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Going to London for French votes

Stephen Beard Apr 20, 2007

Going to London for French votes

Stephen Beard Apr 20, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: There are a dozen people on the ballot for the first round of presidential elections in France this weekend. But in essence the contest for the two run-off spots comes down to three candidates. One from the center-right…a socialist…and a centrist. The eventual winner will have to find a way to turn around an economy that’s struggled to keep up with the rest of Europe for a decade. The front-runner…Nicolas Sarkozy from the center-right…has taken his campaign to what he calls France’s seventh largest city…because of the huge number of expats living there. Our man in London…Stephen Beard…has the story.

STEPHEN BEARD: London’s Waterloo Station, named after one of Britain’s most famous victories over the French, may seem an odd place to campaign for a candidate in the French presidential election.

But Vanessa, a young Frenchwoman who lives and works in London, is here handing out leaflets to other French people who are visiting or living in London too.

VANESSA: The fact of living here . . . I’m able to take a step back and really see how people see France from England. And I really think something needs to be done. So I really started getting interested in politics here.

Vanessa, a graduate, left Paris because she couldn’t find work. In London she rapidly landed the marketing job she wanted.

VANESSA: Everything moves really quickly.

BEARD: In London.

VANESSA: In London, yes.

BEARD: But not in Paris?

VANESSA: No, it’s different. In Paris, in France in general, you feel, you know, slumber. Everything is slow. So I really wanted to get to a quick-paced city.

The contrast between London and Paris has not been lost on Nicolas Sarkozy. He’s taken the unusual step of bringing his election campaign to the British capital. Appealing for the votes of the French expats here, and heaping praise on their adopted city.

Everytime I time visit London, he said, I find it more dynamic, more prosperous, more energetic than ever. Although, he added, that is largely due to the 300,000 French people who have settled here! The message, says Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times, was aimed mostly at the electorate back home in France.

GIDEON RACHMAN: He wants to make the point to the French that Britain and the British economy has been more open to reform, has grown faster, has done better with unemployment, has been more dynamic than France.

While Britain has boomed over the past decade, France has stagnated. It has the slowest growing large economy in Europe, with unemployment at more than 9 percent. Sarkozy says he’ll shake up the labor market, make it easier to fire and hire, cut corporate and individual taxes, if he’s elected president.

STEPHANE RAMBOSSAN: This election is critical. Things need to change. He’s probably the only guy who can do it. So he should be given the chance of doing it.

Stephane Rambossan is another of the French refugees in London. He’s an investment banker. He’s fleeing the rigidities of the French business system.

RAMBOSSAN: Depending on your school, you get ranked in French banks. You may be absolutely brilliant but your progression will stop just because you haven’t been to the right school.

Another of these upscale French refugees is Hamid Senni. With a degree in economics and an MBA, he was offered — after months of searching — only one unappealing job in France.”

HAMID SENNI: When I received my contract it was written: You will be selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door for the next six months and then we will review your position.

The son of Moroccan immigrants, Hamid was once advised in France to change his name to Lionel or George to improve his job prospects. In London he’s kept his name and he’s flourished. He now runs his own rapidly expanding management consultancy. And he would like to set up a branch back home in France, but that isn’t easy.

SENNI: It took me three hours to set up my business in the U.K. And right now we want to set up the same company in Paris. It’s going to take us maybe six motnhs to nine months just to set up a company. In the U.K. it was three hours.

At the London rally, Sarkozy made a powerful plea to the expats to come home and rebuild France. Your country needs you, he said.

But even if Sarkozy wins the presidential election, the London refugees may well conclude that for some years they’ll be better off where they are — here in France’s seventh-largest city.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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