It was the absence of chicken tikka mini-fillets (two packs for €7) at their local Marks and Spencer that helped bring home the harsh reality of Brexit to British and anglophile Parisians in the early days of the new year.
Instead of the chicken — or lentil, couscous and goat-cheese salad, or pear and blackberry yoghurt from western England — shoppers found these signs in the empty M&S coolers: “Due to new UK/EU import legislation, we’re sorry some of your favourites might be missing. We’re working hard to get them back soon.”
Judging from social media, the howls of anguish from Parisian aficionados of British food should have been audible from the Bois de Boulogne to the Bois de Vincennes, not least because restaurants cannot accept diners on their premises and France is under a pandemic curfew.
You might think this land of gourmets and haute cuisine is the last place where people would seek foreign food. But there is no accounting for expatriate appetites.
Returning to Hong Kong from home, Australians eagerly pack boxes of Tim Tams, a kind of chocolate biscuit. Arriving at New Delhi airport from Europe, a friend once smuggled a leg of Spanish cured ham in a cricket bag. Before Brexit, our daughters used to take the Eurostar from London weighed down with Marmite and Alpen, obtainable at Le Bon Marché in Paris but at exorbitant prices.
Even the French have been known to relish foreign food. It is a surprising fact that France has more than 1,400 McDonald’s outlets, which makes it one of the company’s biggest markets outside the US. And many customers seeking crumpets, scones or clotted cream at the 18 M&S outlets in Paris are not British but French.
The empty shelves suggest that British food exporters were ill-prepared for the EU customs and health controls that came into effect on January 1. And the new trade “friction” across the Channel does not affect only thwarted Parisian buyers of chicken tikka or the drivers whose ham sandwiches were confiscated by Dutch customs officers at the Hook of Holland ferry terminal with a cheery: “Welcome to Brexit, sir, I’m sorry.”
Confusion over the EU’s import rules for food have disrupted supplies of Scottish langoustines and other UK seafood to France in recent weeks. The supposedly “tariff-free” EU-UK trade deal agreed on Christmas Eve turns out to be tricky and probably not wholly tariff-free even for larger companies such as M&S.
UK exporters to the EU complain that the rules they now have to apply are of mind-boggling complexity, unsuitable for the just-in-time, cross-Channel operations of supermarkets and fresh-food retailers, because each item of food and drink has to be declared separately.
Even the Percy Pig sweets displayed at M&S checkouts in Paris seem to fall foul of “rules of origin” requirements, which mean that products exported tariff-free to the EU must have a minimum UK content or have been at least partly processed in the UK. Percy Pigs are made in Germany and sent to the UK for redistribution to British — and French and Irish — M&S stores.
“The scope, ambiguity and complexity around rules of origin impose a tariff burden which will impact British businesses,” said Steve Rowe, M&S chief executive, even if big companies created “time-consuming workarounds”.
So the Parisians who depend on M&S — I count the extra-strong tea bags and the Greenwich Winter Spiced Porter among the irreplaceable items on sale on the Avenue Franklin D Roosevelt — are waiting nervously for what happens next.
Georgina Wright of the Institut Montaigne in Paris says that two decades ago her Brussels-based parents, who liked their digestive biscuits, were dismayed by a round of M&S store closures in Europe. Now she wonders if the temporary absence of M&S sandwiches in Paris risks becoming permanent.
In the end, the chicken tikka crisis comes down to the unique perversity of the Brexit deal. “It is,” says Ms Wright, “the first trade agreement in history that seeks to raise trade barriers rather than reduce them.”