The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How French expats in Washington are preparing for an election back home

The D.C. campaign committee for La République En Marche meet in March to discuss strategy for getting the party’s candidates elected to the European Parliament in May. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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One evening in late March, about 20 activists gathered at a cafe in Dupont Circle to discuss their campaign strategy for an upcoming election, in which thousands of Washington-area residents are eligible to cast ballots. How can we best get out the vote? What happens if a new party enters the race? How do we counter the far right?

It was shaping up to be one of the more important elections of recent years. What election might that be, you ask? Not the one that will decide who controls the Virginia legislature. That’s in November. And despite the growing horde of presidential candidates, the Iowa caucuses are not until February. No, the people gathered at the cafe weren’t Bernie Bros and they weren’t wearing MAGA hats. The voters they were seeking to influence weren’t even American, but French.

Ever since a 2008 reform came into effect, French expats have had an intriguing political relationship to their home country. In elections for the French National Assembly, overseas citizens now vote for candidates to represent them where they live. French residents of the United States and Canada, for instance, have a representative in the 577-member assembly — as do French voters in 10 other overseas constituencies.

The day of the meeting in Dupont Circle, a different type of campaign was on the agenda: the election for the European Parliament, set for May 26. French expats do not have specific representatives in the European Parliament; like all French voters, they cast ballots for a party’s list, with seats allotted based on how many overall votes the party wins. Still, France’s system of representation in the National Assembly gives expats a more relevant stake in their country’s politics — and arguably shapes their involvement in all elections.

Everyone in attendance at the meeting was a partisan of La République En Marche (LREM), France’s governing party. They sat around a long oval table filled with croissants, cafe au lait and policy documents. There were college students and economists, policy wonks and retirees, some wearing jeans or spring dresses, others still spiffy in their work clothes. They spoke in French about politics and strategy, occasionally lapsing into English.

Béatrice Leydier, a young employee of an international-development NGO, urged the committee to do outreach with families whose children go or went to Rochambeau, the French international school in Bethesda, Md. Laughing, she recalled leafleting before the 2017 presidential and parliamentary elections outside a local French bakery on weekends, where she had gone in hopes of finding French people.

This year’s European elections are important for many reasons, some of the LREM supporters told me. In the wake of Brexit and often virulent anti-European Union sentiment across the continent, the key issue, at least symbolically, is the survival of the 28-nation union. “Many far-right nationalist parties in Europe tap into long-standing fears about globalization and a dilution of national identity, and are hostile to immigration, Islam and the E.U. itself,” said Kaltoum Maroufi-Colle, an art teacher at Montgomery College.

“We want to improve the E.U., but the nationalists have no vision for Europe and don’t believe in the E.U.,” Guillaume Deybach, the chief executive of a local insurance company, said as he sipped a glass of red wine.

“We’re in a bubble here,” cautioned Jeremy Lagelee, a young lawyer who recently moved back to Paris. “President Macron is very popular here.” Lagelee recalled finding almost no supporters of the far-right and far-left candidates when he campaigned for LREM in Washington in 2017.

Indeed. Although Emmanuel Macron has been beset with “yellow vest” protesters in recent months, he was a big favorite of the 160,000 French nationals in America, and in Washington especially. He won more than 92 percent of the D.C.-area vote in the second, decisive round of the 2017 election, when his opponent was Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front. By contrast, in France, Macron won 66.1 percent.

Alexandre Kleitman, who co-directs LREM’s Washington “committee” with Leydier, said they would try to reach the more than 15,000 French voters in the D.C. region mostly through social media and existing networks. (The party has 17 committees working for it in the United States. Other French political parties also have committees, although they are fewer and far less active.) But turning out the vote for European Parliament seats can be tough because that election draws less attention than French parliamentary ones. In 2014, during the last campaign for the European Parliament — where France currently has 74 of 751 seats — turnout among French voters in the United States was only about 10 percent. Compare that to the 2017 presidential election, when voter turnout among U.S.-based French nationals was 44 percent, according to France-Amérique, a magazine published by the French Embassy.

Laurence Sage, a retired World Bank employee living near Friendship Heights, likes France’s post-2008 practice of electing overseas representatives to the National Assembly. “We need a representative who is conscious of matters that concern those of us with a foot in both continents,” Sage explained. Nabil Bessaha, a 45-year-old in North Bethesda who has spent most of his working life in D.C., added, “We want to make sure that France doesn’t treat us like second-class citizens.”

“French living abroad have different issues from those living in France,” Roland Lescure, the representative for the United States and Canada in the French National Assembly, told me from Paris. “They’re concerned about things like what benefits can they qualify for, funding for overseas French schools, and moving in and out of the country.”

Lescure, 52, was just another French expat when he was elected in 2017. He now represents one of the world’s geographically largest political constituencies, stretching from Puerto Rico to Yukon. A financier in Montreal whose parents had been Communists, he had never been a politician, but like many LREM candidates, he was seduced by Macron’s potential to alter the French political landscape. “French politics needed a change,” he said. “The usual suspects had been around too long, and many of us wanted to break the old left-right divide.”

Lescure not only represents his U.S. and Canadian constituents but also chairs a parliamentary economic-affairs committee, focusing on making France more competitive and business-friendly. “It’s a pretty fast pace,” he said of his job. “I make about 15 trips a year” to Washington and elsewhere in North America.

Back in Dupont Circle, Deybach slyly reflected on the benefits of being a Frenchman voting in Washington. Because overseas French are exempt from most French taxes if they spend more than six months of the year outside of France, he said: “Unlike D.C. residents, who have taxation without representation, we have representation without taxation.”

Andrew L. Yarrow is a former New York Times reporter and historian.
He is the author of “Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life.”

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