December 25, 2011
British expats living on the Costa del Sol or in restored French rural ruins in what is now known as “Dordogne-shire” have often felt they should have their own MP at Westminster, to fight their corner on issues such as pensions, healthcare and how to crawl back home after financial meltdown.
Now, after decades of promises dating back to François Mitterrand, France wants to position itself as a model of expat rights, giving the 2.5 million French people abroad their own MPs for the first time. French officials have sliced the world into 11 constituencies, which will next year give France far-flung politicians including an MP for the US and Canada and an MP for north and east Africa. With the second biggest diplomatic network of embassies and consulates in the world after the US, France now joins a small group of European countries, including Italy, which allows its diaspora to choose its own expat MPs.
Paris’s geographical carve-up has already caused political spats. The Socialist presidential candidate, François Hollande, failed to secure a close aide the candidate’s ticket in north Africa, Christine Lagarde had been tipped as MP for the US before she left for the International Monetary Fund and the industry minister Eric Besson, supposed to be running as MP for Spain, Portugal, Andorra and Monaco, said he wanted to quit politics.
With next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections months away, and a desperate rush to inform French expats they must register to vote before 31 December, London is emerging as a crucial constituency – the closest to Paris and one of the biggest in terms of numbers. The MP for “northern Europe” will represent French people in the UK, Ireland, Scandinavia and the Baltic states. But London is the heart of it, home to around 300,000 of the 400,000 French people in Britain, with so many French expats that it is considered France’s sixth biggest city. Nicolas Sarkozy cemented the political importance of “Paris-on-Thames” during his presidential election campaign in 2007, staging an unprecedented London rally urging people to come home, saying: “France is still your country even if you’re disappointed by it.” To some it seemed as extraordinary as David Cameron taking a campaign battle bus through the villages of expat Brits in western France.