MP Axelle Lemaire is the face of French President François Hollande’s Socialist party in London. And Helsinki. And Estonia. And a few other places, including one country she’s never visited.
“I try to represent the spirit of northern Europe,” the Canadian-born Ms. Lemaire explained, more than once, when asked to describe her role as the first member of the French National Assembly for north Europe.
The 38-year-old mother of two from what is now the city of Gatineau, Que., landed a seat at the heart of power in parliamentary elections in June, after voters replaced president Nicolas Sarkozy with the anti-austerity Mr. Hollande. Her post was created when the French constitution was changed in 2009 to create 11 Assembly members to represent the 1.6 million French living abroad.
As a long-time socialist activist, she was considered a long shot. “I thought most of French citizens [abroad] were rather more on [the] bourgeois, banking, professional sector side and therefore it was not a guaranteed Socialist seat,” said one of her former employers, Britain’s former minister for Europe Denis MacShane.
The issues for France and Europe are pressing right now: 24 per cent of French youth are jobless; France’s debt is almost 57 per cent of GDP; investors and wealthy French people are spooked by a seven-month-old government that has raised the top tax rate to 75 per cent. Europe’s second-largest economy, after Germany, is in trouble, and the fate of the euro may well be decided in Paris, not Athens or Madrid.
Ms. Lemaire is used to being an outsider.
She is the daughter of a University of Ottawa professor and his Parisian wife. Her parents retired to Montpellier, France, and she left Canada at 16. The culture shock was evident from the start.
“I was the only 16-year-old who did not smoke,” Ms. Lemaire said. Her classmates viewed her as a visiting Canadian athlete.
Between working at McDonald’s and Planet Hollywood, Ms. Lemaire studied political science and law, and taught ballet as she finally began to appreciate French culture in the context of her Canadian roots. “My difference became something I was proud of,” she added.
She graduated from a Paris law school, relocated to London a decade ago, had two children with her partner and worked as a political researcher for Mr. MacShane. She headed the London branch of France’s Socialist Party before being elected in June with 54.6 per cent of the vote – although fewer than 18,000, or barely 20 per cent, of the eligible French voters in her expansive riding cast a ballot.
Ms. Lemaire sees no contradiction in being a Socialist in a country dominated by conservative, Euro-skeptics or in working as an MP representing 10 countries but with a niche brief. She campaigned on improving French schools overseas, protecting the right to dual nationality (she retains her Canadian citizenship) and the recognition of French professional qualifications overseas.
“I’m meeting … with parents who send their children to French school who are concerned with the high fees,” Ms. Lemaire said when pressed for a practical example of how her Socialist ideals are utilized on the job. She also represents constituent views to Paris on matters such as immigration, justice and the economy, she said.
She dismisses questions about how her government will bring France to its knees taxing the rich at 75 per cent, saying the number of uber-rich affected is so small as to be symbolic.
“Some people here say we are Communists. We are not. We are Socialists,” Ms. Lemaire said.
But that hasn’t reassured critics. The Socialists have stumbled through their first six months. When Mr. Hollande’s government threatened to nationalize ArcelorMittals’s steel furnaces to rescue 600-plus jobs, it should have been a coup. Instead, it resulted in a two-month stand off, unnerving international investors who crave a stable environment.
London Mayor Boris Johnson declared that “sans culottes” revolutionaries were controlling Paris and advised investors to re-direct their money to Britain. Ms. Lemaire dismissed his comments as British “French-bashing,” but no doubt he struck a nerve.
France has had senators representing overseas citizens for 30 years. It’s not clear that expats wanted representation in the National Assembly.
“Having an expat MP is ‘too little, too late’ for us,” said Muriel Demarcus, a French businesswomen who moved to the UK in 2004. “I have seen no difference at all since we have a MP.”
“Since I don’t pay tax [in France], it’s far less relevant to me than Westminster’s antics,” said Will Salomone, born to a French father and English mother.
A random questioning of 10 French ex-pats at the Institut Français in London turned up only one who knew France had a North Europe MP. Loic Lefrileux said he voted for Ms. Lemaire but couldn’t say what use she might be to him: “Maybe if I were in the jungle, and I lost my passport, and the consulate was hundreds of kilometres away?”
Ms. Lemaire appears determined to represent France’s expatriates when they like it or not, however. She’s held “Skype surgeries” for far-flung constituents and has so far travelled to nine of the 10 countries whose “spirit” she represents.
Iceland, supposedly a hotbed of French Socialism, is last on her list although neither the MP nor her assistant were clear how many French voters remained in Reykjavik after the collapse of the banking sector.
It’s been a long journey from Quebec. Does she ever miss the simple life? Yes, Ms. Lemaire admits. She misses the optimism she finds lacking in Europe, in politics and lately in France.
“I miss the nonchalance of Canada, the sense that everything will be all right,” Ms. Lemaire said.