On March 15, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign office rushed out a two-minute video message to French overseas voters, seeking to end a kerfuffle over his proposal to tax citizens living abroad.
The message from Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Sarkozy’s campaign spokeswoman, sought to assure them that the new levy he’d announced three days earlier would only affect a small number of tax exiles.
“Expatriates don’t have to worry,” she said. “You represent France abroad and the fruits of your labor won’t be affected.”
Sarkozy isn’t the only one courting the 2.5 million French living overseas. Socialist contender Francois Hollande campaigned Feb. 29 in London, whose 300,000 French inhabitants would make it France’s sixth-largest city. Hollande followed in the footsteps of Sarkozy, who visited “Paris-on-Thames” in the 2007 campaign. The number of overseas French has doubled in the past decade, forcing candidates to pay them greater attention.
About 500,000 people have registered to cast their ballots from outside France this year, up from 250,000 in the 2007 vote and 125,000 in 2002, according to Herve Heyraud, the publisher of LePetitJournal.com, an online publication for French expats.
The first round of the French election is set for April 22, with the two leading contenders in the vote squaring off on May 6. An OpinionWay-Fiducial survey for lepetitjournal.com and TV5Monde, the only poll taken of overseas voters, showed they’d back Sarkozy over Hollande by 51 percent to 49 percent in the decisive second round next month.
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Sarkozy won the overseas vote by 54 percent to 46 percent against Socialist Segolene Royal in 2007. About 37 million people voted in 2007, with Sarkozy winning by a margin of about 2.19 million votes.
The erosion of support for Sarkozy overseas is a sign that the voting intentions of expats are beginning to resemble those of mainland France, Heyraud said in a telephone interview.
All polls taken in France have shown Hollande beating Sarkozy in the second round, with his lead at about six to eight percentage points.
“Traditionally, the French overseas voted overwhelmingly for the right because they’d gone abroad to work for big French companies and had a traditional pro-business viewpoint,” Heyraud said. “Now there are many more young people who go abroad on their own to seek all sorts of new experiences. Plus, with the Internet they stay much more informed and attached to what’s going on in France.”
Any French citizen registering to vote at a consulate leaves their e-mail address, and has to check a box if they don’t want to receive electoral propaganda. Few do.
Fabienne Ottridge, 35, who has lived in Birmingham, England for seven years and works in internal communications for a steel company, says she got e-mails from Sarkozy, Hollande and Communist Party-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon, asking for her vote.
She says she’s leaning toward voting for Hollande. Ottridge says she has the same interest in jobs and the French economy as voters at home because she intends to eventually move back to France.
Still, she said she finds it “disappointing but understandable” that candidates have focused very little on international affairs.
“It’s been a very Franco-French campaign,” she said.
Candidates have been sending a mix of targeted e-mails and the same ones they’ve sent to voters at home.
Anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen sent an e-mail April 4 telling overseas voters that being “particularly aware of France’s image abroad, you are conscious of a weakened France that every year loses some of its economic, cultural and military might, and no longer responds to your expectations nor those you hope for your children.”
A March 27 e-mail from Hollande also claimed that France’s standing in the world has declined under Sarkozy.
“You have suffered more than others from the degraded image of France, hurt by the policies over the past five years,” he wrote. “You, who represent the values of France, have suffered from a president who doesn’t.”
During his visit to London in February to meet French expats -- many of whom work in the City -- Hollande sought to calm concerns about his stance on finance, which he’d called his “greatest adversary,” by saying “I’m not dangerous.”
The U.K. has the biggest French overseas community, making it a key location to rally voters. Sarkozy went to London in 2007 as he sought to mobilize the group of high-earning expats.
This time around, Sarkozy’s wooing of overseas citizens has been confined to mass messages.
Sarkozy’s e-mails list efforts he’s made for the overseas French since 2007, including increasing by 40 percent to 31,000 the number of students receiving free education in French public schools overseas, and creating 11 seats in parliament for overseas constituencies.
Kosciusko-Morizet says Sarkozy decided against an overseas campaign rally.
“The French are all over the world, so it’s not like you can reach them with one visit,” she said in an interview. “Plus, during his five years as president he’s had many occasions to meet with French abroad.’