Expat patriotism: what flag do we fly?

10th May 2007, Comments 0 comments

France says: "Clean cup, move down!" It's time to get ready for all that change we've been promised. But how are non-voting expats supposed to feel about the changing of the guard when it's not our guard?

10 May 2007

My kids surprised me by getting all weepy Sunday night after being informed that Ségolène Royal would not become their Présidente after all.


They felt strongly that Royal was the candidate who would "make good decisions". I don't remember really discussing this choice with them but, after all, who am I to rob them of their right to a ferociously held opinion? Still, it is a mystery to me exactly how my seven and five-year-old acquired this conviction.

I've got to wonder: does this come under the description of 'shaping young minds' in a teacher's job description— a job description that Ségolène vowed not to lay a finger on? Or are French children simply so precociously intellectual that they sit around analyzing policy positions in the cours de récréation?

As for me, well, I haven't been able to figure out how I feel about this new era we've been told France is about to embark on. While I've been intensely curious to follow every stage of the campaign—and have learned a lot about the process and tone of French politics—I'm finding it difficult to really identify my feelings about it all.

First of all, are we even allowed to have feelings about it all? I don't think the contrat d'accueil that incoming migrants are supposed to sign covers this part.

It's an odd position really. After all, we do live here; whatever happens next will effect our lives, perhaps profoundly. For some of us, whoever heads the French government will have a lot more influence on our futures than the leaders of the countries we left behind.

But, except for those few who have taken French citizenship, it's not our country, we don't vote, and lots of French people seem frankly surprised that we'd even take an interest.

I read an article in the 'Sud-Ouest' last week, for example, about the English following the campaign; that was pretty much the gist of the whole story: "They're English and they read French newspapers! Some of them even watched the debate!"

The reporter quoted a correspondent for French News, a monthly newspaper primarily for British expats in France, as saying: "[Expats] talk about it. They want to know what's going on in the country they live in. And they have the same questions and anxieties [about the election] as the French."

This is true and good for her for saying it. The surprising part to me is that what seems to me a fairly self-evident concept needed a full page to explain to French readers.

That article serves to illustrate how the French are coming to terms with the large population of British expats now found in the South-West and South. "They not only live here… they give a damn!"

This realisation counts as a positive development for expat-French relations. But it doesn't really help clarify how far we are allowed to go in having and expressing real political opinions here, at least not in mixed company with French people. If the French don't, as a rule, explicitly announce to each other for whom they themselves vote—and don't even know about the existence of bumper sticker—then is it kosher for us to announce our political preferences at dinner parties?

Maybe not. So I won't do it here either.

Instead, in keeping with the idea of expats paying attention, I will content myself to enumerate some of the things I have noticed and appreciated about the French democratic process during this campaign.

—France hasn't forgotten that voting is an essential part of the whole democracy idea. True, some of them seem convinced that the losing side is morally obligated to burn cars and I believe they're confused on this point. But even Tony Blair went out of his way to say the rest of the Western world has something to learn from France's high turnout.

—In France, people don't have to take up precious time debating whether or not women have the right to choose to bring a pregnancy to term nor whether the state has the right to put people to death. This is not to say that French politicians don't find a bevy of other things, including many silly things, to argue about. But here, we can check these two off the list and what a relief that is!


Expatica France Contributing Editor Clair Whitmer writes a new diary entry every week for our newsletter subscribers. Click here for our FREE weekly newslette
—In France, people can sit still and listen for two full hours to two people, one of whom will largely decide the fate of the country for at least the next five years, talk about economics. True, for some of this time—and during any discussion of pretty much any topic really— everybody is talking at one time and nobody can understand a word. But still, the French attention span is longer than the length of a commercial and this probably helps them in the thinking department.


—In France, citizens don't have to worry about being abandoned to their fate if they get sick and don't have health insurance. Here, the state guarantees the right to a minimum level of healthcare, if not actual health. And now, in theory, the state also guarantees the right to a roof over one's head; of course, the part where the state has money left over from the first right to pay for the second right is a bit fuzzy (although if they made all the pharmacy-dependent hypochondriacs move to Canada, that would pretty much solve that problem.) But, still, putting the Good Samaritan in charge of your social policy makes sense to me.

—In France, you don't have to advertise your religious beliefs or pretend to be more happily married than you actually are to become President. Of course, some people may still choose to pretend to be more happily married than they are. But you don't have to—and that's the point. 

—In France, we can seriously discuss the possibility of foreigners like me getting the right to vote someday. Okay, they've been talking about it for 20 years and it hasn't happened yet. But the idea isn't laughed out of town either and that's encouraging. 

Is Royal best for expats? That's the question one expat asked on our Discussion Forums. The election is over but the debate rages on! Share your thoughts.
None of these rights or qualities—all the stuff that seems pretty essential to me— are "in decline" in France and perhaps this is why I feel more curious about what comes next than emotionally invested in the choice of one candidate over another. Does this count as a kind of expat patriotism?


Regardless, if we do ever get the right to vote, I smell a business opportunity in bumper stickers: "I'm not French and I vote!"

A la prochaine

Clair Whitmer
Editor, Expatica France

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