Votes for foreigners!

So the French Senate has voted to give foreign residents the right to vote in local elections. It’s a question adopted as a human rights issue by the French left, who say anyone who pays taxes should have a right to help decide how they are spent, and celebrated by left wing papers like Liberation, who dedicated their front page yesterday to portraits of campaigners who have lived here and paid taxes for decades without ever being able to vote. For the right, it’s equally clear cut ; voting and citizenship should go together. It’s an issue that divides voters neatly according to political allegiance; 61% of the French back the move, but 54% of the ruling UMP’s supporters disagree.

It’s not quite as simple as that though; the vote is entirely symbolic, as the measure will not become law unless the socialists win the next election, and it’s been denounced as electioneering by the right; their argument, presented by Sarkozy’s cheerleading paper le Figaro, is that the left shouldn’t be using their control of the Senate as a campaigning tool. The left say opposing the change is cheap politicking on the president’s part, as he bets on pandering to the fear of immigration as a way to win back working-class voters tempted by Marine le Pen; that’s an argument made most tellingly by Sarkozy himself, who backed the measure as recently as 2008, before doing an electorally expedient U-turn. It’s hard to argue that the socialists have had a more consistently principled attitude on this though; François Mitterrand promised to allw foreigners to vote in his 1981 manifesto, and in 14 years in power that never materialised. That’s why media coverage has been short on actual foreign residents who are dying to have the right to pick their next local mayor; they’re more likely to tell you they’re sick of having the issue kicked about as a political football.

There’s another problem here; turnout is already very low among ethnic minority French citizens, who, as everywhere, tend to be among the least educated, politically aware and involved in the democratic process. The media here has had a lot to say about how participation has helped migrants to integrate in the European countries where they can vote (Hungary, Greece, Scandinavia) but in Sweden, for example, only 35% of foreign residents actually voted in the 2011 poll, as opposed to 80% of Swedes. This study from think-tank the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that in Britain, where Commonwealth citizens have had the vote since 1946, Indians and Pakistanis are 50% more likely not to be registered to vote than Britons. The reasons are various: being unaware they have the right, bureaucracy, fear of harassment from the authorities, paperwork not being available in translation, lack of education about the political process; but the message is clear. If the socialists do implement this, their responsibility to the people it would enfranchise doesn’t end there; they would need to provide them with the education and resources they need to use that vote in an informed way. They are currently running big voter registration drives in Paris’ poorest suburbs to try and get that information to ethnic minority citizens, but this is of course sparked by the looming electoral deadline and it comes after decades of neglect.

Finally, nobody is suggesting allowing foreigners to vote in an actual presidential election; the debate is about local elections, where EU citizens are already allowed to vote in whichever country they find themselves living in, under the 1992 Maastricht treaty. Why stop there? Les Echos reported this week that both major French parties are running big campaigns to attract the 2 million expatriate French voters, above all in London. They already have no fewer than 11 MPs in the French Parliament, though, thanks to an innovation of Sarkozy’s. They’re citizens, but the outcome of next year’s vote has a limited impact on them; much as the result of the last British general election had a limited impact on me, although I voted by post from Paris. I might have views on the subject, but after all, I don’t live there. I’d happily exchange my right to vote there for the right to vote in France. Isn’t it time we had transferable voting rights for EU citizens, so we could all help choose who runs the country we live in, rather than the one where our passports were issued?
I’d like to know what other expats think.


This blog is a personal reflection on some of the stories I've covered recently in the press review on France 24 - you can watch the show here.

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