Should Foreign Residents Be Allowed to Vote in France? Sarkozy Flip-Flops

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France's President Nicolas Sarkozy listens to the national anthem as he attends the traditional autumn military review at the Hotel des Invalides in Paris, November 28, 2011. (Photo: Christophe Ena / Reuters)

Even when opinions in the U.S. and France do manage to generally agree on certain subjects, meshing trans-Atlantic views often end up differing in some rather remarkable ways. Take immigration. The issue remains an equally high-temperature political flash point in both countries. So, too, does the conjoined challenge of integrating arriving immigrants into the American or French cultural mainstream.
Yet a majority of French people now say they favor something their Yankee cousins may have yet to consider: giving legal aliens the right to vote in some elections. The proposal of granting foreigners the right to vote is one that has returned repeatedly in France and elsewhere in the European Union, but which now may be headed to become a wider fact of political life. A new poll on the topic by French daily le Parisien found 61% of respondents favoring foreigners getting the right to vote in France’s local elections. The idea got the backing of 75% people who identified themselves as leftists, and an identical percentage among people aged 25 to 34 years. More significantly, however, the proposition was also supported by 43% of people calling themselves conservative—a remarkably high score from a right-wing camp that had once overwhelmingly opposed the notion. That result also contrasts the increasingly antagonistic tone of debate in France surrounding immigration—an atmosphere that helped fuel the rise of extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen.
But while the poll’s finding may be surprising, its timing wasn’t—especially in the wake of September elections that saw the left winning the majority of France’s upper-house of parliament house for the first time in the Fifth Republic. In 2000, France’s then-leftist controlled lower house adopted a bill giving all legal foreign residents the right to vote in local elections—a text the conservative-controlled upper house, or Sénat, never took up. But in the wake of its historic Sénat victory in September, the left has pushed the question of voting rights for foreigners to the top of the chamber’s To Do list. With general elections looming next spring, conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy stepped up last week to oppose the new leftist drive to accord resident aliens voting rights as another dangerous proposal by his rivals—despite himself having backed the idea before his presidential election in 2007.

Indeed, the debate over foreigners voting in France or elsewhere in Europe isn’t as cut-and-dried—or even as new—as it might seem. Citizens of EU countries living in other member nations already have the right to vote in local elections and European parliamentary contests. In fact, the habit of seeing non-French nationals routinely voting may be one reason why a majority of French citizens see nothing to fear in that right being extended to legal immigrants from non-EU countries as well. And in some ways, the French may now view themselves as actually a bit behind their European neighbors in allowing foreigners to vote. Belgium grants voting rights to non-EU nationals after five years of legal residency, and Britain allows residents of all Commonwealth nations in good standing to participate in local UK elections. Spain, meanwhile, extends the right to vote to documented aliens from non-EU countries whose capitals reciprocate that entitlement to legal Spanish residents.

Despite that European trend—and the new momentum its gaining in France—why is Sarkozy opposing the proposal he backed before capturing the Elysée? Political calculation, most analysts say. Over the past two years—with his approval ratings tanking, and re-election chances looking gloomy—Sarkozy has sought to reproduce his 2007 electoral coup of wooing extreme-right voters to his cause by again adopting controversial positions catering to hard-right conservatives. That includes the rounding up and deportation of foreign Roma as part of his “war” on crime, passing a law banning the burqa being worn in public, holding a national debate on French identity that detractors claimed stigmatized foreigners and minorities, and repeatedly casting illegal immigration as the cause of some of France’s more acute problems. But though the seduction of far right voters to his mainstream conservative base was a resounding success in 2007, observers now say it’ll be a tough trick to pull off again in 2012—especially regarding the issue of voting rights for foreigners.

First off, some analysts note that, this time around, extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen has not only won back people who defected from her father’s 2007 campaign to join Sarkozy, but has also enlisted many mainstream conservative (and Sarkozy) voters who find her more moderate-sounding message more legitimate those Jean-Marie Le Pen delivered. Secondly, with the new poll finding 43% of conservatives backing the right to vote for non-EU foreigners, the issue is one of a few Sarkozy could lose mainstream right-wingers to by playing his hand with the extreme-right in mind.

“This proposition strikes me as dangerous…because it risks deeply dividing the French people at the time we must unite them,” Sarkozy said during a Nov. 23 speech, in which he even sounded somewhat tepid about European treaties that grant legal EU residents in France the vote in local contests. “I am very attached to the idea that the constitutions shouldn’t go beyond that, because the right to vote and to run for election must remain rights dependent on French nationality, (and) extended for municipal and European elections to European citizens who share a common destiny with us.”

To be sure, the foreigner voting issue isn’t one that will determine the outcome of France’s presidential and legislative elections next April and May on its own—and it’s doubtful that issues of immigration and multiculturalism will trump more pressing concerns of the debt crisis, the economy, and unemployment. Yet the unexpected public support of alien voting rights is another sign of how many of the electoral swords Sarkozy has brandished cut both ways—and could yet be turned against him as his looming re-election bid approaches.