Europe News

A Barack Obama for France? Expats in London hopeful that center-left Macron can beat the far-right

Emmanuel Macron, French presidential candidate, gives a thumbs-up to attendees after speaking at a campaign meeting with French expatriates at Central Hall Westminster in London, U.K., on February 21, 2017.
Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images

In London's Westminster, the heart of the British government, a young, upstart politician held a rally Tuesday night. But, the politician in question has no intention of one day leading the House of Commons. This is Emmanuel Macron, the center-left former economy minister to incumbent French President Francois Hollande, now vying to become his successor in the upcoming election.

At the rally – managed by chipper French millennials bearing the politician's En Marche! party logo – one French voter told CNBC that he hopes Macron has the potential to be a "French Barack Obama."

While London may seem an odd choice to campaign for votes in an election taking place across the channel, a near 3,000-strong crowd was in attendance. In fact, French citizens living abroad are able to vote in specifically designated constituencies, meaning that the 320,000 expats who now call the U.K. home can be counted either as part of northern Europe or their original voting area.

With regards to voting trends, Nadege Alezine, a French journalist living in London and editor of expat site, told CNBC via e-mail that "The only candidate that seems to please a large number of French expats … is Emmanuel Macron." She reasoned that "He is young, speaks English fluently and even if his program remains still uncertain, he seems to speak to the ear of the French expats."

Le Pen does not have the slightest chance of election: Publicis CEO

Christophe Premat, the current member of parliament for France's northern Europe constituency on behalf of Hollande's Socialist Party, echoed Alezine's observation, saying that the pro-business candidate "talks to entrepreneurs."

But, Premat did cast doubt on the Macron fever coming from expats, suggesting that it was "difficult to evaluate how deep that support is," considering that his En Marche! movement was only formed in April of last year.

However, Macron's chances appeared to improve Wednesday when veteran centrist politician Francois Bayrou announced that, rather than run against the former minister, he was offering an alliance in the presidential campaign. News of the planned tie-up, details of which will be unveiled later Wednesday, pushed the euro higher and French bond yields lower.

Brexit has boosted interest in the French election

Support among London's French expat community for the election as a whole has been galvanized by the U.K.'s vote to leave the European Union last June. Premat said French expats had been mobilized given that they could not take part in the U.K.'s Brexit referendum, and were "worried about the future."

The result of the vote rippled into many anti-Brexit online movements among French expats, he detailed. One such example is the3million, which aims to safeguard the residency rights of European Union expats living in the U.K. post-Brexit. Alezine said that the referendum has had a "huge impact on the French expats' morale."

This time around, Premat suggested that key issues on voters' minds were freedom of mobility in Europe and nationality – foregrounded due to Brexit – as well as support for business start-ups and taxes.

French presidential candidate and head of the far-right National Front party Marine Le Pen arrives on stage to give a speech on February 5, 2017.
Jeff Pachoud | AFP | Getty Images

The French Interior Ministry confirmed to CNBC via e-mail that 100,000 French expats in the U.K. are registered to vote as part of the northern Europe constituency. Polling stations will be open in 11 U.K. cities with 42 in London alone.

Both Alezine and Premat concurred that support among expats was thin on the ground for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and her National Front party.

Macron's speech Tuesday evening covered topics including entrepreneurship, Brexit negotiations and the rise of populism. Amid the cheers last night after Macron led a chorus of the French national anthem, one voter told CNBC, "he's definitely the wild card."

Follow CNBC International on Twitter and Facebook.