In Britain, a Tight French Election
French bankers in London, who may dine at the Michelin two-star Connaught restaurant in Mayfair and swim at the nearby Royal Automobile Club on Pall Mall, could soon have a Socialist representing them at the National Assembly in Paris.
France is letting its expatriate citizens take part for the first time in the country’s parliamentary elections after creating 11 constituencies abroad. Socialist party candidate Axelle Lemaire’s chance of victory in the district that includes the U.K. was boosted after François Hollande, who called finance his “greatest adversary,” beat Nicolas Sarkozy in the May 6 election, taking 50.8 percent of the French-in-Britain vote. On June 3, in the first round of voting for the legislature, Lemaire got the most votes. On June 17 she will square off against Emmanuelle Savarit of the center-right UMP party, which lost the presidency to Hollande.
“Because the presidential election was not even a month ago, the logic would be that voters confirm their choice, meaning the Socialist candidate stands a good chance to win,” says Leendert de Voogd, Brussels-based head for politics and social affairs at research firm TNS. French financial industry executives say a Socialist victory would be a surprise, because they had assumed those who’d left France were fleeing a system of big spending, benefits, and taxes at home for a more entrepreneurial milieu. French nationals registered to vote in Britain, who previously had only been able to take part in presidential elections, backed Sarkozy and his predecessor, the conservative Jacques Chirac, in the three ballots before the latest election.
“Maybe the French living in the U.K. are attached to the French system and to a more favorable welfare system after all,” says Pierre-Antoine de Selancy, who moved to London with his wife and three children in 2010 to start a private equity firm, 17Capital. “If you’ve moved to London, it’s not because you were counting on any safety net or substantial benefits.”
A victory for the Socialist candidate would show that Britain’s French community, once dominated by math whizzes and dealmakers who worked in finance, has grown broader in political outlook as it has increased in size. There are between 300,000 and 400,000 French people in the U.K., according to French embassy estimates, which would rank it as the sixth- or seventh-largest French city. Their numbers began swelling in the mid-90s, when the cross-Channel Eurostar rail service opened, linking Paris and London in under three hours.
Lemaire, 37, a mother of two, has lived in London for the past 10 years and is running in a constituency that includes the U.K., Ireland, Denmark, Finland, and the Baltic states. Hollande took 53 percent of the vote in the district in the presidential runoff.
The U.K. has traditionally been a stronghold of Sarkozy’s UMP party. In 2007, Sarkozy beat his Socialist rival, Ségolène Royal, by more than 6 percentage points in the U.K. “Now the sociological makeup of the French who live here has changed,” Lemaire says. “There are fewer traditional expatriates, fewer City workers. I meet people with all sorts of jobs and all sorts of backgrounds.” She is counting on the newer categories of residents to deliver her victory.
For many French workers in the City, Lemaire represents policies they reject. Yann Duchesne, a private equity manager who has settled in London and is a member of the private Royal Automobile Club, says he will vote for UMP candidate Emmanuelle Savarit because he does “not want Hollande to implement his economic measures.” Taxes are a preoccupation for the finance industry voters. Hollande has pledged to renegotiate France’s accords with Switzerland, Belgium, and Luxembourg so he can more easily tax French expats. He plans a 75 percent levy on incomes of more than €1 million ($1.3 million).
In London, where the majority of Britain’s French residents live, Sarkozy beat Hollande by 725 votes, helped by support in South Kensington, an expensive and popular area for bankers and wealthy families, while residents in the less posh northern part of the capital voted for his opponent. French residents of Edinburgh and Glasgow voted overwhelmingly for Hollande, carrying the U.K. for the Socialists.
The anti-Sarkozy vote that bolstered Hollande in the presidential election will not repeat itself in the legislative ballot, according to UMP candidate Savarit, like Lemaire a mother of two. “There are some champagne Socialist expatriates in London whose school tuitions and rents are paid for by their employers, but I have a hard time believing the French in the U.K. overall are on the left,” she says. “They value work [and] risk-taking and oppose taxes on residents abroad. These aren’t leftist behaviors.”