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French New Yorkers Politick and Picnic En Plein Air

Through picnics in Central Park and political meetings, French voters in New York are campaigning for Emmanuel Macron.

The clock at Café Tallulah’s basement lounge struck 2 p.m. — a strange time for a café party. But the people gathering there on the Upper West Side were eyeing a different clock than most New Yorkers — the one in Paris.

Surrounded by French flags, about 100 French expats awaited the results of the French presidential primaries on April 22. They huddled together in the 2,500-square- foot dimly lit space, marked by brick walls and small brass tables, to support the independent-party candidate Emmanuel Macron. The youthful, dapper Macron, known as the “French Kennedy,” is eager for a more optimistic France that embraces globalization. His contender, Marine Le Pen, the National Front party leader, couldn’t be more different; she envisions a nationalistic country and blames immigration for France’s high rate of unemployment and sluggish economy. The two, who finished respectively first and second in a field of 11 candidates, face a runoff on May 7.

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©Alexander Gonzalez

“Allez!” cheered the people at the café when Macron led the polls. They then belted out the French national anthem because an independent candidate with a real chance of winning is unusual. But an independent candidate running without the backing of an established political party is unprecedented. “France is back!” shouted Florent Joly, a founder of En Marche! (Onward!) New York.

Macron’s victory also represents a victory for expats, like Joly, who helped usher En Marche’s international presence. About 45 comités or chapters have sprouted in the United States since Macron launched his movement in April 2016. New York City alone is home to an estimated 80,000 French citizens, according to the French consulate. For the first round, about 53 percent of voters in New York (13,000 in total) chose Macron. Overall voter participation in the city increased to almost 47 percent from 36 percent in the last election in 2012, when President François Hollande was elected. For all of France (including overseas departments), participation dipped slightly from 80 percent in 2012 to almost 78 percent in 2017.

Although the left-wing candidate Hollande won in 2012, his contender and former President Nicolas Sarkozy of Les Républicains garnered the majority of the expat vote in New York. Expats in the U.S. have historically voted for right-wing candidates, explained Arthur Goldhammer, a senior affiliate at Harvard’s Center for European Studies. “The expat community is generally more conservative than the domestic French population,” said Goldhammer, who blogs regularly on French politics. And indeed, the traditional right-wing candidate François Fillon did finish second in the city.

Convincing this electorate to vote for Macron was among the top goals of En Marche! New York. Since last August, when the local chapter launched, the 35-member team held meetings at office buildings in Midtown Manhattan, raised funds for the campaign’s Paris headquarters, and canvassed at Central Park. A week before voting day in North America, Joly and his team politicked while picnicking at Central Park. There, wearing the official gray En Marche T-shirt, Joly addressed voter’s questions about Macron’s progressive platform, which stresses tech startups, the European Union and bilingual education. Tall and perfectly coiffed, he bounced from one conversation to another like a well-aimed pinball. “He is a combination of what French expats recognize in themselves: liberating the economy,” he said. “At the same time, education, culture and health have to be protected to remain French.”

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©Alexander Gonzalez

Joly, a marketing manager at Google, may well be the poster child of Macron’s movement. He attended an international high school, where half his coursework was in English, in his hometown of Marseille in Southern France (a National Front stronghold). He recalled feeling depressed at 15 years old when France had rejected a proposal for a European constitution. “I was crying! The future seemed like it was reducing,” he said. As he’s been applying for his green card, Joly wanted to reconnect with France. The election, along with the “crescendo” of Brexit and Trump, fueled his desire to engage politically.

When Macron launched En Marche in April 2016, Joly emailed the headquarters in Paris to start a New York chapter. Three months later, he was asked to coordinate Macron’s New York trip, which culminated in his giving a speech at New York University in December. Matthieu Teachout, who had helped arrange the visit, escorted Macron to NYU. Unfazed about chatting with a public figure, the 28-year- old pitched an ambitious campaign contribution: a tour de France on a Peugeot J-7, which resembles a 1960s Volkswagen van, to promote En Marche.

Two months later, he, his wife Violaine and two friends embarked on En Marche! Le Tour. “Weinitially wanted to reach out to National Front voters in a recognizable vehicle, something like a food truck,” said Teachout, a doctoral student in economics at Columbia University. From February to April, the group drove through 3,000 miles of rural towns and villages in France. They traveled counterclockwise from the suburbs of Toulouse in the Southwest to the German border to their final destination at Périgueux, located near Bordeaux. (A scaled-down version of Le Tour continues around Paris as the final vote on May 7 draws closer.) Along the way, the volunteer quartet met supporters and undecided voters, going porte à porte – “door to door.”

Free coffee and tea usually did the trick, Matthieu said. “That’s what made the movement became so massive,” he added. “En Marche’s impact resulted from being on the ground.” The Teachouts have been planning this feat since 2016. That year, they made a New Year’s resolution: to prevent the rise of the National Front. Violaine, who had helped count votes in regional elections in 2015 in Provence in Southern France, was worried about the NF’s lead in that vote. Regional elections in France fill similar positions to those of governors in the U.S. The couple’s resolution persisted after Trump’s election. As highly educated expats, living in New York City, they refused to stay in what Matthieu called a “bubble.” “We hardly knew anyone who voted for Trump or Le Pen,” he said. “Through the tour, we broke that bubble to see how people live in those deserts of the French reality.”

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©Alexander Gonzalez

For Teachout and many other French expats, the U.S. election rekindled their interest in French politics. Besides En Marche! New York, the Republican candidate Fillon, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise on the far left, had active chapters in New York. On Easter Sunday (and a day after En Marche’s rally at Central Park), Christine Tuaillon joined about 20 supporters at Prospect Park for a potluck-style picnic. Sitting on the grass and drinking cider, they delved into Mélenchon’s commitment to fund the welfare state, artists and environmental sustainability. A biology professor, Tuaillon was torn between Macron and Mélenchon. Though she liked En Marche’s grassroots approach, Mélenchon and his emphasis on climate change spoke to her favorite cause.

“I talk about climate change, population growth and consumerism in my classroom,” said Tuaillon, who teaches at Nassau Community College on Long Island. “He talked about those concepts and that made me start looking at him differently.” Yet Tuaillon, 50, is now caught in another bind: vote Macron or not vote at all. Unlike the other losing candidates, Mélenchon refused to endorse Macron when the results of the first round were announced. Abstaining will be the greatest hurdle, Teachout said. If a majority of voters abstain, then that could edge Le Pen toward the presidency. Voters head for round two in North America on Saturday, May 7 and in France on Sunday, May 8.

Joly remains hopeful. The potential for a forward-looking, modern France has carried him this past year. At 11 p.m. Paris time, when Macron gave his celebratory speech, Joly was perched directly across from the television screen at Café Tallulah. “We will win!” shouted Macron while raising his arms. For Joly, the six-hour time difference shrank. At that moment, he could’ve been in Paris.


Alexander Gonzalez is a Master student in Magazine Journalism at New York University.

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