How refreshing, after the angry claims of UKIP voters, to get a calmer and more dispassionate view of our nation’s attitude to the European elections from a few of the foreigners living here. Bute Street, in South Kensington, is thronged with French residents of London, and at lunchtime some of them hastened from the Lycée Charles de Gaulle into the Raison D’Etre café.
These French students, most of whom are about to go on to university in Britain or America, think some of us get unnecessarily hysterical about the the European Union. Marek Rassouk said of British Eurosceptic voters: “I think it’s a shame that a lot of people are sceptical for no reason. They’re not uneducated but ill-informed. Nigel Farage is very charismatic so what he says resonates with your average Englishman who isn’t educated at Oxbridge. A majority of these voters are Eurosceptic. You probably feel better inside you if you’re British and Eurosceptic. Britain for the British. It’s comforting. And it’s an easy opposition. You don’t have to get into the whole dilemma of Europe. England not being part of the euro already holds a certain advantage over the members of it. I don’t think Britain is necessarily as affected by the EU as some people think. France needs a euro that is not as strong as it is now, in order to sell its products. But over here I think the issue has been pushed out of proportion. You’re in a much better position than France, for example, because you don’t have the constraints of the euro.”
Victoria Neefs tried to define the difference between the French and the English (a term used interchangeably with the word “British” by most of these speakers): “I think French people are less friendly than the English ones. I feel like the English want to be a bit apart, but in everyday life it’s not a problem: they’re quite friendly and open to other cultures. They’re not very honest. They always give things really polite expressions. They’re always very polite but you know that in the end they wouldn’t tell you direct answers. The French are a bit more straightforward.”
Madeleine Milton said: “I don’t know much about it, but I think the British people are quite concerned. They don’t want to lose the British culture and be engulfed with the European thing. I think English people are quite proud of being English, but they don’t want to disappear into Europe. This is one reason why there is a negative attitude about foreigners coming to England, not so much in London but in the rest of England.”
Victoria agreed that London is different: “London is actually very international. But people know about the English stereotypes: the having afternoon tea thing, the English breakfast, the Queen, the Rugby team, the very typical boarding schools.”
Chloe Mayoux added: “Driving on the wrong side of the road. There are two types of Englishman: the gentleman and the red-headed one. The people most interested in politics are the ones voting UKIP. I think the problem is we don’t know what Europe is supposed to mean. There’s not a European nationality. We don’t feel European.”
Arthur de Lencquesaing suggested that most of us feel no very close connection to the European Union: “I think that relative to other countries, the UK had less to do with its creation, is not in the Eurozone, so that people on average are less interested.”
He said of Cameron’s plan to renegotiate our relationship with the EU: “It’ll make everyone happy. He’ll satisfy people who are somewhat reticent towards the EU and also people who are all for it. Farage is actually surprisingly convincing. He’s a very good speaker which is a point on his side. But I think like a lot of extremist politicians, including the Front National in France, no amount of good speaking can justify it. I’m more inclined to follow Mr Cameron on this one. I think in the long run the European Union’s a pretty good thing.”
Stanislas Dudon commented: “I think England is thinking about itself really, it’s about her interests, what it’s going to get, and not thinking about Europe, common interests, the economic and political struggle. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. But the beginning of Europe was everyone under the same authority, and the UK’s sabotaging it. Britain is encouraging other countries to say Europe was a failure from the beginning and everyone should go their own way.”
Paul Bateet said: “Economically, it’s better for the English that they’re not in the euro. Also they are not in the stability pact. The English have their own central bank. In England, the Prime Minister has relations with the Governor of the Bank of England.” He contrasted this with French politicians who were unable to influence the European Central Bank.
Matthieu Prevost, owner of the Raison D’Etre – where I can warmly recommend the baguettes – offered this view: “I’m against the euro personally. Different economies have different priorities. My impression which makes me laugh is the French would like to be the country to have the strength that England has shown. If we had a vote on Maastricht now it wouldn’t go through. In 1992 it was very close. Europe is now being challenged from the inside. The founders – people like Schuman and Adenauer – did not envisage a country withdrawing. Have we gone too far too fast?”
He could see why the European elections are not really popular: “People are voting for something they have no interest in. We are shocked by the turnout, but why would they bother to vote, just to see that people have a seat in the European Parliament and earn a lot of money? Money is the new religion. In 1905 we had the separation of church and state. Maybe now we need to separate corporations and the state.”
A French businessman aged about 55 who preferred not to have his name quoted said: “It’s your privilege in England, you can’t have everything, you can’t be in Europe and out of Europe, you have to take a decision. Either you’re in Europe and you follow the European way, or you don’t follow the European way and you stay the way you are.”
What did this man think of Cameron’s approach? “He’s trying to avoid taking any decision and to be on the side of England in order to be re-elected. Either in France or in England our politicians are not governing the country. They are governing their careers: it’s their careers they will fight for. It’s a shame these people don’t have guts. They’re like snakes: wishy-washy. English or French, they are all the same. I think the only one who’s not like that is the German. She’s quite brutal and gets what she wants.
“It’s a shame. I love England as much as France, but the English are much easier to manipulate. The English always say yes. When they have a strike, they say they’re sorry to disturb you.
“This euro, I don’t know where we’re going. I know that frankly we’re going to disaster. I’m not a mathematician, but the way it’s going is wrong. The euro is no good. The dollar is all owned by the Chinese. One little move and it all collapses, like Jenga [the game played with a tower of wooden blocks which one removes one at a time until it falls down].”