where 16 children and a teacher were killed. Then, over the years, I reported on Tony Blair’s first victory at the general election; on the emergence of what would be referred to as Cool Britannia.
I covered the Northern Ireland peace process and remember the goosebumps when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Other elections, many of them, followed. I covered royal divorces, weddings, births and deaths, the terrorist attacks in 2005 and Tony Blair’s downfall. I marvelled at this fascinating country, where the two biggest demonstrations to date in London were against the Iraq war and relaxing the fox hunting ban. Explaining the latter to my French readers was a challenge.
Then came the referendum on Brexit. Like so many observers, I thought the result would be close and that Remain would win. I was wrong. I was shocked but I wasn’t expecting to feel hurt. For 20 years, I had lived in this country, had paid my taxes, given birth to three children, paid nursery, then school fees. With my family, we had become members of a local sailing club, general committee members, spent time and energy there. We felt part of the community, our involvement was a way of giving back, of saying thank you for welcoming us. Brexit changed the narrative.
For the first time, I wonder if I am actually welcome; I look at my British friends and wonder what they feel. I remember saying to one of my neighbours how upset I was. She was surprised: “But it has nothing to do with you.”
In the past two years, I have heard that sentence over and over again. I have to disagree. It has very much to do with me. The “citizens of nowhere” made this clear.
A week after the referendum, my youngest son came back from school in tears because a “mate” had told him: “Froggy, go back to your country.”
My son had replied that Britain was his country too, as he had been born and raised here. When my other son crosses the path of an English schoolmate in the corridor he hears: “Apologise for the war.” My children’s father is German. The first time, it was kind of funny. The 10th time, less so.
For the past 22 years, I have been going on with life as it came. But for the first time, I wonder what the future holds. I carry on with my job, I report on every twist and turn in the endless Brexit saga. I try to step back, report the facts, but the pinch of sadness is often there. Brexit made me feel different in the country I have called home for 22 years. On Thursday, I went to vote for the last time. I will keep my polling card as a souvenir.
Sonia Delesalle-Stolper is the UK and Ireland correspondent for Liberation
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