Entente cordiale after all: the sociology of Brexit viewed from France.

Entente cordiale after all: the sociology of Brexit viewed from France.

Virginie Guiraudon

When looking back at the period from the June 2016 referendum campaign to the EU summit on “phase 2” of Brexit in December 2017, we do so from our own limited perspectives. You may remember the Indian tale of the blind men and the elephant, an animal that they have never heard of: they touch a single part of the animal and reach very different conclusions. Brexit is a strange beast, in a way just as is European integration.  As William Outhwaite’s edited volume Brexit: Sociological Responses has shown, political sociologists are well equipped to shed light on the significance and consequences of the 2016 referendum. Precisely because it is an edited volume it acknowledges that a single event raises several big questions and that we must join forces to provide answers.

My first reaction when hearing the result in Paris was emotional, a form of solidaristic sadness for my friends and colleagues in or from the UK who had voted for “Remain” and perhaps fear that the nasty xenophobic character of the campaign would endure after the vote. My second reaction was more professional and distanced. It seemed everyone reinvented themselves as sociologists the day after the referendum, tracking the typical Leave or Remain voter, improvising as quantitative geeks with maps and numbers or as fearless ethnographers looking for the typical Leave or Remain voter and predicting the dismantling of the UK. Of course, journalists were doing their job alongside academics. Yet, was there an archetypal anti-Brexit voter? The 52% who voted Leave seemed such an heterogenous group, at best something that Arendt has previously defined as “people who either because of their sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both, cannot be integrated into any organization based on common interest” (1972, p. 311).

There were other lessons to be learnt beyond British electoral studies, including for the European integration process and other EU member states. I will draw three in this article, all focusing on the UK-French relationship after Brexit and based on my research interest in the sociology of the European Union.

The first point regards policy. In 2016, the French government, including Macron when he was still finance minister, warned of the consequences of a Leave vote for UK-French cooperation. The latter goes well beyond the contours of the EU for instance in foreign and defense policy and in international venues such as the UN and NATO. From a French perspective, there could be no “splendid isolation” of the EU “awkward partner.” Regarding border control, a 2003 bilateral agreement signed in Le Touquet has meant that the UK border is actually in Calais, in the form of a militarized wall. The UK has provided some funds to securitize the tunnel to prevent migration, yet France has been bearing most of the costs in terms of private guards and police forces and has had to deal also with electoral and economic negative externalities, with the rise of the National Front in the region and the fear that the Port is less attractive than others in Europe.

After Macron’s election, the dismantling of the “jungle” the encampment of migrants wishing to cross the Channel and degrading practices by the French police show that in fact Brexit has had no impact on bilateral relations. Brexit is talk but has led to no decision or action. For French sociologists of public policy, there is policy inertia given the converging mental maps of French and UK bureaucrats, and the role of vested interests i. e. the security industry. The securitization of the border is a stable “field” as defined by French sociologist Bourdieu, and to invoke another French scholar, Foucault, the transnational “governmentality” of migration is a daily reality. The UK had opted out of Schengen but is still bearing the fruits of bilateral cooperation.

The second point links EU policies with national politics and the electorate. Frexit is not happening. There was no domino effect as suggested by many media pundits after Brexit and Trump’s election. In France, that dog did not bark. It was a roller-coaster electoral year and the main Eurosceptic candidates, Le Pen and Mélenchon on both sides of the spectrum, did extremely well in the first round of the presidential election but a pro-EU Blair-like president was elected. There was a consensus among analysts that Le Pen, the candidate of the National Front, discredited herself in a televised debate on describing Frexit and that her party had miscalculated the will of the French electorate to leave the EU or the Eurozone. It is unlikely that Le Pen’s advisers have read sociologist Medrano’s seminal Framing Europe. He brilliantly demonstrated empirically that there are as many ways of understanding European integration as there are member-states with such different histories. And there must reasons why the anti-EU stance was not popular in France.

