French Disconnection: Expats Show San Franciscans How to Not-Vote

San Francisco is a city that is equal parts cosmopolitan and inefficient. So, on any given day, one can witness a diverse array of sophisticated people screwing something up.

On a recent Saturday at Oak and Franklin, a succession of thin men in stylish, tight-fitting suits sauntered into a school. It wasn't a casting call for a community theater production of Quadrophenia, however, but an exercise in democracy. San Franciscans vote on anything and everything — several of you likely experienced a jolt at the revelation of an unknown election. But this was a French election (hence the snappy duds). So, don't worry about it.

The French didn't. While residents of La Republique are renowned for impressive voter turnout, Gallic locals registered a very San Franciscan 15.8 percent for this one. They can be forgiven, though. This wasn't just a misbegotten and bizarre election, but a bizarre substitute for one that was — bizarrely — invalidated last year.

Fred Noland

Americans citizens living abroad may still vote in federal elections (and some state ones). But that's representation in exchange for taxation; the United States is virtually unique in taxing its outbound citizens' "world income." Like everyone else, French people earning a living in the U.S. only pay taxes here. Starting last year, however, 11 politicians specifically representing French people living abroad were voted into l'Assemblée Nationale.

It's odd to elect legislators who cannot legislate over the land you reside in. Their expenses — a cool $29,100 a month — are picked up by actual French taxpayers, as is the projected $12.8 million cost of holding 11 worldwide elections. Here in North America, however, things cost more — as the election was required to be held twice.

The creation of 11 new Assemblée members was, as you'd expect, largely a strategic maneuver by political leaders hoping to stock the body with allies. But this was better conceived as a political maneuver than a practical one. French campaign laws restrict candidates to a sole bank account. But virtually any European living abroad will, naturally, have bank accounts in both her adopted and home nations. But rules are rules: Last year, Corinne Narassiguin, the legislator elected to represent the U.S. and Canada, was expelled for this.

So that's why those men in mod suits were out on a sunny San Francisco Saturday, casting votes for candidates who may never have even resided on this continent. But not many bothered to do so. Preliminary totals indicate only 132 San Franciscans cast ballots in person. Of them, one particularly nihilistic Frenchman voted for no candidate at all.

A paltry showing in an off-year election is very San Francisco. But showing up in person — in nice clothing, no less — to register a vote for nobody? That's very French.

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