French Candidates Trawl for Votes in SE Asia
By Martin Vaughan
For Romain Arcizet, an independent candidate in France’s June legislative elections, the path to victory runs through a public square in New Delhi, a Borneo jungle, and a bus bound for Kuala Lumpur.
The 30-year-old Mr. Arcizet, an electrical engineer based in Laos, is vying to represent French expatriates living in Asia. This year is the first in France’s 200-year history as a republic that French people living overseas will elect their own deputies to the lower house of parliament.
But the vast Asia constituency, one of 11 new overseas districts, stretches from Kiev to Fiji. With 114,000 potential voters spread across nearly half the globe, a classic poster campaign with a few meet-and-greets at the patisserie isn’t going to cut it.
“You can’t just go to the market and shake some hands, because the people aren’t that easy to find,” says Mr. Arcizet.
The self-funded candidate won’t make it to far-flung locales like Moscow and Christchurch, New Zealand, where some of the major party candidates have made campaign stops. The French government will reimburse him for expenses only if he garners more than 5% of the vote.
So he’s watching his budget. Instead of business class, Arcizet has traveled between campaign stops via bus, train and budget airline. “As a field engineer working on power plants, I’ve been lucky enough to have stayed in four-star hotels,” he said. “But this time, it’s the Lonely Planet way.”
Since quitting his engineering job in Laos in September to campaign, he’s done a monthlong sojourn in India, and hit the population centers of Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Bangkok, stopping at embassies and cultural centers like Alliance Française. Next up: back to Bangkok and then on to Hanoi. He’s skipping campaigning in places he has already lived, like Iran and Borneo, and will rely on friends there to network for him.
Mr. Arcizet acknowledges his is a long-shot bid. He says he is fed up with the deadlock in Paris from leaders who hew strictly to the party line, and he identifies himself neither with the left nor the right, calling himself a problem-solver. He is calling for voters to have more power to weigh in on legislative proposals via direct referendum, after the Swiss system of direct democracy.
A major challenge has been locating the French expats he hopes to win over. The big political parties have access to email lists, but Mr. Arcizet has to wait until the official launch of the campaign, in mid-May, when authorities have said they will make them available to independent candidates.
The French presidential elections, headed for a May 6 runoff between President Nikolas Sarkozy and Socialist challenger François Hollande, have turned on such weighty issues as immigration and the future of Europe.
The overseas balloting is focused on more workaday concerns, like dwindling government financial support for students at French international schools, says Socialist candidate for the Asia constituency Marc Villard. Voting will occur in two rounds on June 10 and June 17.
Like Mr. Arcizet, Mr. Villard is touting his extensive Asia experience. The Ho Chi Minh City-based former pharmaceutical executive has lived in Southeast Asia for 22 years, and already has held elected office as a member of the Assembly of French Citizens Abroad, which advises the government.
Both candidates contrast their resumes with that of the candidate from Mr. Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement party, Transport Secretary Thierry Mariani. A veteran of French politics, Mr. Mariani has served since 1993 in the National Assembly representing the southern Vaucluse region.
Mr. Arcizet calls him a “candidat parachuté.” But in an email from Phuket, Thailand, where he is campaigning, Mr. Mariani says it’s not necessary to have lived in Asia to be effective in representing French people there. Mr. Mariani, whose wife is Russian, has been active on issues pertaining to French living overseas in the legislature and in the UMP party, having played a direct role in the creation of the 11 new parliamentary districts.
“My steady presence in the National Assembly will allow me to bring my full weight to bear for the benefit of French living overseas, and will allow me to fight for the issues they hold dear,” he wrote.