London calling: France, get your head out of sand
LONDON (Reuters) - Pampered by a profligate state and blind to hard economic truths: that is how many French expatriates who have crossed the Channel to seek job opportunities in London view their compatriots back home as they prepare to elect their president.
Dubbed "Paris-on-Thames" by some British media, London has an estimated 350,000 French residents scattered across the city and working in every sector from finance to fast food. It is the equivalent of France's fifth city after Paris, Marseille, Lyon and Toulouse, if you discount those cities' suburbs.
Reasons for moving to London range from learning English to getting a lucrative job in financial services, or simply to enjoy a diverse, dynamic environment less stifling than Paris.
"People in Paris are not very open-minded. London is a lot more multi-cultural. And let's face it, the job opportunities are much better," said Turpin Senou, a French worker in the City financial district with family roots in Benin, West Africa.
Many French Londoners say France is bent on preserving a cushy but unaffordable lifestyle, and they are deeply unimpressed with what the presidential candidates are proposing.
"They argue about things like halal meat. It's populist nonsense. The real problem is the economic crisis and they're not saying anything convincing about how to sort it out," said Silene Sashugba, an acupuncturist.
A row over warning labels on meat prepared under Muslim halal rules dominated early stages of the campaign.
Sashugba plans to vote for Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande, but she is not enthused.
More than 77,500 French Londoners are registered to vote with the consulate, and many others may travel home to cast their ballots. The presidential election will take place in two rounds on April 22 and May 6 while the legislative elections are scheduled for June 10 and 17.
In the past there was a single polling station in London, at the main French school, but this year there will be three.
RIGHT IN RETREAT
Hollande made a campaign visit on February 29, while conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy is bombarding expatriates with emails promising more places in French schools abroad. Education is the number one issue for French Londoners desperate to get their children into over-subscribed French schools.
But the voters Sarkozy is courting do not seem inclined to focus only on their narrow interests. Frederique Shaw, a public relations executive, frets about how she will get her young daughter Heloise into school, but when it comes to the election she frets more about the future of her home country.
"I'm really worried about the health of France. I feel an enormous responsibility to vote but I'm afraid of voting for the wrong person. Who will be brave and do the right thing?" said Shaw, who has not yet decided who will get her vote.
Pascal Grierson, CEO of French Radio London which has about 75,000 listeners a week, says there is a lot of buzz around the election but little enthusiasm for the candidates.
"There's a lot of dissatisfaction with Sarkozy and what he's delivered, or failed to deliver, balanced with the fact that people want to believe in Hollande and want to believe that he's the man for the job but are struggling with his believability and credentials," said Grierson.
In past decades, expatriate voters were far more right-leaning than French society at large. In 1981, when Socialist challenger Francois Mitterrand won the presidency, his score among voters in London was less than 30 percent.
But over time, as the community has grown and diversified, voting patterns have fallen into line with the national average. In the 2007 election, Sarkozy won the London vote with a score that was almost identical to the national result.
A community that used to be made up largely of diplomats, bankers and business executives has burst out of its original heartland in affluent South Kensington. Now, the sound of French can be heard in every corner of London and French professionals can be found everywhere from hospitals to hotels.
"These developments suggest that Hollande should do well in London this time," said Philippe Marliere, a professor of politics at University College London.
In any case, while many of these French residents embrace London's economically liberal, hire-and-fire culture for themselves, few have a black-and-white position on the relative merits of the broader French and British economic models.
Britain's budget deficit is hovering around 9 percent of GDP, compared with about 5 percent in France. Inequalities between the highest and lowest earners are greater in Britain than in France. And few people either side of the Channel would dispute that the French health system is better - albeit at the cost of a huge funding deficit - and many expats sneak back home when they need non-urgent treatment.
The difference right now, say many French Londoners, is that Britain is tackling its problems with an aggressive austerity program, while France is not prepared to give anything up.
"The French model is incredibly protective. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but if people want to keep that model they need to realize it has a cost," said Sandrine Tobelem, a senior quantitative analyst at a London-based hedge fund.
CITY UNDER ATTACK
The French are ubiquitous in the City, particularly in fields such as equity derivatives where the top-notch mathematical skills of graduates from France's prestigious "Grandes Ecoles" colleges give them a competitive advantage.
While many of them are disappointed with Sarkozy, few have warmed to Hollande, who wants to impose a 75-percent tax rate on those earning more than 1 million euros a year and once said on live television that he "doesn't like the rich".
In his first major campaign speech, Hollande declared that finance was his enemy.
"It's absurd. What are we going to do, start bartering carrots and potatoes?" said Tobelem. No fan of Sarkozy either, she plans to vote "blanc", which means she will cast her vote but will not choose any of the candidates.
Drawn to London a decade ago by a job offer from an American bank, she says there have been abuses in the financial services industry and better regulation is needed. But she says Hollande, Sarkozy and other candidates are using bankers as scapegoats while failing to address broader problems.
"My husband and I both lost our jobs during the crisis. The state unemployment benefit was 76 pounds a week which is a pittance compared with what you get in France. But we found new jobs really quickly whereas in France it's much harder. There's a lack of flexibility and dynamism there," she said.