‘Out of sight, out of mind’: Candidates vie to serve French expats in legislative districts abroad

‘Out of sight, out of mind’: Candidates vie to serve French expats in legislative districts abroad

Politics


Text by:


Grégoire SAUVAGE


5 min

French citizens living abroad have been electing their own lawmakers to France’s lower-house National Assembly since 2012. Eleven of the chamber’s 577 deputies represent French expatriates based in as many districts around the world. Often dual nationals, candidates for these seats are hoping their unusual profiles – with one foot in France and another elsewhere – will win over voters. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at two candidates running to represent French expatriates in Africa.

This June marks the third time France’s expats have gone to the polls for legislative elections. After a five-day window to vote by internet closed on Wednesday, some 1.6 million French voters residing abroad will be called to the polls over the weekend to vote in person. Registered voters can cast their ballots at embassies and consulates on Saturday (in the Americas) and Sunday (in the other districts abroad).

The 11 districts abroad span the planet in constituencies that range from tiny (District 6: Liechstenstein and Switzerland) to massive (District 11: Eastern Europe, Asia, Oceania). Two of the districts encompass French expatriates in Africa: District 9 spans the Maghreb and much of West Africa; Benin, Ghana and Togo are in District 10 along with the rest of Africa and the Middle East.


French residents abroad elect their own lawmakers to the lower-house National Assembly representing 11 districts around the world.
French residents abroad elect their own lawmakers to the lower-house National Assembly representing 11 districts around the world. © FMM Graphic Studio

Political newcomer Ali Camille Hojeij is standing in District 10. Running as an independent, the 36-year-old Franco-Lebanese lawyer nevertheless describes himself as “compatible” with President Emmanuel Macron’s political line. Hojeij says he wants to be the voice of his district’s expatriates, who are “full French citizens but considered as separate”.

“Out of sight, out of mind”, is how Naïma M’Faddel describes it. A candidate for the conservative Les Républicains and close to the party’s 2022 presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse, M’Faddel is standing in District 9. “Politicians come and go, but [the voters] don’t see their problems being solved. Many wonder what purpose there is in going to vote,” she said.  

Indeed, the apparent lack of interest in France’s legislative elections can be seen at the ballot box. Scarcely 20 percent of those registered turned out to vote across the 11 districts in 2017’s legislative first round – less than half the turnout in that election overall.  

One foot in Paris, the other in Africa

Aside from their impression that Paris neglects them, French expatriate voters also feel a sense of injustice fuelled by issues like getting France to recognise pension credits acquired abroad or the fact that expatriates pay into a French social security system they aren’t eligible to benefit from.

“The key government ministry for French residents abroad is Bercy, the Economy and Finance Ministry. And for Bercy, French residents abroad are deserters who have fled their country so they can pay fewer taxes,” said Hojeij.

School fees are another point of contention. Tuition is continually on the rise for expatriates, who – contrary to popular belief – are not all privileged, said M’Faddel. “I want free schooling for [French] children living abroad who attend schools established by France. It’s a matter of equality between citizens and a constitutional principle,” she said.  

“There is a scissor effect: on the one hand, we have school fees that are increasing; on the other, we have local hires that often don’t have the CAPES (secondary-school teaching) diploma and so the quality of teaching is deteriorating,” Hojeij explained. The lawyer defines himself as a pure product of the Agency for French Teaching Abroad (AEFE), which runs a network of 552 schools around the world.  

Born in Bangui in the Central African Republic and the son of a businessman, Houjeij spent his childhood on the African continent before hanging his hat in Paris to study law as an 18-year-old. Today, he claims “sociocultural roots” in Africa and the Middle East, “even though it remains difficult in a district that covers 49 countries”, the political novice recognised.  

To persuade voters, M’Faddel is also emphasising her multicultural path and her links to Morocco. “My brothers and my children live in this district. So the issue of expatriation affects me, too,” said M’Faddel, an essayist and a former elected official in Dreux (central France). Having arrived in France at the age of 8 without receiving any schooling in Morocco, M’Faddel said she “owes France everything”.

Fighting anti-French sentiment in Africa

While making French expatriate voices heard in Paris is a priority for both legislative candidates, M’Faddel and Hojeij also see their role as intermediaries on French foreign policy. That task is all the more important at a time when anti-French sentiment has gone up a notch in several African countries, including the Central African Republic, Mali and Chad.

“French expatriates have a very good reputation and don’t elicit any hostility. The resentment comes from the perception of French policy and manipulations from France’s rivals, Russia in particular,” said Houjeij.

As France’s diplomats rail against a proposed reform that would strip them of their special status, Houjeij holds that a lawmaker with the keys to understand Africa, and with “sociocultural roots” there, could be particularly useful in conducting diplomacy. In his opinion, France and the African continent need interlocutors capable of “advancing the French agenda, but in a manner that is much more respectful of states’ sovereignty”.

M’Faddel, meanwhile, contends that more resources need to go towards fostering relationships. “For the past decade, France has not managed to maintain cultural links between peoples. And the relationships between France and Africa have also been stretched thin on the economic front.” She calls for raising the budgets of cultural institutes and the Francophonie, the international organisation that represents French-speaking countries, “in order to re-establish the fraternal and historical links between Africa and France”.

This article has been adapted from the original in French.


French legislative elections
French legislative elections © FRANCE 24

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