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What do French expat MPs do?

Connexion talks to two of France's new MPs who look after constituents living abroad.

A NEW campaign is under way for dedicated MPs to serve the interests of British expats. A petition has gathered 1,400 signatures protesting the fact that British subjects lose the right to vote after 15 years abroad. (Sign the petition here.)

The UK is now setting up an all-party commission in the House of Lords to look into possible changes to expat voting for Britons. Special UK MPs could help address some objections to life-long voting for British expats expressed by some peers in recent debates during an unsuccessful attempt to abolish the 15-year rule.

Most European countries – as well as America – allow expats to vote for the rest of their lives. French people maintain the right to vote in France however long they have been away (établis hors de France).

Not only do French expats have the right to vote but, since last year, they also have 11 directly elected MPs representing their interests in parliament. This is in addition to 12 senators who represent them in the upper house and who are elected by the Assemblée des Français de l’Etranger, a consultative body which also represents the interests of French people living abroad.

Six of the 11 MPs represent French expats living in Europe, two of them look after those in the US and Canada, and then there is one each for Asia, Africa and Australia.

The French government says that 1.6 million French expats are registered with consulates around the world. This figure only accounts for those people who have actually registered, and there is no legal obligation to do so unless you want to vote. The government estimates that the real figure is probably more like 2.3 million.

This is a very different picture to British expats. The campaigning website estimates that there are 5.5 million British expats through-out the world, although it concedes that very few of them either vote or appear to want to vote.

The UK lacks accurate information on numbers of expats in specific countries because most do not register

Our role is vital, say new French députés who cross borders

Samantha David asks two MPs who represent French expats living abroad about the importance of their jobs
Axelle Lemaire is the Socialist French MP for the UK, Ireland, Scandinavia, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

What does your job entail?
Three days a week I sit in parliament and on various committees in Paris. The risk of a spilt between the north and the south of EU means a lot of work. I live in London, which is in my constituency, but I travel regularly to other cities and countries, and wherever I go I hold ad hoc surgeries.

I also hold regular surgeries in the UK, but it’s frustrating to have such a large constituency. It makes it difficult to meet constituents, especially those living in country districts, so we’re setting up a system to organise virtual surgeries via Skype, and I hope that improves the situation.

It is interesting how French expats, including me, are influenced by their host countries. After 12 years here, I feel very much a Londoner. I tend to see things in comparison with what’s going on in other countries and that means I take an added international perspective back to the debate in Paris.

How do you help French expats?
Education and the French language are the things I get asked about most. French families want their children either to go to a French school or to at least learn French. The French and the UK education systems are very different and they want to be sure their children could fit back into school in France.

They also want their children to be able to speak to their French grandparents, for example. So parents often are looking for language support; activities, distance learning, associations, Saturday morning classes. I try to put people in touch so they can set up ways of teaching French.

Taxation is also key. French expats have an irrational fear of being heavily taxed even though they live abroad. I help people with the fiscal arrangements between France and Denmark, which are unfair and can result in paying tax twice. So I’m working on that situation to see if we can solve it quickly.

The other area of common concern is EU mobility; there are still many barriers. Diplomas and professional qualifications are not always recognised, professional experience abroad isn’t always taken into account. Exporting pensions and social security rights can be a nightmare. The EU is working on closer integration but people don’t understand what this could do for them, the problems it could solve for them.

What can you not do?
Sometimes people don’t realise that I’m not an Irish or a British MP. I can’t intervene in British government. I can talk with British politicians, I can explain what’s happening to my constituents, but I can’t intervene politically on their behalf.

What sorts of issues are you working on now?
I’m working on the reform of French consuls. I could contest the price of French passports, for example, or ask to keep the French cultural institutes open.

Why is it important for expats to have their own Mps?
It would be very strange for them not to have any political representation in the 21st century. It’s a question of democracy, and it brings an international view to political debate in France. It’s important that expats have someone to help them if they get stuck in a problem with no solution. I’m not a diplomat, I don’t represent France, I just defend my constituents in individual situations.

Have you had any triumphs?
It’s early days, but I have already made a small difference. In order to receive their state pensions, retired French expats have to prove they’re still alive – sometimes 2-3 times a year – which is onerous. But I managed to get that changed so that they only have to do it once a year and am working on making it possible to do this online, which should make life easier for a lot of people.

Philip Cordery is the Socialist MP for Benelux
(Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg)

What does your job entail?
Well, as an MP a lot of my work is the same as any other MP: I’m involved in legislating on all issues. The difference is the issues. My constituents are concerned about schooling, exporting social security rights, and pension entitlements when you’ve worked in more than one country. There is EU regulation on this, there isn’t one body which coordinates it, so claiming pensions from multiple member states can be complicated and difficult, and I can help people with this.

How do you help expats?
This is a trans-border constituency and I can facilitate life for people who live in one country and work in another. Exporting social security rights and professional qualifications, for example. Expats aren’t all millionaires, they’re working people, families and students. People move abroad for all sorts of reasons, so they have problems like losing their jobs. It isn’t always easy to get information when you’re abroad, so we act as a bit of an information bureau. Also, we try to import best practice into the French political debate. For example, the debate on gay marriage. This has been legal for 10 years in Holland and Belgium, so I have been able to report back to Paris on how gay marriage has worked here.

What can you not do?
We can’t help with problems related to the law of the country people live in. We can try to write to officials on their behalf but, of course, people have to obey the law of the land in which they live.

What sorts of issues are you working on now?
Gay marriage, Croatia joining the EU this summer, professional mobility, making it easier to get professional qualifications recognised, and European fiscal issues.

Why is it important for expats to have their own Mps?
In the past, expats have not been represented, but they deserve political representation just like everybody else. They shouldn’t disappear from the democratic fabric. And expats are an increasing demographic, particularly in Europe. It isn’t just a question of big firms sending people abroad, a whole new generation of expats is growing up in the EU today.

Have you had any triumphs?
Triumphs is a strong word, but I was pleased recently when, during the debate in the French parliament on investment banking legislation, I put forward an amendment on trans-border facilities which was accepted. I think this amendment will make it easier for trans-frontier expats in my constituency.

Photo: Luc Legay/Flickr

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