On June 16, on the eve of the Greek parliamentary elections, with the future of the European Union in doubt and a newly-elected Socialist president in France, French citizens in the U.S. and Canada voted to elect a candidate in a newly created constituency to represent them in the French National Assembly. They chose Corinne Narassiguin, a 37-year old member of the Socialist Party who has worked as a banker on Wall Street for twelve years.
A few facts about the election: 27% of representatives to the newly elected French National Assembly are women. By way of comparison, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, women number 17 % of voting members of the U.S. House of Representatives. In Finland the ratio is 43% and in Sweden 45%. The sympathies of French expatriates in the U.S. tend to lean to the right (in French terms); in the presidential elections in May they voted against the Socialists. In New York, capital of finance and fashion, French expatriates voted two-to-one in May for the right. 53 % of French expatriates in Boston voted the same way. Those in Canada, in contrast, were solidly (58%) for the left.
To find out what French citizens in Greater Boston identified as key issues in the Assembly election, we talked to them on election day, June 16th, at the International School in North Cambridge, which served as the polling station for Massachusetts. Five of the twenty-six voters we interviewed had lived in the U.S. for thirty or more years, eight for fewer than five years. More than half had come for work or a spouse’s work, a fourth for their studies and the rest, around a fifth, for love.
As in the United States, whether the French president can carry out his agenda depends to a great extent on whether or not he controls the majority of representatives in the Assembly. But in contrast to the U.S., the French government is run on a daily basis by the prime minister, who also selects the ministers – the “government.” The prime minister has to be from the majority controlling the parliament. Because the parliamentary elections are run just one month after the presidential election, this majority usually represents the same electoral forces that selected the president. To make this happen was one of Corinne’s main concerns and an important issue (to support or scuttle) for voters.
Despite the differences in party affiliations among the voters we talked to, their views converged remarkably on the big issues. Contrary to the fear of an election organizer, who thought that people would vote for essentially “local reasons” – such as a desire for sustained government support of French schools abroad, continued eligibility for retirement benefits in France, and taxation issues – for the most part voters described their primary concerns as the challenges France faces in achieving social justice, competitiveness and livability in a global world. Their reflections often registered their comparative experience of living in the U.S.
For example, two female engineers with small children remarked that living in the U.S. had given them a more global perspective on life in France. One emphasized that her time here had given her “more understanding of the international character of economic challenges. All countries are linked by their debts, and at the corporate level businesses are interconnected worldwide.” Two other voters cast their votes “to make sure that Paris understands that it’s linked to the world, to ensure the competitiveness of France at a global level.” By this they did not mean to reject the French commitment to “social justice.”
Despite wide admiration for the U.S. entrepreneurial spirit, freedom to pursue ideas, and productivity, and nearly universal doubt that the low age of retirement in France could be sustained, not a single voter criticized the French commitment to universal health care, public daycare, retirement benefits or government funding of education. All thought the U.S. could benefit from emulating France in these areas. As one voter put it, the U.S. could send people to the moon, but it hasn’t been able to work out a fair and decent health care system.
A number of voters emphasized that French labor contracts are too rigid, inhibit economic development, discourage a strong work ethic, and encourage the migration of jobs away from France. Even those who supported the Socialist view favored more flexible employment terms, as in the U.S. But they also felt that working conditions in the U.S. were too harsh. Sylvain Bruni, head of the local chapter of the French Socialist Party, suggested the value of looking to Sweden and Norway, which are experimenting with hybrid approaches.
A young woman in software with two children commented that working conditions for parents are difficult in the U.S. For instance, “if you have only two weeks of vacation, it’s hard to lose vacation time when you have a sick child.” But she also felt that the views of employees were taken more seriously in the U.S. than in France, where the workplace is organized in a more hierarchical way.
Nearly all voters concurred that French schools impart a richer content than in the U.S., but that French education is not hands-on and practice-oriented enough. This, they said, reduces the fit of university graduates for the job market. Furthermore, there’s only limited collaboration between industry and the government in the funding of university research.
One voter commented that better treatment of immigrants would also have a positive impact on the French economy. Another said, “I’ve learned here that one can make immigration an inherent part of how you perceive your country. In France immigration is not sufficiently at the heart or soul of the political tradition. There’s a discourse of ‘La Republique.’ But what does it mean?”
