The “Third France”…

A revision of the French Constitution in July 2008 brought the possibility for French citizens living outside France to elect eleven legislators for the National Assembly, the lower chamber of the French Parliament. The coming general elections in France will see this election happening for the first time: before that, French citizens abroad were represented by an ad hoc assembly.

As a French citizen living outside France, I received last week the presentation papers and programs of the 17 candidates of the third voting region (Northern Europe, Baltic States, Britain, Ireland). Five things came to mind:

  • First of all, the discourse most candidates share about the nature of the political link between expatriates and “France”. The “Third France” referred to in this post’s title is used as a rhetorical figure by several candidates: the first France would be the metropolis, the second one the inhabitants of ultramarine “départements“, and the third one the 2 millions or so expatriates. The purported link here is that French expatriates remain “politically” French, and retain a link to France’s polity. This assumption is interesting, and not a little paradoxical in times when the “integration” of foreign citizens in France is considered so important. I would be curious to know, 1. exactly how much it reflects the reality of expat feelings, and 2. what kind of change it marks with past practices and perceptions on these French citizens living abroad.
  • Programs are quite specific, and mostly mirror things interesting expatriates: no taxing for French citizens living abroad, better rules for dual nationals, improve French-speaking teaching abroad, simplify the bureaucracy for family matters, etc. This is political discourse for a specific, small interest group. Most candidates also insist on better conditions for expats coming back to France: here again the assumption is that the expat is a small piece of political France, that should be treated as such, and will eventually come back to where it belongs.  How much is this based on an actual knowledge of the expatriates?
  • Most of the candidates in my voting region emphasize in their program and their presentation their anchor in Britain – which is normal, since most French citizens and dual nationals in this region live there. Amongst the Nordic countries, Norway and Sweden are the ones that are the best taken into account.
  • Some parties seem to take this expatriate vote more seriously than others. The Front National candidate, for example, must be quite certain that he will not be elected by a population less open to the FN’s discourse than others. He thus presents the same program than the FN’s national electoral platform, without the specific policy points other candidates emphasize. This brings paradoxes: how, for example, does the FN candidate intend to convince people living outside France to vote for a program of “ending all immigration, legal and clandestine”? How does that happen without ending as well all “e”-migration?
  • There is a fascinating undergrowth of independent candidates, ranging from the serious to the amusing to the complete wacko. This is specific to French general elections, but in this case it is magnified by the fascinating personal trajectories of some of the candidates. Apart from that, the general elections bring out all the undercurrents of French political life, with an emphasis on centrists and liberals.

Finally, this election is an interesting occasion to think about the voting behavior of French “expatriates” (a relatively new phenomenon). This question triggered some debates during the presidential election (as Arun Kapil reminds us here), and there has been a measure of discussion on the opportunity of expatriate vote and “expat” voting behavior (See for example this blogpost by the sociologist Cedric Pellen, and this one, gathering some material and a short history of the question). There are very interesting questions of political and national identity involved here, as well as questions of international relations. The way “expat” figures have been used in French political debates would be an interesting subject: the bad fiscal “exilé“, the liberal tycoon working in the City, the clever entrepreneur in the Silicon Valley, the cosmopolitan artist, etc. The way expats themselves feel about and relate to their “country of origin” would be interesting to study as well.Pellen refers to ongoing researches on this subject, which we will be following with interest.

Finally, the debate on these questions has been quite distinct from the debate on immigration – despite the obvious link between both. Would “expats” be good border-crossing folks, while migrants would be bad ones?

Edit: A series of articles by Le Monde on the subject:

http://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2012/05/26/les-legislatives-passent-les-frontieres_1707874_823448.html

http://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2012/05/25/rates-techniques-pour-le-vote-par-internet-des-francais-de-l-etranger_1706981_823448.html

http://www.lemonde.fr/politique/breve/2012/05/29/130-000-francais-de-l-etranger-ont-vote-par-internet_1709175_823448.html

Edit bis: Amongst the themes that come back in every programs is taxation for French citizens living abroad. That was one of the talking points of the presidential campaign, and not the most brilliant. Of course the point was to target rich fiscal exiles, those bad boys who live abroad and don’t pay their taxes in France. A few reports have quantified the loss for the state of this “tax exile“, and of course in a presidential campaign particularly nauseous this year, the theme was fair game: you bad fiscal exiles, vous allez voir ce que vous allez voir…

Technically, of course, things are a bit more complex. How do you distinguish a bad fiscal exile and a worthy entrepreneur, a “good expat” who left France to carry the flag abroad and create his/her company? During the campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy used the theme to counter Francois Hollande’s proposal of a 75% tax bracket for particularly high revenues. But debates were high on pathos and low on concrete solutions that would deal with tax exile without hitting indiscriminately all French citizens abroad.

Of course, this theme doesn’t go down very well with French citizens living abroad – which is a problem when you try to sell them candidates. So, looking at the program of the candidates in my voting region, most of them are against “double taxation”, and the “independents” try their best to present the main parties’ candidates as avid  supporters of taxation for “expats” and fiscal exiles alike. This campaign for the voices of French citizens abroad is getting much more interesting than I thought…

Third edit: Here you go:

http://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2012/06/04/francais-de-l-etranger-la-gauche-en-tete-dans-sept-des-onze-circonscriptions_1712154_823448.html

20 to 25% participation…

Two more articles:

http://www.slate.fr/story/57011/deputes-francais-etranger-reste-monde-legislatives

http://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2012/06/05/francais-de-l-etranger-la-gauche-cree-la-surprise-en-devancant-l-ump_1712745_823448.html

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