No regrets but French have mixed feelings about a distant voice

FRENCH citizens living in Australia will be able to vote for a local member of Parliament at elections this year, though the term "local" is relative.

FRENCH citizens living in Australia will be able to vote for a local member of Parliament at elections this year, though the term "local" is relative.

Eleven seats are being added to the National Assembly in Paris, with electoral boundaries spanning continents and even hemispheres. Canada and the US will share one representative, while Britain joins nine other northern European countries.

Australia is in a group of 49 countries including Japan, Iran, Singapore and Russia.

Most French expats live close to home in Europe. London is the sixth-largest city in terms of French residents and French President Nicolas Sarkozy held a campaign rally there in 2007.

Japan-based Green Party candidate Janick Magne has announced her intention to run for the seat encompassing Australia.

In a campaign video Ms Magne said even if the lives of French people abroad varied dramatically, their difficulties were often the same. These included visa and employment problems as well as access to a French teacher, social welfare, retirement, and the question of returning to France.

For well-known chef Gabriel Gate, going back to live in France, where he was born and raised in the Loire Valley, is not on the cards.

"I've been here now for 35 years, and I know who the leaders are [in France], but I don't know them day to day. Although I'm more French at heart than Australian, we live like an Australian family. We know what's going on in Australia, but we're not quite sure what's going on in France."

Gate says he had considered registering to vote but felt too distant to pass judgment.

Music promoter Jean-Francois Ponthieux, who moved to Australia in the mid-1990s, says he still feels connected to his homeland and will cast his vote under the new system.

"I spent 28 years in France, I've got my family there, my roots are there. I'm a French person living overseas so I think it's important to have a voice.

"Even if I don't pay tax I contribute to France, especially with my work representing French bands and bringing them to Australia. I help spread a positive image of French culture."

Mr Ponthieux hails from a small town 60 kilometres from the northern city of Lille, and follows French current affairs online and through TV news.

"At the moment France is going through major turmoil politically and socially, which is the result of 40 years of not really solving problems. People are disillusioned with the major political parties, so the next election is going to be very tight and very interesting to follow."

Not everyone is so enthusiastic. Melbourne cafe owner Michael Gatta-Castel, originally from Chamonix, has lived in Australia for almost six years. He "feels funny" about having his own representative in France while building a life in Australia.

"I'll go back to France if I want to have a say in what's happening in France," he said.

Portugal has elected foreign MPs for decades and in 2006 Italy joined the club, electing two MPs from Melbourne.

Marco Fedi represents Italians in Asia, Oceania, Africa and Antarctica. He says his influence was more pronounced in 2006 when the Prodi government relied on support from foreign MPs, but his star had begun to wane since 2008 under Silvio Berlusconi.

"Italians abroad haven't been on his mind at all, so we have been on the receiving end of drastic budget cuts," he said.

The economic crisis means less investment in language teaching, cultural initiatives and local committees. And Italy is reviewing the system of foreign MPs amid concerns its almost thousand-member Parliament is excessive.

This year's triumphant French candidate will face the same challenge of representing a diverse electorate.

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