Several voters thought that French competitiveness and the durability of French social values would depend on changes in political design. According to Sylvain Bruni, people in France need to show the pragmatic spirit that Americans used to have before politics in this country became so ideologically driven. “In the U.S.,” he said, “People used to have the ability to compromise and be able to move on. In France over the past ten years there has never been any of that. The unions and representatives of other organizations are very closed.” He also thought that more interaction between French voters and the people was essential. “There’s no concept of anything like U.S. town hall meetings in France, and the president does not give a weekly address, as he does here.”
An MIT graduate noted that “the political system was designed before computers, and there are now new participatory methods that need to be introduced. The big thing is collective intelligence and how to translate it into political science.”
All but one of those interviewed supported the idea of Europe, even if they had not done so initially. Most favored European integration for economic reasons. A few also mentioned the importance of a shared cultural tradition as a reason to be pro-Europe; others that the push for integration had brought peace. All saw the Greek vote as “almost a test for Europe.” Several mentioned that the EU had grown too quickly after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Most thought that it was essential to harmonize taxation and retirement, or at least the age of retirement, across Europe. But there was considerable doubt about whether this could be achieved within the next ten years.
One voter summed up the situation facing Europe thus: “Globalization is a fact and a historical necessity. This raises important questions about what Europe is and wants to be. A big question is the extent to which the countries are capable of preserving their identity. There’s a tension between the perception based on history and aesthetics that it’s valuable to preserve diversity and the realization that economic necessities require integration. Few political leaders have been able to reconcile these two poles intelligently. Young representatives with an international outlook and technical pedigrees may hold the solution - leading to creative dynamics such as in Silicon Valley.”
Corinne Narassiguin was born in La Reunion, an island in the Indian Ocean that is also an overseas French département. She left the island for continental France to prepare for the examinations that give access to the elite French universities. Her story growing up brings to mind President Obama, who was also born on an island, in Hawaii, and who moved to the mainland for his university studies, entering Harvard Law School in 1988.
In his autobiography, President Obama wrote of the tension he experienced as a young person between perceptions of his multiracial background and his sense of self. “I began to notice there was nobody like me in the Sears, Roebuck Christmas catalog … and that Santa was a white man … I went to the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror with all my senses and limbs seemingly intact, looking the way I had always looked, and wondered if something was wrong with me.”
Corinne has similarly written that, “My first two years of university [upon coming to the French mainland] were the biggest culture shock of my life. I suddenly realized that I was recognized for my exotic appearance, whereas previously I had not paid any attention to my ‘visible difference,’ since in La Reunion there is nothing more commonplace than to be a metis.”
Corinne became a financial engineer, specializing in information management, and eventually became a banker in one of the bigger U.S. banks on Wall Street, where she rose to become Vice President of Information Systems. She’s now a member of the French socialist legislature but has practical experience in the heart of capitalism. She’s a calm self-made woman in the best American tradition, synthesizing many perspectives, and equally comfortable being interviewed on French media or by Charlie Rose in New York.
Corinne’s political ascension brings to mind several other women in the Hollande government. For instance, Fleur Pelerin, a 38-year-old woman born in Korea and adopted in France as a baby, is now the French Minister for Innovation and Numerical Economy, also after a brilliant trajectory in economics through the French university system. Fleur is widely admired and a source of pride in Korea. Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who was born in Morocco, is the spokesperson for the Hollande government. At 34, she is its most junior member.
Corinne Narassiguin, Fleur Pelerin and Najat Vallaud-Belkacem are representative of a new face in France’s power structure: young, female, highly educated, technologically savvy, and profoundly international.
French people are fascinated by the U.S – with the main French TV channel reporting daily on U.S. news. As the first-ever representative of French expatriates in the U.S. and Canada, Corinne is uniquely positioned to bring New World energy to the challenges facing France today. But she must be careful to hold a course of quality. In her newly established web site at the National Assembly, her second in command shares on a daily tweet: “When a shitty day (une journée de merde) begins as foreseen, all is actually not so bad.” This may be an instance of French existential wisdom, but it does not exactly conform to US professional standards. Corrine’s constituents across the Atlantic may be reading with a frown.
Jane Fair Bestor has a Ph.D. in social anthropology and works at Harvard Law School. Isaac Saias is an e-technology and social entrepreneur with dual French-U.S. citizenship.