Agnes Maurin has a simple explanation for the dire lack of coverage of the Australian election campaign in French newspapers: ‘It’s not Kosovo.’
A search in Le Monde in the last month reveals only three articles relating to Australian politics; on the Tasmanian pulp mill, the minerals boom and workplace reforms. Coverage in the financial paper La Tribune is equally sparse.
Instead, French newspapers have been filled with stories of crippling transport strikes, a French charity’s alleged attempt to traffic children from Chad, President Sarkozy’s divorce, and the humiliating defeat of Les Bleus by England in the Rugby World Cup semi-final. With so much on the domestic front, perhaps it is little wonder no one cares much about what the Shadow Environment Minister in far off Australia unwittingly said in an airport.
Maurin is the director of the Press Club in Montpellier, a Mediterranean student town with a population of around 250,000 in France’s south.
She says French people in general have an under-developed understanding and interest in international politics, save perhaps those of Europe, the US and Kosovo, which is still considered important given Europe’s guilt over their hands-off approach to the conflict of the late 1990s.
Maurin believes confusion about Australia’s political system may also have led French journalists to dismiss Australian election stories as unimportant. ‘In France, the election of the Prime Minister is of minor significance compared to that of the President.’
But the lack of coverage of Australian affairs is not to say that French people aren’t interested in politics. In recent weeks, thousands of students have blockaded universities in protests against proposed privatisation reforms. Train drivers, meanwhile, have left the country literally at a standstill over negotiations on pension reform.
Two issues stand out when engaging French people about Australian politics: that Australia has not signed the Kyoto Protocol, a position the French find at odds with their perception of Australia as an environmental wonderland; and that John Howard has been re-elected many, many times.
‘We find that bizarre,’ says Maurin. ‘In France the maximum number of times a President has ever been elected is twice. Maybe because Sarkozy is young he will stay longer. I’m not sure, we haven’t had a young leader before.’
She adds that Sarkozy’s success in pushing through the reforms he was elected on, such as those on education and retirement pensions, will be a factor in his re-election hopes.
Meanwhile in Paris, the Australian embassy has been redeploying staff to assist with its election pre-polling, which has taken place in the two weeks before election day.
Approximately 5,500 Australians live in France. The Embassy does not have exact numbers due to the high percentage of Australians with dual European passports, and because the embassy does not insist they register on arrival.
Yet only 200 people had voted in the first few days of pre-polling, and another 200 had used postal votes.
Embassy polling stations can be lucrative grounds for political parties to persuade voters. In the previous election, the London polling station was reputedly the largest in the election, attracting 21,000 voters and, according to the ALP Abroad organisation, tipping the vote to Labor in the seat of Hindmarsh. The organisation says this year Wentworth has the highest proportion of voters registered overseas.
The Liberal Party too is lobbying hard. Spokesman Jim Bonner said their UK Branch had been ‘working vigorously’ at the London booth providing material to voters as well as seeing to a significant advertising campaign.
Convenor of the recently formed Parisian office of ALP Abroad, Ludo McFerran, said the previous election ‘woke people up to the value of the ex-pat vote’.
‘Most of the ex-pat community are young professionals, living overseas to improve their skills. They mostly want to return to Australia at some point. These are people Australia should be keeping onside.’
McFerran said issues of specific importance to the ex-pat community include taxation, retention or acquisition of dual citizenship rights, and certain difficulties relating to overseas voting and enrolment.
As Southern Cross Group, an ‘advocacy and support organisation for the Australian Diaspora’ reported last week:
Although some 13.6 million people are enrolled to vote in next week’s Australian Federal election, an estimated half a million adult Australian citizens overseas are not. Even before the electoral rolls closed for this election, they could not enrol.
Current Australian electoral law prohibits thousands of ex-pats from exercising their democratic right to vote as Australian citizens. That’s because section 94A of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 stipulates that those who are not on the electoral roll may only enrol from abroad if it is less than three years since they left Australia to live abroad.
McFerran said that while 1500 Australians voted in Paris last time, this year many will not or have not been able to vote. ‘People might have missed out. We tried to get as much information out as possible, but it’s pretty hard to contact Australians. Americans tend to congregate here, but Australians seem to want to mix in.’
There’s little chance of mixing in though for McFerran and friends, who on Armistice Day hit the Champs Elysees decked out in eye-catching ‘Kevin 07’ T-shirts:
We got stopped a lot by plain-clothes police who wanted to know who and what is ‘Kevin’. They asked us what the issues were, and we said ‘the phased withdrawal of Iraq’. The Iraq issue resonates a lot with French people.
What then, do some of the Australian voters in France know or care about the election?
Jeni Willis, a 26-year-old from Warrandyte, Victoria, travelling through Europe, said she ‘most certainly would not’ miss the chance to vote in this election, describing it as a turning point in Australia’s political direction akin to Whitlam’s ‘It’s Time’.
For Willis, it was also important to cast her vote at a polling booth. ‘Postal voting is not the same.’
What then did she think of the Paris polling booth? ‘It was very funny. Labor ‘how to votes’ are black and white A4 photocopies, while the Liberals have high quality glossy fold outs. It encapsulates the Australian political parties well.’
Back in Montpellier, Broken Hill’s Jane Palmer studying French at university for six months said that although she had lost touch with Australian politics while in France, she still often finds herself having to defend certain policies.
I get asked about the Aboriginal situation a lot. I find it difficult to answer, not for a lack of knowledge about it, but how the hell do you sum up something so complicated, and then answer how the Government is managing the situation? They’re not.
Palmer said more could be done to assist ex-pat voting, suggesting perhaps an internet voting option.
‘I didn’t even receive a notification of what date the election is on,’ she said, conceding she is not registered with the embassy. Nonetheless she has submitted an application for a postal vote.
Fellow Australian student Cressida Keher, from Peakhurst in NSW, meanwhile has no such concerns.
‘Is there an election? When? I don’t even have a TV or the internet at home. I barely keep up with the French news, let alone the Australian news.’
And when Australians themselves don’t even know there’s an election going on, can you really blame the French?
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