Emmanuel Macron once described London as France’s sixth-biggest city because of the number of French citizens who live and work there – and he may need their help when a tense presidential election gets under way on Sunday.
A late sprint by far-right challenger Marine Le Pen is threatening to cause an upset in what had looked only weeks ago like a smooth re-election campaign for Mr Macron.
A polling bounce for the president after Russia invaded Ukraine has given way to flagging support amid anxiety about the cost of living, making Mr Macron’s minimal campaigning look overconfident rather than statesmanlike.
One poll released on Thursday showed Ms Le Pen in the lead for the first time in a potential run-off with Mr Macron if, as expected, they emerge as the top two candidates from Sunday’s first round.
Far from playing down the possibility of a Le Pen victory, allies of Mr Macron such as Alexandre Holroyd, the MP for French expats in Britain and Northern Europe, are using it to motivate voters in the campaign’s final stretch.
“Her view and vision of society haven’t changed, although her tone has,” Mr Holroyd told The National, referring to Ms Le Pen’s attempts to detoxify her party and rebrand herself as a cat-loving sympathiser of the working class.
Firing up voters is a particular concern because the war in Ukraine, and an initial complacency around Mr Macron’s re-election, are blamed by experts for what polling suggests will be a low turnout.
Expatriates will face the additional hurdle on Sunday of finding their way to one of only 15 polling stations in England and Scotland, with postal votes not accepted in the presidential race.
Mr Macron, 44, will be hoping they make it to the ballot box, after expats in Britain provided him with one of his most formidable strongholds in his first election victory in 2017.
On that occasion, he crushed Ms Le Pen by 95 per cent to 5 per cent among typically cosmopolitan voters in Britain and built up a final-round lead of more than 43,000 votes that was second only to his margin in Switzerland.
“I feel like the diaspora here is much more liberal, hardly anyone here would vote far-right,” said Alexander Bradford, a British-French business director who plans to vote in Fulham, west London. “I guess that comes with being international – you get to be more open-minded.”
Mr Bradford is a supporter of Mr Macron, describing him as a pro-business president who has lived up to his promises five years ago when his new centrist party upended the political scene.
He praises him for steering a course between political extremes, a point often made by the president’s allies as Ms Le Pen, 53, and the far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon, 70, gain ground in the polls.
But he says Mr Macron has “gone from being a complete outsider to being the epitome of the establishment” – underlining one of the problems that has plagued the president during his term.
Amid fears that soaring living costs will reignite the “yellow vest” protests that set Paris ablaze in 2018 and 2019, Mr Macron has struggled to shake off a reputation as a snobbish “president of the rich”.
His rivals have pounced on revelations about large sums paid by his government to high-end American consultants McKinsey to portray him as sneering at voters and wasting their tax money.
Ms Le Pen and Mr Melenchon both score higher in rankings based on which candidates speak the language of ordinary voters, said Dr Paul Smith, a French politics expert at the University of Nottingham.
Five candidates for the French presidential election
“When you then ask the next question of which candidate you think has the best handle on what the problems are in terms of the cost of living, the answer isn’t Macron,” Dr Smith said.
Mr Macron waited until early March to formally enter the fray, preferring to demonstrate leadership by negotiating with Russian President Vladimir Putin and driving through defence and security reforms in Europe.
That won him points for statesmanship, which his supporters have sought to contrast with Kremlin-friendly statements by some of his rivals, including Ms Le Pen, who once cited Mr Putin and Donald Trump as her top political comrades.
It also put world affairs at the centre of a political debate where they are sometimes ignored despite making up a large part of the president’s job, said one former diplomatic official.
“Eighty per cent of their job is to do European and foreign affairs and they are not prepared for it in the vast majority of cases,” she said, while Mr Macron now has five years' experience.
Mr Macron’s camp has also stressed his record as a champion of the European Union, a position that could play well with French voters in Britain in the first post-Brexit presidential election, Dr Smith said.
By contrast, Ms Le Pen has a nationalist suspicion of the world beyond France and Mr Melenchon tends to caricature expats in Britain as though they were all wealthy City of London financiers, he said.
Neither Ms Le Pen nor her fellow far-right candidate Eric Zemmour, whose tirades against immigration display almost cartoonish nostalgia for a pre-multicultural France gave him a short-lived burst of momentum last year, say they favour leaving the EU.
But both want to reclaim powers from Brussels, are lukewarm about Nato and a far-right victory would mean “turning our back on the international stage”, Mr Holroyd said.
Centre-right candidate Valerie Pecresse has faded in the polls since her nomination in December and appears unlikely to reach the run-off, while Mr Melenchon still stands a chance after emerging as the main force on the left.
Unless any candidate wins an absolute majority on Sunday, a remote prospect, the two finalists will have a fortnight to make their case before the final round on April 24.
Supporters of mainstream parties have historically put their differences aside to keep out Ms Le Pen and her father Jean-Marie before her, but many doubt whether this “republican front” will continue to hold.
“Last time, the idea of Le Pen winning in the second round was impossible, but this time it is very close,” Mr Bradford said. “The French do like to create surprises.”