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Running, Away

Stumping for French votes in freedom-fry country.

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This election season’s most demanding campaign itinerary may belong not to Barack Obama or Mitt Romney but to Corinne Narassiguin, a 37-year-old Wall Street telecom ­engineer seeking a seat in the French National Assembly. For the first time, France is giving overseas citizens their own representatives (the initial round of voting is June 2), and Narassiguin is running as a member of François Hollande’s Socialist Party. There are eleven of these new parliamentary seats, with the one assigned to North America representing 160,000 registered French voters—a constituency the size of a New York City Council member’s but spread across the United States and Canada.

Narassiguin has been stumping from coast to coast for a year and a half and full time since March, when she left her job at Citigroup. She has spent $40,000 of her own money on the race (though under French law, most of that will likely be ­re­imbursed); in the last month alone, she’s traveled to meet with voters in Raleigh, Vancouver, Albuquerque, and Mamaroneck. “The choice I made in this campaign is not to go only to those cities where we have a lot of French people,” she says. In Salt Lake City, only three people turned out to hear her speak.

On a rainy evening earlier this spring, she was trying to motivate twenty or so supporters who had come out to see her at the Hyatt Regency a few blocks from the Capitol in Washington. The shirt she wore under her gray business suit was tiger print; the meeting room was drab and windowless. She began with her talking points. Unlike many of her opponents, she took pains to point out, she was no carpetbagger. The Front Gauche’s candidate has a French-Canadian husband but resides in France, while Nicolas Sarkozy’s party had nominated a finance-ministry official who had lived in New York as a child but is now based in Paris. She bragged of her original visa status—H-1B, reserved for long-term, ­highly trained workers. “I’m a ­local,” Narassiguin said in French, “not an expat.”

Narassiguin dutifully mentioned one of the most parochial issues in her platform—better bilingual-schooling opportunities for overseas French residents—and then veered into a Gingrich-like digression about the importance of space research. “We must never abandon this idea that we should research into the unknown—in all domains.” But running for office an ocean away from where one hopes to serve doesn’t require the skills of the visionary or the barnstormer so much as those of the IT help line or social-studies classroom. For the first 30 minutes, all the questions she faced were either requests for guidance in using a novel online-voting platform (“One day we got an e-mail saying to go to a site to verify … ,” a perplexed middle-aged woman began) or curiosity about what exactly the job that Narassiguin sought entailed.

One young voter asked her how she would be able to live in New York and work in Paris. Narassiguin had a plan: Once a month, she would come back to North America and pick a ­different region to meet with her constituents. “You have to see all the diversity of French people living abroad,” she said and noted that it could be worse. One of the districts stretches from South Africa through Iraq, a region in which many countries share no air connections. ­Another covers the former ­Soviet Union, Asia, and Australia. Still, she was not deluded about the toll her new commute would take. “Being deputy for Switzerland or Belgium wouldn’t be too difficult,” she said. “Someone who lives in Brussels, they can go home every night.”

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