There were posters of the candidate, aides on the stage brandishing microphones and macroeconomic statistics, minions in orange T-shirts with clipboards and polling figures, rambling questions from a man at the back of the lecture hall in a blue shirt. It was, in many senses, an unremarkable election campaign rally – apart from one small detail.
The audience was French. But the venue was London.
"London is the seventh-largest French city," says Nicolas Perruchot, a French member of Parliament and campaigner for the centrist candidate François Bayrou, referring to the burgeoning French population in the British capital. "We want to talk to them to see why they are here. We guess this campaign will be a tight fight, and it is important to see all the people that seem to be concerned by the election."
The Bayrou camp is not the only one to venture abroad. France's imminent presidential contest is setting an intriguing new trend as it rolls back the map of electoral battlegrounds to take in important constituencies overseas. Candidates are pinging e-mails to hundreds of thousands of expatriates the world over seeking their vote. Front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy has already held one campaign rally in London. Mr. Bayrou's team has done Britain and Switzerland and is heading to Germany to stump this week.
Several reasons underlie the extraterritorial campaigning. First, the race is tight. All three leading candidates are bunched within about 12 points of each other, which means every vote in the balloting that begins Sunday is important.
Second, the number of French expatriates has grown steeply in recent years, to at least 2 million people. In Britain, the number has jumped by 50 percent in the past seven years. Officially, 107,000 French citizens now live in Britain. Unofficially, the figure is thought to be as many as 400,000. Everywhere you go now you hear French accents – at the school gates, in restaurants, cinemas, churches, parks. "If you go to a party, you always find French people there now," says Emelyne Cheney, a student here.
More important is the reason for the great escape. Most of those at the London rally were in their 20s and 30s. French newspapers are lamenting "la fuite des jeunes" or the exodus of the young, who are rejecting jobless stagnation and an atmosphere that discourages entrepreneurship in France and heading for more vibrant scenery in London, New York, or Shanghai. In France, unemployment among those under 25 hovers around 20 percent. Laws against firing older employees mean that the young find permanent jobs hard to find. The exodus demands an important question of the candidates: What would they do to transform the ponderous French economy to give young people greater prospects and perhaps encourage some to come back?
Dominique Maximin has no intention of going back just yet. The business consultant, 32, says he can't see any of the candidates tackling the institutional torpor. When he moved to London almost three years ago, his wife, Mireille, was concerned that she might struggle getting a job. Within weeks, she found one at a major bank. "I can't see how France will change because I don't see how someone will be able to change the labor laws," says Mr. Maximin. "There are limitations on firing people that they should scrap. Because here [in London], if I'm not doing good, I will lose my job more easily than in France, but I will find a job more quickly."
Mr. Sarkozy, the center-right candidate, is generally considered the most likely to institute the kind of reform that might revive France's labor market. He has already conducted a campaign rally in London, and last week sent expatriates an e-mail promising to create a country they might like to return to. "To all those who have left our country because they felt that nothing more could be done, I want to make you want to return," says the e-mail, a copy of which was seen by the Monitor. "To all those who want to create, innovate, work as they wish and had to leave [France] to do that, I say that everything will become possible again in France."
Like setting up a business. Clemence Doyard, who came to London two years ago, is planning to start a company promoting French food. "I would never have dared set up a business in Paris," she says. "It isn't in the spirit of French people. It might not be the case, but it seems more risky to do it in France than in the UK. In the UK, everyone says that it's possible."
Ms. Doyard says not everything in Britain is better than France, particularly for families. "For example, the cost of living is higher in England than in France for me, because of the cost of child care. I do hope I will come back to France, definitely."
She's just not sure Sarkozy is the man to lure her there. "Sarkozy will probably be the one who dares do the reform that the country needs. It doesn't mean he is the one I will vote for. I don't like the character; I think he's often ambiguous."
Ms. Cheney, the student, agrees. "Sarkozy wants to make it easier to fire people," she says, "but he really is too extreme. He scares me."
Officially, France is relaxed about its exodus of young people. Vincent Floreani, press counselor at the French embassy in London, says that expatriation "shows French people are open, that they are not afraid of the world." He notes that there are approximately the same number of French people living in Britain as there are Britons in France.
But privately some admit that comparison is misleading. After all, the stereotypical Briton in France is a retiree seeking the tranquility of la France profonde. The average age of the French in London is 30. For candidates critical of the current stasis under President Jacques Chirac, this represents a failing that needs addressing.
At the rally here, in a formal lecture hall at Kings College London, about 300 young professionals showed up. Some were openly supportive of Bayrou. Others were there out of curiosity. Aides tried to convince the audience on matters ranging from immigration to education – and on remembering the homeland. As Mr. Perruchot puts it: "We would like to make sure that these people are going to stay for just a couple of years or so – and then come back."