Senator Olivier Cadic was among the signatories to a recent Le Monde opinion column defending French expatriates after tougher rules were proposed during debates on the 2023 budget law.
Several opposition MPs wanted them to have to visit a consulate annually and to have to systematically declare their worldwide income to France, as Americans do to the US.
Mr Cadic thinks France’s system of representation for its expatriates is the best in the world but he was unhappy at the proposals – which were not accepted – and the way he says those MPs caricatured the French abroad as moving to avoid French tax.
How French abroad are represented
France divides the world into constituencies covered by 11 MPs for its citizens abroad.
It also has 12 senators, a minister and a representative body, l’Assemblée des français de l’étranger, made up of delegates from many local ‘councils’ attached to consulates.
None of these exists for Britons or Americans, though the US has an informal group of congressmen called Americans Abroad Caucus, who are interested in issues related to them.
Mr Cadic, 60, said he has heard no suggestion that any of this should change, but the French abroad nonetheless face certain complications.
For example, for presidential elections, other than by proxy, they have to vote in person at a consulate – though Mr Cadic noted they can vote online for legislative and local elections, “which is very good”.
They pay French property taxes and income tax on rental and government pension income, without benefiting from allowances restricted to residents.
Meanwhile, French lycées abroad are much more costly than most private schools in France – for example, almost €9,000/year at the school in London’s South Kensington.
The French in the UK are also affected by some post-Brexit changes, such as having to pay a fiscal intermediary if they sell a French property.
French abroad for many reasons
The Le Monde piece said the French move for a variety of “good reasons” and come from all walks of life.
Mr Cadic combines his senator role with publishing translations of francophone comic books Lucky Luke and Blake and Mortimer, a business run day-to-day by his wife Valérie.
“The books go down well in the UK. The British have got used to them now,” he said. “I used to meet lots of Britons at trade shows who were frustrated because they saw all these comic books in France that they couldn’t read because they didn’t speak French. They were happy we started doing it.”
Unlike the MPs, who have constituencies, he as a senator has responsibilities all over the world.
“Today I’m in England, but last week I was between Atlanta and New York. Before that, I was at Oran [Algeria] and next week I’ll be in Doha [Qatar],” he said.
Mr Cadic said the extremes on the political spectrum try to make capital out of the French abroad, whether it is claiming – wrongly – that they pay no French tax, or suggesting they should be stopped from leaving.
The Le Monde opinion piece aimed to counter this, he said.
Universal taxation for French abroad ‘would be unbearable’
He said left-wing party La France Insoumise is keen on the ‘universal taxation’ idea. “It would be unbearable. It causes a lot of complications for Americans, but the US also has a different vision of the world from us.”
It could even mean French people abroad who have never lived in France having to declare due to their inherited nationality, he said.
“Some don’t even speak French, so they’d have serious problems, and it would undermine our bilateral tax treaties.”
They are ambassadors for France
He added: “The French abroad contribute to France’s image, they pass on the language and our culture and they contribute by their work. They support France’s economic development, boost exports and spread awareness of our technology and savoir-faire.
“They have also often given up some benefits of living in France. Not all countries have the same health and safety conditions as France, the same education, etc. They are ambassadors for France, sometimes like explorers scouting out new territories. Others work with NGOs with people in need.”
He added that the French abroad are generally known for wanting to integrate and adapt, apart from among retirees in certain countries, such as Portugal or Morocco.
The young suffer the most due to Brexit
In terms of demographics, things are changing with Brexit, as fewer young French people can come to the UK to find work easily.
Pre-Brexit they were numerous, with around a third staying on after three years, a third going back, and a third going elsewhere, often to other English-speaking countries such as Australia and Canada.
“Those who have suffered most are the young, as they used to be the most mobile, coming over to Britain to find work and learn English. A member of my family said their niece was thinking of coming over with a friend, and that they would rent a flat and look for work to improve their English but I had to say that’s finished now.
“People are forced to go to Dublin instead, but that’s causing other issues over there, for rents, for example.”
In universities, he said EU cooperation has been replaced by bilateral arrangements between institutions, which has avoided the British institutions being “catastrophically” cut off.
“On the whole, though, the ‘global Britain’ idea has ended up more as ‘local Britain’,” he said.
He said the closure of London’s Charles Péguy centre, which used to help young people who “arrived with their rucksack on their back” was sad.
“It was a godsend to the hotels and restaurants, but now some have to close certain days due to lack of staff.”
The Parapluie Flam network of French mother-tongue Saturday schools, which has around 50 UK branches, is also suffering from a lack of teachers.
Meanwhile, fewer French drivers want to deliver to the UK and “risk getting stuck on the way back”, so transport between Ireland and the continent has increased, he said.
The EU is not trying to weaken the UK’s economy
Brexit and tougher immigration rules had backfired in some other ways.
“It’s been good business for people-traffickers on the Channel, who can charge more than before.
“We now have a real problem with migrants at Calais, and up the coast up to Germany.”
He added that those who do cross to the UK can end up exploited in badly-paid work.
He was recently received by British MPs and he asked what the benefits of Brexit were, but they said it was “too early”.
“I only see negatives. I can’t sell on the net into Europe any more, it would cost the clients too much. And I have extra costs when the books arrive from the continent.
“The MPs said they had more ‘sovereignty’, but I asked how sovereign will they be if the UK collapses economically?”
He also stressed to the MPs that a prosperous UK is in the EU’s interest, and the EU is not trying to weaken the UK’s economy.
Hope is coming back
“The one good thing I can say is that attitudes of the British public towards French people have become much more positive, and it feels like we’ve gone back to how it was before.
“All the nonsense we were facing, where we felt like we were being blamed for certain evils, is over now.
“Taxi drivers are happy to see us again, whereas at the time of the referendum they wouldn’t look at us as they handed back the change.
“The British are starting to realise they are more connected [to the continent] than they realised – that things are missing on the shelves.
“They are opening their eyes and the Brexit mirage is starting to dissipate. Hope is coming back. There’s a real desire to keep in contact and rebuild.”
In praise of bilingual education
Mr Cadic recently helped mark the 10th anniversary of the Collège Français Bilingue de Londres, in the Kentish Town area of north London, where he took part in a school radio broadcast.
The school was originally part of a plan he organised to create 2,500 places in new French schools in London.
A 10-year-old asked him what he thought of bilingual education. “I said ‘You’re 10, the age of the collège, which I worked for. It was the first of its kind that we set up in both languages.
“You were born with it. So you are the answer to your question. I wanted to be able to educate more children, so the fact you’re here and you’re happy with it – I couldn’t ask for more.”