After more than two hours in a queue that snaked for more than a mile round the cosseted streets of South Kensington, Jérémy, 36, was finally nearing the voting booth – and still was not sure for which candidate he would cast his ballot.
With his two-year-old son Ernest in a pushchair, the engineer from Guildford said he had followed the campaign closely on French media but was still hesitating. Would it be the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, or the hard-left veteran Jean-Luc Mélenchon?
“It all feels new this time around,” he said. “Elections used to be all about left and right. This is between the centre and the extremes, continuity or change, Europe or not Europe. There are good elements in both programmes … I just don’t know. Angel, or demon?”
In the image of a mainland France so divided that any two of the four leading candidates in its presidential election could conceivably go through to the runoff, hundreds of thousands of French citizens abroad queued to cast their ballot in the first round of voting on Sunday.
Outside the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle in South Kensington, one of three polling stations in London for 93,500 voters, and one of 13 across Britain, the queue had lengthened to more than two kilometres by mid-morning and the wait to nearly three hours.
Ca vote à Londres, en masse ! pic.twitter.com/7GH7aEBFpr— soniastolper (@soniastolper) April 23, 2017
“I hadn’t realised it would take anything like this long,” said Pierre Masurel, 60, a wine merchant. “I had to ask people to let me jump the queue. I have to open the shop at 11am and I would never have been able to make it otherwise.”
Masurel said he was “frightened of the extremes, like many French people in London”. He added: “The very worst for me would be a second round between Marine Le Pen and Mélenchon, because that would mean a big risk of her winning.”
A longstanding leftwing voter, he said he was drawn to the official Socialist party candidate, Benoît Hamon, trailing at less than 10 points in the polls. “But because he has no chance,, I’m going to have be vote tactically. It has to be Macron,” he said.
As could be expected, many in the queue were Macron fans. Three thousand French Londoners turned out to see the 39-year-old former investment banker when he brought his campaign to the capital in February in search of support from its often relatively young and globally-minded expats.
Marc Jeannin, 37, who works in finance and has lived in the UK for 12 years, was one. He lamented the tone of the campaign, saying it had been “very populist, with very little room for a debate on the ideas”. France had to “rebalance the equation”, he said: “We’ve already had Brexit and Trump. We don’t need a third shock.”
Murielle Carrasco, 53, got up at seven to be at the lycée when the polling station opened at 8am. A UK resident since 1987, she now runs a pilates studio and said she had studied the candidates’ programmes above all for their economic proposals.
Jean-Louis, 60 and retired, said he too was deeply concerned by the state of France’s economy and debt. “I came to vote for my country, because it’s awful,” he said “This evening, we’ll know if we could be governed by a far-right or far-left extremist. Anyone would think we were in the 19th century.”
Eléonore, 27, who has lived in London for seven years and works in marketing, agreed that the economy was the central question. After being initially tempted by Macron, she said she was now favouring the scandal-hit conservative candidate François Fillon.
“Macron has changed his mind too often,” she said. “And he wants to please everyone.” She was particularly drawn to Fillon’s promise to shed public sector jobs. Carole, 43, was opting for Hamon, after being tempted by Mélenchon.
She could not bring herself to vote for Macron, she said. “I refuse to vote for candidates I can’t believe in. I prefer to stay true to myself.” Rachel, 21, a student at King’s College, was also in Hamon’s camp: “He’s the most human.”
Plusieurs centaines de mètres de queue pour voter au lycée de Wembley où votent une partie des Français de Londres pic.twitter.com/J5uhXD4xDJ— Philippe Bernard (@canalbernard) April 23, 2017
French voters in farther-flung overseas territories such as Saint Pierre and Miquelon, French Guiana in South America and Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, cast their ballots on Saturday to avoid being influenced by the mainland results, which will be known after 7pm BST.
Results from ballots cast in the territories will remain sealed until Sunday evening after polls have closed in mainland France. Hundreds of thousands of French nationals eligible to vote in the US, Canada and Latin America also voted early.
In Washington, at one of 63 US polling stations, voters cast their ballots at the French embassy. Adrien Gontier said he was fulfilling his duty as a citizen. “In the US, you can see what happens when people don’t vote, or vote badly,” he said. “We don’t want there to be a Trump in France.”
Authorities said 30% more French nationals in the US had registered than for the first round of the last presidential elections. In New York, the polling station at the embassy near Central Park was briefly evacuated late on Saturday after a suspicious vehicle raised fears of a bomb threat.
Additional reporting by Marie-Helene Martin