French to elect first 'Kensington MP'


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The Independent Online

Across the UK, a general election campaign is beginning to gather pace. It may have gone unnoticed but, be assured, canvassing is in full swing; supporters are going door-to-door and the candidates are engaging in political tête-à-têtes at the hustings.

The second homes, though, are not in the Home Counties, they are in Paris. The Conservative and Labour parties will not win a single seat between them. And, instead of eggs, the candidates could find themselves dodging oeufs.

French voters are going to the polls next month to elect their first "MP for South Kensington". Eleven new overseas con-stituencies have been created for the coming parliamentary elections, which will take place over two rounds on 10 and 17 June, allowing French expatriates to return an MP to the Assemblée Nationale for the first time.

Ten nations, including the UK, are grouped into the "northern Europe" constituency. Figures show that between 300,000 and 400,000 French people live in London alone, prompting some to call it France's sixth-biggest city. And at more than 120,000, the Gallic community in Britain registered to vote is more than five times larger than those in the other nine countries that make up the constituency. A large proportion of them live near the French language school, French consulate and French cultural institute in west London's French stronghold of South Kensington.

The candidates, however, face a major obstacle to getting the vote out. There are plenty of French people to canvass. But in a constituency that is more than 1.5 million square miles in size, they are struggling to find them. "I feel like I am a backpacker, with my leaflets in one hand and my passport in the other. I feel like a pioneer," said Axelle Lemaire, the candidate put forward by President François Hollande's left-wing Parti Socialiste.

Ms Lemaire added: "We've done some door-to-door canvassing, we've knocked on around 1,500 doors; that itself is a huge amount of work. Finding the original addresses, looking them up on a map, getting there: in two hours, you can knock on five to 10 doors on a good day."

Her main rival, the candidate standing for the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, Emmanuelle Savarit, agreed. At a meeting with supporters held last week – perhaps predictably – in a small restaurant opposite the French Cultural Institute, she implored them to each canvass 10 people and have them tell 10 people in a bid to get the word out. The candidates have 10 days until the polls open.

"We are looking for people to do door-to-door work," Ms Savarit said. "If you have a network of friends, then please use it.

"I meet people who wanted Sarkozy elected but who just didn't go and vote. I meet people who said they were really opposed to Hollande but they were on holiday when the polling booths were open. It's terrible."