Since last June, the party – which has a pro-EU stance – has seen card-carrying members in France treble to more than 300 and says new members are joining at a rate of around two a day.
The party had an inaugural AGM in Paris in February with 20 people present and others taking part over the internet – including former party leader Paddy Ashdown, who spoke to the branch over Apple Facetime.
Branch chairman Paul Fisher, a former navy commander and entrepreneur who has lived in Occitanie since 2010, said: “We were extremely lucky he was able to call in from the House of Lords to give us a boost.
“He is a Francophile and has a ski chalet here. He was very positive and gave us a lot of encouragement.”
Until now, the Lib Dems in France had connected with the national party in the UK via the Brussels and Europe branch, whose chairwoman, Laura Shields, joined the meeting over Skype. Mr Fisher was the party’s ‘national co-ordinator’ before there was a ‘fully-fledged branch’, and visited Brussels to make the arrangements.
He said one reason France is the first is because it is the EU country with the most overseas members – and because Lib Dems here make much use of internet and social media, such as their site libdemsinfrance.fr or their Twitter and Facebook accounts.
However, he said the rise here has been mirrored by a similar boost on the continent generally (to more than 1,000) and the party now has a record overall membership of more than 82,000.
Mr Fisher said: “It’s down to the ‘Brexit effect’ – that the Lib Dems, apart from notably the SNP in Scotland, are the most pro-EU and trying to do what we can to ameliorate the effects of the Brexit vote.”
Unlike a constituency branch in the UK, which supports a particular MP, Mr Fisher said their role is to understand the concerns of members across France, and more widely in the EU. “We are a branch of the Liberal Democratic Party, but rather than representing a certain town we have a bigger parish.
“The biggest impact of whatever happens in the next few years will be felt by Britons on the continent.
“We will also support and campaign for UK Lib Dem MPs, councillors and prospective MPs. You might think we are remote, but we can do a lot of telephone canvassing and fundraising from France.”
The branch is also supporting Brussels and Europe in creating more branches, with ones in the pipeline in Spain, Germany and the Benelux countries, and they are establishing themselves as an association in France.
Apart from their views on Brexit – including backing a ‘softer’ exit if the UK leaves, and maintaining Britons’ residency and healthcare rights – Mr Fisher said the Lib Dems are pushing to end the 15-year voting limit (see below) and are the only party seeking dedicated MPs for Britons abroad.
He added: “We believe Britons abroad should have overseas constituencies, like the French have. There are five-and-a-half million of us – around 8% of the British electorate – and something needs to be done about representing us. If Britons abroad are all enfranchised it’s only logical to have constituencies to support that franchise; it goes hand in glove. Giving people the right to vote doesn’t necessarily mean they will register if they feel dissociated.”
Mr Fisher said they are seeking to create links with centrist parties in France, German liberal party FDP and the ALDE group in the European Parliament, which is headed by Brexit chief negotiator Guy Verhofstadt. “We’re conscious of the fact there needs to be a European vision in terms of our liberal and democratic values,” he said.
The largest UK parties also have overseas branches: Labour International and Conservatives Abroad. See labourinternational.net (the ‘LI near you’ section lists French contacts) and conservativesabroad.org (see ‘Find your representative’).