May 18, 2012

French voting in North America


---- — There are reminders out there that the world, or at least a certain stratum of the world, once operated in French.

For centuries considered the language of diplomacy — ambassadors to Paris Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were fluent — French is still an official language of both the United Nations and the Olympics.

It seems the French have never really abandoned the Napoleonic dream of ruling the world. Where once cannons and battleships were the vehicles of French global ambition, now it is the ballot box. As of next week, for the first time ever, French citizens from around the world can vote to elect a deputy to the National Assembly.

As per changes initiated in 2010 by recently defeated French President Nicolas Sarkozy, French election officials divided the world up into 11 districts, each of which gets to send a representative to the 577-seat National Assembly. Canada and the United States have been unified as the constituency of "North America" under the new French electoral map — globe, actually — bearing the presumably prestigious No. 1 designation.

My knowledge of comparative government is limited and dim, but one suspects there are few nations on this planet that enfranchise ex-patriots to this extent. It is an accepted practice that citizens living in a foreign country get to vote for candidates back home, but to elect their own deputy?

(Since 1982, there have been senators representing overseas French citizens but they are elected indirectly through an extra-legislative organization.)

In any event, the race in North America has turned out to be hotly contested. The official list of candidates for No. 1, published this week in time for next week's first round of voting, contains 18 names.

This fierce electoral combat en etranger probably would have escaped much attention in the northern half of this French constituency had not a candidate based in Quebec City surfaced. Christophe Navel, a PhD graduate in education from Laval University who started up a bicycle courier service in the city, is running as an independent candidate, one of eight hopefuls not running on a specific party ticket.

He seems to be the only official candidate based in Canada, which means the other 17 are living somewhere in the United States. Of those, there are candidates for the main political parties in France. For example, the standard-bearer for new French President Francois Hollande's Socialist Party is Corinne Narassiguin, based in New York City.

Originally from Reunion Island, east of Madagascar, the 37-year-old engineer by training now works with a major bank. She's a veteran of French socialist politics, having been elected to the now-abolished assembly of French citizens abroad in 2009.

Narassiguin has been running a real campaign, with visits all over the continent from Las Vegas to Sherbrooke.

Her opponent from Sarkozy's party, Frederic Lefebvre, a former cabinet minister and deputy on French soil, does not appear to be a resident of North America.

The other candidates make an interesting collection of names and allegiances. For example, Carole Granade is running for the MoDem party, Céline Clément for le Front de Gauche, Stéphanie Bowring for le Parti Radical de Gauche. There's Raphael Clayette, running for the Parti Pirate, which stands for the defence of fundamental freedoms.

One Mike Remondeau, a resident of Tampa, is running as an independent.

There are some 160,000 French citizens registered to vote in North America, half of whom reportedly have dual citizenship. In all, about 80,000 French citizens live in Canada, 51,000 or them in Montreal. More than 120,000 live in the United States, 30,000 of whom are listed as residents of New York City. Interestingly, there are more French citizens in Miami (11,300) than Quebec City (10,600).

Results of the election for the French National Assembly should be known after the second round of voting on June 17.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at