By Rebecca Benoît
NEW YORK – Halfway through my flight back to New York from Paris, the man sitting next to me pulled out his laptop and began editing a power point presentation titled “Brexit: What To Do.” I found myself peeping over his shoulder for the remainder of the flight, exactly as I had been while he was watching ‘Gods of Egypt’. The latter, I must admit, despite Australian frontman Brenton Thwaites, was less intriguing.
The public consensus appeared to be that the U.K.’s departure from the E.U. would likely herald disaster. ‘Brexit’ now dominates 100% of the news in Europe, and here in New York, it could enter your conversation, though #TrumpGirls supposedly breaking the internet is just as likely to take your attention. Once again, the public consensus appears to be that this, too, is frightening to all.
Having one foot in France and one in the U.S.A., my own lesson-learned is that you can’t depend on the voters you can’t see, especially if they happen to be enraged by a sense of false entitlement. If the ‘crazies’ of the U.K. can leave the E.U., who’s to say the ‘crazies’ of the U.S. won’t instate Trump?
In Paris, however, a mere two-hour train ride from London, the U.K.’s grand exodus is undoubtedly personal. Most conversations start light, poking fun at English ignorance. England’s most Googled question the day following the vote was “What is the E.U.?” Also laughable, some English residents claimed that they voted ‘leave’ just to “make a statement”, not realizing that votes accumulate. These light conversations, however, have an undercurrent of worry.
As one Parisian university student put it on Saturday: “Vous nous niquez, vous vous niquez, ça sert à rien.”
In other words, ‘you screw us over and you screw yourselves over, it’s pointless.’ Harsh words, but the reality for the young French student is that the British vote to ‘leave’ is British abandonment. While U.S. universities are outrageously expensive, and Canada is too far for family-centric French society, the UK has served for French youth as the land of affordable anglo-saxon opportunity.
One French student described her experience walking into her internship at HSBC the morning of the news. “In theory, what an exciting day to be working at a bank. In actuality, no one wants to see the truth of the oncoming financial disaster. My colleague told me we lost something close to 20 billion pounds in one day, and the feeling of chaos in the office was more frightening than anything else.”
Twenty year-old student Olivia Peabody summarized the overall sentiment, especially for the bilingual Parisian: the Brexit, in short, “ruined my life plans.” Kings College student Clement Mayer elaborated, recalling that his initial response was pure surprise. University students in London did not feel informed that leaving was an actual possibility. It was what conservative nationalists claimed, but in the end, they thought, rational thinking would prevail. For the next two years, he predicted, “it won’t change much.” But while he had planned on pursuing a Masters in England, it is now financially impossible.
While some hope there will be a re-vote, the truth of the matter according to many is that the E.U. has to send a punishing message that countries cannot leave and return as they please. Most conversations are that of strategic predictions: “How will the U.K. make this disaster a mere matter of inconvenience?” The reactions in Paris among young people spark heated discussions of plans, hypotheses, and classic sarcastic mockery.
For many, the Paris-London train was nothing more than a daily commute to work, and Parisians see Brexit as the consequence of an uninformed ego. Unable to vote, they were in a sense betrayed by their neighbors. The French love to complain, but what they value above all is solidarity and leaving the EU is a sign of a comradeship lost. The truth of the matter is, despite centuries of neighborly rivalry, France expected England to remain a frenemy. Ultimately, despite the bickering and the teasing, there was meant to be a mutual understanding that they could always run next door to borrow batteries if the store was closed.
I just so happened to be visiting my family in France the day of the news. My sister, currently studying in the U.K., was in utter shock. I awoke to an “Oh my God, this is a disaster!” More than anything, this result simply did not make sense beyond it being a result of patriotic xenophobia. A friend, Clarisse Ferracci, said one of the worst parts was the fact that it was mostly voters 60 years old and up who voted to leave. To her, it was simply “unfair” for them to be making a selfish choice that would have repercussions felt mostly by those who voted to stay.
It’s sad to imagine London as anything other than an ever-evolving smorgasbord of languages, styles, and food. Its particular edge and charm is borne of its cultural openness and the city is celebrated for this characteristic, especially compared to many of its European counterparts. Much of this diversity should in the coming years remain unaffected, and Londoners weren’t necessarily the ones who tipped the vote. Nevertheless, this form of nationalism is founded on a fear of the ‘other’ that concerns me, and the entirety of the Western world.
Rebecca Benoît grew up in Washington, D.C. and Paris and is currently a student at Brown University.
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