The French Connection

Posted On: 
3rd March 2016
The EU referendum debate is dominating British politics, but what do our European neighbours think? John Ashmore meets Assemblée Nationale member Christophe Premat and discusses the French perspective on working in the UK, the handling of migrant camps and Jeremy Corbyn

If some MPs at Westminster lament their heavy workload and constant travelling, spare a thought for Christophe Premat. 

The academic and Socialist MP is the member of the French Parliament responsible for representing his compatriots across the north of Europe.

Even by a politician's standards he is a busy man. The 39-year-old is nominally based in Stockholm but divides his time between the Swedish capital, Paris and the UK, which means being on the hoof most of the time. 

"I was in Aberdeen last week, so I travel a lot and I try to go to Paris every week. This week we have a week off because Parliament isn't sitting, but next week I will be in Cardiff and in two weeks I'll be in Paris.

"It's a very nice mandate but it's exhausting, but you try to be as efficient as possible," he says with understatement. 

We meet at Premat's office just off Camden High Street, where the hum of visitors and staff coming and going gives some idea of Premat's intense schedule. 

The issue  du jour is, of course, the EU referendum. For all the dire warnings that have punctuated the debate so far, Premat seems remarkably relaxed about the prospect of 'Brexit'. 

"I don't say there will be a deluge, a disaster, I don't know... there will be consequences in terms of the economy, re-orientation of policies and things like that, of course, because sometimes we don't know. We are not aware that we live with some European regulations. 

"But I'm not pessimistic, because in case you're outside Europe then I can imagine that the EU will try to have the UK as a privileged partner, which is the status for some states, I would say, in Europe."

He also stresses the importance of a calm, reasoned debate on the EU, rather than simply trading in exaggerated warnings. 

"My personal point of view is you have a debate; it's very important to have a real debate, a fair debate. Because if on both sides you put the blame by saying, ‘oh, no, no, if you quit Europe that will be a disaster’, then you cannot have a real, big debate that you need once in your lifetime."

At the same time, he does not shy away from the possible effects on his constituents of a ‘Leave’ vote – some of them, he says are "afraid" they could lose their work permits.

"There are different concrete measures that could affect the French community here – the work, the residency, the economy. 

"I was in Bristol in July. In Bristol we have a lot of co-operation with Toulouse about the Airbus and things like that… we might lose this kind of co-operation, so it has economic consequences."

Perhaps unusually for a French socialist politician, Premat argues that his compatriots could learn something from the more flexible approach to the labour market in the UK. It is this flexibility, he says, that has encouraged hundreds of thousands of young French men and women to relocate to the UK.

"Sometimes it must be tough for young people to find their first professional experience, so they can come here and there are structures to help them get in the system.

"Sometimes [in France] you have prejudices in the background – what is good in the [British] labour market is you don't care about the background of the people, you just see how they work, how they co-operate together. 

"On the other hand, the flexibility and the way jobs depend on markets also have limits, because when you have a crisis or when it doesn't work, the other problems come up. So, I think yes, in terms of prejudices, in terms of mobility, in terms of how you value somebody, that's important. 

"We are too negative in France... we need to change that mentality." 

Another important area of co-operation between the UK and France is the handling of the encampments of migrants in Calais. Here, Premat is gently critical of the British attitude, arguing that the Government is "very comfortable with the situation" because it leaves the French to do the "bad job" of processing thousands of people. 

"It's very hard on the ground; you have to select the refugees and say, 'OK, you, you can go there' – that’s awful, and now they have come to dismantle the Jungle. 

"But we have a strong bilateral co-operation with the UK in terms of defence, security, maybe migration to some extent, so we can try to have an agreement on those matters."

He even ventures the possibility that the next camps could appear on this side of the Channel, something David Cameron has warned might happen if the UK leaves the EU.

"You cannot just come at the last minute, you have to tackle the problem in a long-term perspective. Before Calais you had Sangatte, so maybe after Calais you will have Kent." 

One British politician who has made a point of visiting the camp at Calais is Jeremy Corbyn, who has consistently called for the Government to take in more refugees. While one might imagine a member of the Socialist Party to be a fan of Corbyn, Premat is fairly guarded in his assessment. He describes Corbyn as having "authenticity" and being "constant in his ways", albeit with a brand of politics to the left of his own.

Asked where the veteran left-winger would fit into the French political scene, Premat locates him somewhere between the leader of the new Left Party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and the left-wing socialist Arnaud Montebourg.

"I think he would be a little more radical than the Socialist Party, especially when it comes to defence, because in a dangerous world where all the countries try to put more money in their defence budgets, Corbyn says, 'No, we don't need that'... This aspect is interesting; there’s a kind of 70s feeling in the way he is, with defence, with peace." 

While he might take a slightly harder line on defence than Corbyn, Premat has no time for the "terrorist sympathiser" attacks aimed at the Labour leader by senior Tories, including the Prime Minister. 

"That's totally out of the question, a big attack, a way to brutalise, a way to avoid the debate. I cannot consider it a very serious way of thinking."

In what is a decidedly turbulent period in both British and European political life, how, I ask, does Premat finds time to relax away from travelling and politics? 

His answer is that, for the time being at least, he doesn't. 

"I have all the activities of my children to organise, from soccer to music and things like that, so I don't have a lot of leisure activities – it comes at the end of the mandate, I promise!"

Christophe Premat is the deputy for the Third Constituency for French Residents Overseas in the Assemblée Nationale and French MP for Northern Europe