I can’t drive because of Brexit, and I’m not the only one

PARIS — I knew it was wrong to feel smug about swerving Brexit.

Last Christmas Eve, just as the U.K. and the EU finally signed the Withdrawal Agreement, I was granted French nationality. I pictured myself as one of the last British refugees taken in just as the U.K. sailed off. The paperwork would take another half a year but who cares, I was French. And yes, I was smug. Bye-bye Brexit Britain! Take your Aussie Malbec and your Cornish camembert, I’m sticking to my Bordeaux and baguette.

Of course, it came back to bite me. My purse was stolen, along with my French driving license and my carte de séjour. I was confident though. I’m French now, I can master the daunting admin. So, I applied for copies of my license and residency card.

Both requests were turned down. I can’t get a copy of my carte de séjour, because I have to reapply for post-Brexit residency. And I still don’t know why I can’t get a copy of my driving license. I think it’s because despite providing two proofs of identity, they want proof of post-Brexit residency. Which, frankly, seems a touch overzealous.  

It’s the classic Brexit syndrome — nothing is final, it’s all just pending.

In the meantime, I can’t drive. And I’ve found out thousands in France face the same problem.

France and the U.K. have yet to reach a deal on converting British licenses into French ones, ahead of a cut-off date at the end of this year. In 2022, British expats will no longer be able to drive with U.K. licenses in France. This won’t affect tourists, but for Brits living in France it could be catastrophic. Many are living out their dreams of a French idyll and have settled in rural areas where public transport is limited. If no deal is found they would theoretically have to take a driving test to get a license.

Some British drivers in France have already lost their right to drive. British driving licenses are valid for 10 years, or just three for those aged 70 and over. And due to a surge in applications to exchange licenses ahead of Brexit, there is a backlog at processing centers in Paris and Nantes. Many drivers have not yet received their new licenses.

My friend Kate says she is one of the lucky ones. Her license has not run out. But as a stay-at-home mum with a baby and a four-year-old, she needs her car to go shopping and run errands. When I ask her whether she would be willing to retake her driving test if needed, she chuckles. “There’s absolutely no way I’m taking it again,” she says. “They can sort it out, I’m not paying €1,000.”

And then there’s the test itself. Not just the practical driving bit, but le code de la route (the Highway Code). A 40-question multiple-choice test, with a level of French that would befuddle even the most integrated expats. I know, because le code became a feature in my life when my husband, caught in another strange vortex of red tape, had to retake his driving test after decades on the road. I now know that bande and piste cyclable are not the same thing, that signalétique horizontale means road markings and that “How fast can you drive in a 50 kph limited area?” is a trick question (answer: 30, 40, or 50 kilometers per hour).

So the prospect of thousands of British expats, including many pensioners, retaking their driving test to get a new license would be a disaster of some proportions. Also, the pandemic means there are extra delays in booking driving tests.

But there is hope. A British official with knowledge of the talks tells me a deal might be struck in the coming weeks.

And here’s an upside to not having a driving license. I’ve become a hitchhiker of sorts. My last reporting trip involved some inventive planning. Calls to press officers would go something like: “Hey, is Marine Le Pen coming? … Is she talking to the press? … Do you own a car?”

I’ve been helped by rival journalists and local politicians. I’ve played the ‘Brexit refugee’ card, and the smugness is gone. I’ve been welcomed with sympathy, sometimes Schadenfreude. Who cares, I’m taking the back seat.



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