Why likely events did not happen is tautologically more puzzling than why they did. Why Frexit is off the agenda is an interesting question although perhaps “overdetermined”: the respective explanatory power of many factors is difficult to assess empirically. Still, the UK, with its many policy opt-outs, was less “in” the EU than France. On the euro for instance, the voters targeted by the National Front were not convinced that it would be feasible or desirable to leave the eurozone, including the elderly who remembered the Franc. There is nothing more concrete than money even in the e-times of credit cards.

As van Ingelgom has shown, quantitative and qualitative studies show that many citizens – almost a third of respondents in surveys in France or the UK- are indifferent or undecided about the EU. They do not care, they are not sure, they do not know.  For those that actually voted in France, they had to choose and enough were unwilling to change their habits and did not like Le Pen’s program on leaving the eurozone.

The third and last point focuses on EU policies and how they affect EU citizens. One of the three issues discussed during the first phase of the Brexit negotiations regarded “free movers”, the estimated 1.2 million UK nationals residing in a EU member state and the 3.5 million of EU citizens living in the UK. Why include free movement of workers in the 1957 Treaty of Rome alongside that of goods, capital, and services? It was incidental during negotiations between industrial countries when Italy was still exporting workers in neighboring states. The use of this right to move to another member state remained quantitatively anecdotal for decades. Yet, a policy dynamic was set into motion. In 1993, with the Maastricht treaty, free movement of workers became free movement of persons.

It is not easy to establish whether intra-EU migrations can be attributed to EU rights or the globalization of the outlook of certain social groups. Still, interestingly enough, Eurobarometer surveys show that the EU citizens polled have consistently considered the right to “study, work and live abroad” as the most positive result of European integration, regardless of whether they have exercised this right. And a recent survey by Recchi  has shown that 51% of EU citizens who responded spent more than three months in another member state. UK retirees transformed the French Dordogne into an “English county”, families settled in Britanny. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of French YUPPIES went to study and settle in London, the global city.

Political sociologists have been studying such phenomena to understand the dynamic between political and economic integration and societal integration. Could political cooperation and economic interdependence create transnational social practices such as cross-border movement? As posited in the 1960s scholars such as Deutsch or Haas, would suggest that those with a stake in European integration shift their loyalty away from the nation-state to the new EU center? These macro-questions require us to look more closely, combining the devising of creative surveys and ethnographic studies, focusing on “free movers” compared to the “immobile” or non-EU migrants.

The Europeanization of societies is slow but Brexit helps us to understand this dynamic and a distinct type of identification with the place where you live. French citizens in the UK, who on average stay 6-7 years, felt personally insulted by the Leave vote and the question remains as to their feeling towards anti-Polish sentiment and being treated like “regular migrants.” Some UK citizens in France have applied to become French after Brexit. It was not part of the plan and difficult because they do not know French, which is a requirement to be naturalized. And there is no incentive for their neighbors to see these property owners leave, some of whom are mayors or municipal councilors.

It is difficult the conclude. I assume that for our British colleagues, “where you stand is where you sit.” Brexit questioned and confirmed some of our certainties. From France, we see policy inertia, electoral non-events, and confused EU citizens affected by Brexit. Perhaps as sociologists, we should not look for our keys under the lamppost. We have our work cut out for us.

References and further reading:
Diez Medrano, Juan (2010) Framing Europe. Attitudes to European Integration in Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 344 pp.
Favell, Adrian and Virginie Guiraudon (eds) (2011) Sociology of the European Union. Basingstoke, Palgrave, 224 pp.
Recchi, Ettore (2015) Mobile Europe: The Theory and Practice of Free Movement in the EU. Basingstoke, Macmillan Publishers, 208 pp.
van Ingelgom, Virginie (2014) Integrating Indifference: A Comparative, Qualitative and Quantitative Approach to the Legitimacy of European Integration, Colchester, ECPR Press, 250 pp.
Outhwaite, William (ed.) (2017) Brexit: Sociological Responses. London, Anthem Press, 224 pp.


Virginie Guiraudon is Director of Research at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) based at the Sciences Po Center for European and comparative studies in Paris.

Image Credit: Loup Blaster, In Calais, the UK border