Sarkozy woos French expats in London

By Quentin Peel in London - FINANCIAL TIMES
Published: January 30 2007 18:41 | Last updated: January 30 2007 18:41

Nicolas Sarkozy, the Gaullist candidate emerging as the front-runner in the French presidential election, brought his campaign to Britain on Tuesday with a passionate speech in praise of expatriate workers, and a plea for them to come home and transform France. Before a packed audience at London’s Old Billingsgate market, he dared to claim the UK capital as “one of the greatest French cities”, and wooed his audience with a tribute to all. Citing Voltaire, Descartes, Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo, who fled into exile to seek greater freedom, he even linked to London the name of Napoleon, who once contemplated exile in the land of his greatest adversary.

The first mass rally of a French presidential candidate in Britain was a remarkable tribute to the soaring number of French workers in the country, estimated at between 200,000 and 300,000, many of whom might be voters in the forthcoming elections. France is not just a country that exists inside its own borders,” he said. “France is an ideal and not just a territory, France exists anywhere in the world where there are French people.” It was an extraordinary performance, in which Mr Sarkozy managed to link the dynamism and energy of French exiles to the transformation he is trying to promote in the home country.
He admitted far too many had left their homes because of an atmosphere that discouraged entrepreneurship. “They leave because they don’t have diplomas, and no one wants to give them a chance,” he said. “They leave because they are risk-takers, and risk is a bad word.”
At the same time he called on them to come home, and revive the French economy and society. “To every exile who is unhappy about what is happening in France, and unhappy about leaving, I say: ‘Come home’,” he declared. “Come home, because together we will make France a great country where everything will be possible, where fathers won’t fear for the future of their children, and where everyone will be able to make their plans come true, and be responsible for their own destiny.”

He spoke at the end of a day when he met Tony Blair, UK prime minister, for lunch, and visited a London job centre, and the Cabinet war rooms in Whitehall.
The only slight embarrassment was an insistence from Downing Street that Mr Sarkozy was being welcomed as an official visitor – in his capacity as interior minister – while the French embassy said he was merely a presidential candidate. But a spokesman for Mr Blair sought to make amends. “If Ségolène Royal [Mr Sarkozy’s Socialist rival] wants to come to London and meet the prime minister, I am sure the prime minister would be happy to meet her,” he said.