'Paris on Thames'
You can make out the figure of the French businessman in the distance, armed with a national newspaper. You can smell the sweet aroma of baguettes and fresh croissants. Yet, our location, which has been accorded the title of ‘sixth biggest town in France’, is far from the Seine – in fact it borders the river Thames! Welcome to one of the most 'chic' of London’s boroughs, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Every Français on the street has their opinion on the presidential elections. At the bookshop there are mixed views. Some confide their mistrust of the socialist candidate who will lead France to ruin, while others believe in the change that the party will bring. Between the épicierie, fromagerie, boulangerie and the French lycée Charles de Gaulle, the political debate bubbles. People hail the dynamism of the current president, while being plagued with the same doubts about a political debate which lacks strength and doesn’t really deal with the issues which are important to French people today.
'La France Fort' overseas
Emmanuelle Savarait, centrist UMP ('Union pour un Mouvement Populaire') candidate for the legislatives in Northern Europe is fighting for his party’s vote on the streets of the ‘big smoke’. For the first time, thanks to a constitutional revision made during Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2008 government, French nationals living abroad can elect 11 deputees (French MPs) to represent them this year. With 70, 000 voters in London, this initiative represents a significant advantage in favour of the president. According to Edouard Courtial, secretary of State for French nationals abroad, Nicolas Sarkozy is without a doubt, 'the president who is most likely to have attracted the attention of French people outside of France'. As well as its initiatives for the schooling of French children abroad, the UMP wants to highlight its policies in this area, in particular through the creation of a new website aimed at expatriates, ‘La France Forte à L’étranger’ (France, Strong Abroad) and emphasizes once more that, 'this is a diplomatic tool, an infallible link with our country and francophone culture, as well as a deciding factor in establishing the PME abroad'. A statement which chimes well with Emmanuelle Savarit’s campaign slogan, 'Être un Français de l’étranger, en France, ça compte' ('if you’re French and living abroad, in France you count').
Yet, François Hollande, always a favourite in the polls, isn’t about to cede any territory; he even went to schmooze the expatriates in London last February. Invited for a roast beef dinner at Westminster Palace by the British leader of the opposition, Ed Milliband, the socialist candidate has also been one for getting into bed with the ‘Frenglish’ subsection of the electorate. This trip was just as Axelle Lemaire, the socialist candidate in the parliamentary elections for Northern Europe, had previously confided, 'the French people living in the UK are much more than rich traders. They are made up of a majority of young people, of whom a third work in the public sector, notably in education.' It’s on this group of voters that François Hollande hopes to make an impact, in contrast to the president-candidate who, during his last trip, focused predominantly on addressing the financial centre of the capital.
Paradox or not, these expatriates left France for a reason. Whether this was financial or educational, or simply a question of opportunity, something was missing in L’Hexagone. Some of these expatriates see the UK as merely a temporary place of residence where they go to work. Such is the case for Christophe Chaillet, directeur de ingénierie patrimoniale (director of wealth planning) at HSBC France who appeared in French newspaper, Les Echos. On the other hand, London’s current economic climate is certainly thought to evoke more faith than its French neighbour’s, which is why London represents such an important political battle ground for the two 2012 campaign favourites.
The presidential campaign is now, in effect, being fought out on the international scene, following support shown to Nicolas Sarkozy by Angela Merkel and David Cameron. This in turn prompted Hollande to attempt to woo the opposition in neighbouring Germany, Italy and the UK. But will this work to the socialist’s advantage? Pre-election polls suggest that votes are divided, between those who are disappointed by the president, and residents of South Kensington who aren’t particularly in favour of François Hollande’s agenda, yet would like to see a change. The lack of choice on offer for French people abroad, as for those at home, seems to be the real issue surrounding this election. In short, there is no candidate who embodies the ideal president.
Whatever the reason, this growing number of expatriates clearly suggests that there are new considerations that France and its leaders will have to respond to, taking into accounts French people needs wherever they may be in the world, particular in a time of economic crisis. Preserving a sense of national identity and togetherness across borders, is the challenge that comes hand in hand with the French presidential and parliamentary elections of 2012 - even if this does means winning over citizens of France’s old enemy across the La Manche!