The France Show, an annual event that invites the English to get better acquainted with their closest European neighbor, drew thousands of visitors to Olympia London exhibition center over the weekend.
The throngs came to check out an array of cheeses, cakes, pâté and wine from almost every region of France and to play petanque (a ball game) and watch French cancan dancers.
The event has attracted Francophiles for 20 years (early on, it was known as Vive la France). But in addition to all the French fare, this time around, the question of what impact Brexit will have on the two countries’ relationship weighed on a lot of people’s minds. Some worried that Brexit could make it hard to buy a house in France or make transporting their products more expensive while others shrugged off the potential effects. And many expressed uncertainty.
On Tuesday, Parliament will vote on several amendments to British Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal, which was rejected on Jan. 15. The UK is due to leave the European Union on March 29.
“The France Show should happen especially at the moment with all the various Brexit issues. People need to be encouraged to go to France, think about buying in France.”
Debbie Macleod, events director of The France Show, said she didn't have official numbers yet, but that attendance over the weekend was down from the previous year. There were also fewer food stalls. “There are a number of reasons. Some didn’t do well enough last year. The man selling pancakes had to pay 1,000 pounds [$1,315] in electricity to Olympia Hall so it was costly.”
She's still waiting for feedback from exhibitors but said that Brexit certainly was a factor: “Brexit has an impact across the UK. There is a feeling of uncertainty. There is a drop in the exchange rate. Some exhibitors had a good show, and some didn’t.”
Some who turned out for the show said Brexit was all the more reason to come. Like Rosie Ferguson, a three-time visitor to the event. “The France Show should happen especially at the moment with all the various Brexit issues. People need to be encouraged to go to France, think about buying in France,” she said.
Patrick, a Frenchman who was one of several people at the show who didn't want to give a last name, said, “The France Show should happen more often. London is the [sixth] French city” — more French people live in London than in Bordeaux, Nantes or Strasbourg. Likewise, the UK accounted for France's largest trade surplus in goods in 2016, according to the BBC.
On Brexit, Patrick added, “I think the whole world should be worried about Brexit. Not only France and the United Kingdom.”
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Tessa Larcher, a Londoner who originally hails from Martinique, an island in the French territories in Antigua, agreed. “London has many French people living in London. I think we are many French European citizens in the British capital. French culture attracts people. London is a big city so why not? France interests the whole world. We have to show people that we are here.”
Brits in a ‘wait-and-see’ position
Every year at The France Show, many Brits are tempted to buy French property.
Lyn Barker, the owner of ASI Immobilier, a French estate agent based in France, sells property to the Brits and other EU citizens. At The France Show, she fielded plenty of questions about the implications of Brexit. “Obviously, nobody can answer on that one. The other thing people have been asking is if it’s a good time to actually move or if they should buy a holiday home first.” At the same time, however, she says she's not worried about Brexit. “Since all this has happened, it actually hasn’t altered at all. I think Brits are trying to get money into Europe.”
“The vast majority was asking what we [the French] think about Brexit before they even think of getting into a project. So, basically, I would say the British are willing to buy, but are currently in a ‘wait-and-see’ position.”
Marc Alia, manager of Leggett Estate Agents in southeast France, is also optimistic. “We think that lots of British citizens might come to France. The Brits are worried because they want to prepare in advance of their future plans.” Most of the visitors he saw were “asking what we [the French] think about Brexit before they even think of getting into a project. So, basically, I would say the British are willing to buy but are currently in a ‘wait-and-see’ position.”
It's too early to get a tally of home purchases in France at the show, he says, but last year, when the British Exit seemed far away, the prospect had a favorable impact on their sales on the other side of the English Channel.
Leggett's Toby Hawkins said they saw a 40 percent increase in property purchases at The France Show last year.
One of their customers at the show this year, Christine, says she plans to buy property in France, regardless of Brexit. “No, life goes on simply as that. We have plans; we want to execute these plans and continue with them,” she said.
‘A sense of panic’
Outside the building was Katrina Mosko who has a business based in London called EuropeFoodXB, which has been exporting French food to London for the last six years. The company offers over 6,000 French and other European products — such as cakes, biscuits, yogurt, oysters and foie gras. They import all their products fresh from Europe and deliver them directly to your door.
“We are extremely worried about [Brexit]. It impacts the small businesses. Recently, I was booking the channel tunnels for our lorries to go back and forth, and we just don’t know how much time we need to spend at the customs. We don’t know what will happen — do we need to declare? Do we need to have extra paperwork?”
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From what she can tell, “What is happening at the moment in the UK is a sense of panic. For example, I have booked all the tickets for large vehicles to transport food to London via the channel tunnels for the next year and the majority of the places have been sold out already. This is just about the channel tunnel but I am not talking about the value of the pound rate to the euro.”
“This year of all years, there are things that leave us uncertain about how things are. I wouldn’t say it worries us but there will be some solution, and we’ll have to probably deal with whatever that solution is.”
Back inside the building was Andy Johnson, who owns Fellow Velo, a cycling company based in the UK and that operates in France mainly in Provence. He organizes cycling tours. About Brexit, he said, “This year of all years, there are things that leave us uncertain about how things are. I wouldn’t say it worries us but there will be some solution, and we’ll have to probably deal with whatever that solution is.”
“I hope there will be a good relationship between France and the UK. We will see that in the future. I see that the British citizens are starting to change their minds on Brexit. For the moment, I don’t have any problems.”
Edouard Sicard, founder of Le Petit Frenchie in Lille, in northern France, was also hopeful. Le Petit Frenchie sells a pastry that looks like a Camembert cheese. At the Christmas Market in Lille, Sicard had a lot of British clients. He thinks that the foreign trade concerning Brexit is complicated, but “I hope there will be a good relationship between France and the UK. We will see that in the future. I see that the British citizens are starting to change their minds on Brexit. For the moment, I don’t have any problems.”
A few stands away was Sophie Ashworth, who is based in Dorset and set up her business last year, called Maison Elhoria. Ashworth wants to produce her pâté in the United Kingdom. She's waiting to see what happens with Brexit. “We have a lot of questions. Since I also import some Basque linen rolls that I make in the North of England, I was wondering if I would be taxed on what I import.”
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On the second floor of the Olympia National Hall, where all the legal advice, banks, insurance, estate agents and notaries had their stalls, Jessica Mayer, who works for April International, promoted their English speaking health insurance provider. Questions that came up were: “How does the social security in France work? They are also worried about Brexit because they won’t be able to use their EHIC [European Health Insurance Card] when they move to France.”
For the moment, the United Kingdom is still facing uncertainty. Seeing Brits and French people having a good time shows that it’ll take more than Brexit to cut ties between France and Britain.
Alexander Seale reported from London.