With the General Election in the UK just two weeks away, the voting status of British citizens abroad is once again in the news. We are delighted that Christophe Premat, a French MP representing Northern Europe, agreed to share his views on the much-discussed ‘overseas constituency.’
FBCCI – To many UK readers, the idea of a parliamentary representative for non-resident citizens is an unusual one. How does the French system work?
Christophe Premat: In June 2012, French people abroad were able to vote for their MPs for the first time. Around the world, 11 constituencies were created. Mine is the third constituency with 10 countries: United Kingdom, Ireland, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
To vote, one needs to be 18 and to be registered with the French Consulate on the “Liste Electorale Consulaire”. The MPs for French people abroad vote the laws like the national MPs and take part in the legislative process. The only difference is that they usually have longer distances to travel and the plane becomes the second office. Their constituencies are much larger and as a matter of fact it can be more difficult to meet the French diaspora.
FBCCI – How did you become an « MP » for French voters overseas?
CP: I am the substitute of Axelle Lemaire, who was elected MP for the French residents living in Northern Europe in June 2012. She was appointed Minister for Digital Affairs in April 2014 within Manuel Valls’ Government. In France, you cannot stay a MP when you become a Minister. Your deputy becomes the MP until you return to the Parliament. The main candidate chooses the deputy during the campaign, with a strategic point of view. In my case, I was the Nordic part of the Northern Europe ticket. Axelle Lemaire asked me to become her deputy because of my expertise on French education abroad, which is one of the main concerns for French residents abroad.
FBCCI – How do the concerns of your electorate differ from those of France based voters?
CP: The French electorate abroad is mainly concerned about the fees and the evolution of the French education network abroad, the tax system for the non-residents who own a property in France, and the health and pension system for French people abroad. I also think the French people abroad keep an eye on the French current affairs. They often react on economic or societal issues by comparing with their country political system.
FBCCI – How do you engage with your voters when your constituency is so massive?
CP: Of course, I use the internet and social media (Facebook, Twitter, You Tube). I have a personal website that I update every day, and I have a monthly newsletter that I address to the French people who registered at their local French Consulate. At the same time, relying on the internet is not enough, which is why I also organize ‘phone call surgeries’ to listen to my constituents.
I try to travel every month to one of the countries of my constituency to meet the French community, visit the French schools and meet the French associations as well as my constituents.
FBCCI – Why is it important for overseas residents to have political representation at the Assemblée Nationale?
CP: The constitution gives to the legislator different roles: Legislators vote for bills, control Government’s action and assess public policies.
As for policy making, French people living abroad have their own set of issues on taxes, education, citizenship, welfare, therefore they need their own representatives to highlight their specificities compared to fellow citizens living in France. On many different bills, it is important to adapt national rules to those specific issues. For instance, French television programmes are also broadcast online through web streaming ,however most are not accessible outside of France because they breach copyright protection. Overseas French residents are therefore unable to watch public television even though it is now possible through video on demand (VOD). My colleague Pierre Yves Le Borgn has been working on this issue since his election in 2012.
My aim with my fellow colleagues is to allow access to public television for French living abroad, by amending the future bills the Government is drafting. MPs are also deemed to control the Government’s action: it is thus important for representatives to check how effective policies can be for French living in the United Kingdom or other countries. There are many ways to do so such as being a member of the board of The Agency for French Education Abroad, the government agency taking care of French speaking schools around the world. The parliamentary control over the Government’s action is also necessary when it comes to fiscal matters. Recently, the Court of Justice of the European Union gave a judgment which leads to void a fiscal policy that was meant to tax overseas residents on the selling of their house for the funding of French social security. My colleagues and I are pushing the Government to take notice of this ruling and implement this decision in the next budget bill.
FBCCI -Do you think that non-residents should have equal or greater representation in numerical terms than they do today in the French parliament?
CP: Until 2012, the French diaspora was merely represented in Congress with 12 Senators, members of the upper house of the Parliament of France and 155 counselors from a consultative assembly for French people living abroad. This assembly used to meet twice a year during a week. Senators were indirectly elected by local representatives of French living abroad. For the first time from 2012 until 2014, President Hollande appointed a delegate Minister for the matters of French residents overseas, Hélène Conway-Mouret.
She initiated the law of 22 July 2013 that created 443 local counselors in 130 constituencies that take part in the life of French residents overseas. The law reduced the number of counselors sitting in the assembly of French residents overseas as the goal was to reinforce the presence of counselors in the different countries. The reform was made without increasing the budget. Since 2008 and the constitutional reform, article 24 of the French constitution provides that “French living abroad are represented at the Senate and the Assemblée Nationale”. Members of the Assemblée Nationale are elected by direct universal suffrage in their different constituencies.
This new political representation system gave birth to 11 members of the French National Assembly representing 11 different constituencies from North America to Middle East or Northern Europe, where I am elected. Numerically speaking, I believe today’s representation is probably adequate with 11 members of the French national assembly and 12 members of the Senate.
But there are still many challenges in front of us. The very low voting turnout in most elections since 2012 weakens the argument of having an accurate political representation for French living abroad. We need to prove our relevance by achieving policy ruling in favour of our constituents. In the same spirit I am particularly interested in showing the specificities of the political boundary of the ten countries that are part of my constituency. That is precisely what I am trying to do by drafting this portfolio on French living in Northern Europe. This project aims, through a series of questions directly raised to my constituents, to analyze what is specific to Northern Europeans. Being part of the European Union is one of them but they have other features of their own.
FBCCI – What would be the benefits to the UK of giving their citizens living abroad a voice in national politics?
CP: There are many advantages: living in a globalized world, it has never been more relevant to build bridges with other countries. The United Kingdom has a vivid tradition of expats stemming from the influence the country has in the Commonwealth. There are no better ambassadors than citizens living abroad. In terms of trade and exports, studies have proved that expats develop companies in connection with their motherland. Ireland is the country that is really interested in this system. In order to take advantage of this economic asset, I believe it is important to strengthen the links expats have with their native country. Giving them political representation is then a question of reviving the sense of belonging to their native country.
Living abroad is also an estimable experience that can be brought to national policies. Part of my work at the Parliament is to compare policy making on specific issues of Sweden, United Kingdom, or Finland for example, and to provide those best practices in the national debate.
FBCCI – Why do you think the UK has been unwilling to offer representation to non-residents?
CP: It is hard to speak in the name of others. Moreover, the UK has a larger population living abroad than France and still has very restrictive rules on the voting system for non-residents.
France is probably today the most advanced political system for citizens living abroad. But many other countries are watching us and observe our political system in order to copy it or improve on it. I was invited in January at the House of Commons by members of both Houses from different political parties to explain the roots and evolution of the French system of representation for non-residents. The conference was organized by the association “Irish in Britain”. I exposed the role of MPs and senators for French living abroad and the implementation of electronic voting. Many issues were discussed including the link between political representation and tax liability, terms of organization and cost of elections outside of France, the impact of voters living abroad on the conduct of internal affairs.
The new minister for the Irish diaspora, Jimmy Deenihan, visited France in December to take advices on the reform that the Irish government wants to initiate. I welcomed him at the National Assembly to talk about this issue. In March, I also had the pleasure to welcome the Irish Minister of Jobs, Enterprise and innovation, Richard Bruton, who is interested in the connection between diaspora, business and values. Ireland is engaged in fostering their links with the millions of Irish people living outside of the country. It is very likely that other Governments will achieve similar policies to enable their non-residents to participate in national politics in the near future.
We would like to offer our most sincere thanks to Christophe Premat for agreeing to answer our questions. You can read more about his life as an overseas “Député” via his website here