Jolted Into Action by Brexit, French Londoners Flock to Vote

(Bloomberg) -- In the home stretch of a tight race, French Londoners are leaving nothing to chance.

Three days before the first round of voting for their next president, a line snakes around a block in South Kensington, one of the most expensive and iconic neighborhoods in the city that also happens to be the epicenter of the French community -- home to its consulate, a school and various bistros and cafes that cater to the 300,000 French expats living in the U.K.

Jolted Into Action by Brexit, French Londoners Flock to Vote

Voters line up outside the French consulate to cast their ballots in London, April 21.

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Only 100,000 French citizens are registered to vote in the U.K. -- not enough to make a difference -- but after front-row seats to Brexit they’re eager to at least have a say in a galvanizing election that has had more twists than a film noir. Four presidential hopefuls are running neck and neck, and two of them want to pull France out of the European Union.

Under the billowing tricolor, Marie Lepage, 38, says she’s firmly against National Front’s Marine Le Pen but feels lukewarm about the alternatives, such as centrist Emmanuel Macron or Republican Francois Fillon. “I can understand why some people feel really angry and want the establishment thrown out and replaced by new blood, but there’s no new blood, and certainly not Le Pen” or Jean-Luc Melenchon, the Communist-backed candidate.

“I feel lost,” she said, adding that in the end, without particular enthusiasm, she may throw her lot in with Macron. Lepage is part of the long queue to nominate someone else to vote in their stead on April 23.

Maude Metz, a 23-year-old Parisian, is also going with Macron because he’s “the only reasonable person left.” Running as an independent, Macron held a rally in London during a visit in November to see Prime Minister Theresa May. For many, it seems that a vote for him is more of a vote against the anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric of Le Pen.

“I think that a victory of Marine Le Pen is a real possibility, so I’m terrified,” said Metz via phone. “I think that in a sense she has won already, because she has imposed her views and her ideas on French politics.”

However, it would be a mistake to assume that most of the French living across the English channel are on the same wavelength. It was that kind of thinking that led pundits and pollsters to misjudge the mood and say Brexit wouldn’t happen or that Donald Trump could not win the U.S. election.

That is a lesson that some French voters have taken to heart.

Expect the Unexpected

“Brexit and Trump allowed people to believe that the victory was possible,” said Eleonore Heimsoeth, 25. She and Metz both study politics at the London School of Economics.

Take Jerome Challamel, 39. He married an English woman and has lived in the U.K. for the past decade. The 39-year-old currently resides in Maidenhead, May’s constituency, which voted to stay in the EU.

Asked about his preferred candidate, he smiled.

“It’s going to be very interesting,” he said. “In France you need someone to shake up the political class and political elite.”

If the fervor in this South Kensington block is any indication, turnout in the U.K. might well be much higher than the 35 percent recorded last time in 2012, when Francois Hollande beat Nicolas Sarkozy.

“Every vote will count,” said Aurelia Masson-Berghoff, 40. “Everyone should go and vote and have their voice heard.”

It is 4:30 p.m. on April 18, the day May surprised the country by calling a snap election. People are still queuing to sign up for proxy voting but the consulate guard apologizes and shuts the door.

Lepage is disappointed. She rushed from a school run to get this done. French authorities have forbidden electronic votes for fear of hacking so French citizens abroad have to either go to the ballot box in person or give power of attorney ahead of time.

“To be perfectly on time and to see the door shut in front of you is just typical French, not-working-one-minute-longer-than-what’s-on-my-contract type of behavior,” said the 38-year-old former marketer. “In the civil service, that’s how it is, and that has to change. So the candidates who say they want that to change? They have my vote.”