NIORT, France (Reuters) - Two years of Brexit uncertainty have given British citizens in France sleepless nights and a bureaucratic headache, with thousands of them hurrying to apply for nationality to secure their status before the divorce date set for next year.
Amanda and Robin Holmes are pillars of the community in their tiny village of Crezieres, nestled in rolling countryside in the west of France.
Robin dishes out food packages to the needy through charity Restaurants du Coeur, Amanda runs a volunteer gardening group, and both sit on the local council.
But until this week, neither of them were French.
In the wake of the 2016 referendum in which Britain voted to cut its ties with the European Union, the British-born Holmeses, who moved to France in 2004 under EU freedom of movement rules, applied for citizenship, worried they would be kicked off the council and keen to send a political message.
“I’m European and I’d like to stay European,” former actress and yoga teacher Amanda, 67, said on the eve of a citizenship ceremony organised in the local town of Niort.
Interior ministry figures show eight times more Britons applied for French nationality in 2017 than in 2015, the year before the Brexit vote.
Many applicants are driven by fears that Brexit will jeopardise their right to live and work in France.
The advice from both governments is that British residents in France apply for a “carte de sejour” — a residence permit issued to all foreign nationals but not normally needed by EU citizens — to prove their rights after Brexit.
Citizens’ rights organisations say some local authorities are reluctant to follow that advice and process the applications for Britons, however, and that those that do take months, with confusing lists of demands and documents.
Briton Jacqui Brown was one of Holmes’s yoga pupils, and she has lived in nearby Loubille with her husband Adrian for 14 years. Their son, now 18, went to the village school, and Jacqui volunteers in her local library.
Her husband works in professional training as a freelancer, taking advantage of the local area’s excellent air connections and his EU passport to travel across the bloc, though most often back to Britain.
With his clients based there, the drop in the value of the pound has already wiped 20 percent off the family’s income, Jacqui says. She fears that the effect of Brexit on the British economy along with an end to free movement could threaten their livelihood in France altogether.
“Nobody can give you the answers because nobody knows... So you’ve spent two years living thinking, ‘What is going to happen?’,” she said.
A long-planned summit between British Prime Minister Theresa May and other EU leaders next week, originally seen as the deadline for signing off on a deal, looms.
In the run-up, governments on both sides have sought to allay fears, with May assuring EU citizens in Britain in September that they are welcome to stay and France’s Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau last week promising to ensure Brits in France get “reciprocal rights”.
But the citizens’ rights pressure group British in Europe says the warm words have no legal clout and are contingent on them being respected by both sides.
Freedom of movement is a particular concern, group member Kathryn Dobson said whilst shopping for cheese in the weekly market in Civray.
British in Europe is calling for rights to be ring-fenced and guaranteed by both sides, even if no deal is reached between the EU and the British government.
“What we would say is: Do what you promised. You promised us we would not lose our rights, that we would be able to live as we do now, and that’s all we’re asking for,” Dobson said, sending a message to May before the summit.
Civray and the surrounding area is home to so many Brits that local translator Eloisa Thomas has set up a service helping them clear the administrative hurdles they come to, including in applications for residence permits.
She currently has 30 on the go and says her clients, many of them pensioners, are extremely anxious.
But at the citizenship ceremony in the local government office in Niort on Tuesday, sighs of relief could be heard as the chorus of the Marseillaise died away.
“We’re now French. And happy,” said Robin Holmes.
Writing by Johnny Cotton; Editing by Hugh Lawson