I met Savitri Natarajan on the afternoon of 22 April, as she was filling plastic boxes with food: fresh lemon rice, homemade gram and rice-flour chips, pickles, fries and curd. She was helping her family get ready for a journey of almost 900 kilometres, from their home in Yanam town, on India’s eastern coast, to the city of Pondicherry—the capital of the union territory Puducherry. They were headed there so that Savitri’s husband, Gurumurthy Natarajan, could vote in the French presidential election, whose first phase was due to start the next day.
The members of the Natarajan family were not the only residents of Yanam to be making this trip. Yanam town is in Yanam district—geographically located in Andhra Pradesh, but formally an enclave of Puducherry. When the French left India, in 1954, they extended the option of French citizenship to the subjects of their territories, which included Yanam. Over 60 years later, this has made Yanam—a quaint, Telugu-speaking area in coastal Andhra Pradesh—home to a community of unconventional French citizens.
Gurumurthy, at 56 years old, has travelled to France, but has never stayed there longer than three months. He told me that the French government allows people to authorise others to vote for them, but he still prefers casting his own ballot. “We have our relatives in France, and we can authorise them, too, but we chose to do it ourselves,” he said. “It makes us proud.”
Yanam town, with a population of around 30,000, has very few surviving buildings from the French regime; they include the office of the deputy collector and a Roman Catholic church. Most of the town’s houses are built on small plots clustered along narrow lanes. There are a few picturesque, villa-style houses, which I was told are the ancestral homes of French citizens who visit Yanam only every two or three years.
One sweltering morning, I met 63-year-old Davouloury Mroutyam-Zaya Chanmouga Ravon, a prominent member of Yanam’s French community, at a local temple’s community lunch. Dressed in a crisp striped shirt tucked into navy-blue trousers, he stood out in a sea of dhotis and kurtas. “Bonjour,” he greeted me, though we conversed in Telugu.
Davouloury was four years old when the French left India. As a minor, he automatically received French citizenship, with the option to keep or renounce it once he turned 18. When he was 12 years old, he moved to Puducherry to study in a French school, where he learnt to fluently read and write the language. After school—in accordance with French law at the time—Davouloury served a year in the French military. For this, he moved to France and was a brigadier in the country’s Brittany region for a year. He stayed in Europe for the majority of his life, working for the French government as a machinist. He married an Indian woman who is not from Yanam, and she obtained French citizenship by naturalisation. They had three children, all of whom were educated in France and are now married and settled there. Davouloury retired in 2014, and since then has divided his time between India and France.
In the election, Davouloury supported Emmanuel Macron—the centrist candidate, who ended up winning. “He is very well educated, and has sound knowledge in banking and commerce,” Davouloury told me. “He has worked as a civil servant and investment banker, and also in the government formed by François Hollande in 2012. We believe once he becomes the president, he will tackle the rising unemployment in the country better.”
Some people I spoke with disagreed, preferring instead to back François Fillon—a centre-right politican and former prime minister of France. Sadanala Babu, at 55 years old, holds a voluntary position as the designated liaison between France’s government and Yanam’s French citizens. “We at Yanam are preferring François Fillon,” he said, because he “is experienced in the running of the government.” Sadanala did add, however, that if Macron, and not Fillon, made it to the second phase of the election, Yanam’s voters would likely support him.
Something that everyone I spoke to could agree on, however, was a dislike for Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the far-right National Front. “She’s like another Trump—and one is enough for now,” a young French citizen told me. Davouloury agreed, pointing to Le Pen’s harsh views on immigration and her desire to pull France out of the European Union as reasons why “the general French people do not want her.”
The first phase of the election ended on 23 April, and a run-off election was declared between Le Pen and Macron. Many of Yanam’s French citizens, including some who had not voted in the first phase, turned up on 7 May to vote in the second one. Macron won by a large margin. When I called Sadanala after the results were declared, he told me excitedly, “I have received notification that all category of pensions and benefits like unemployment benefits will go up. People here in Yanam are very happy.”
Many of Yanam’s French citizens voted by proxy. For example, Davouloury’s son, who lives in Paris, voted on behalf of his father in both phases of the election. Anusuya, Sadanala’s 79-year-old mother, who is a naturalised French citizen, visited France and, while there, cast votes for her son and herself in the second phase.
Anusuya’s father-in-law, as a native of Yanam, was a French citizen, and worked for the French government in Puducherry. Her husband—Sadanala Babu’s father—was also a French citizen, and worked for the French government. Only relatively recently, however, did Sadanala realise that his mother, although she had never been to France, could apply for French citizenship. “She wrote a letter to the French government declaring that she is the wife and daughter-in-law of French citizens in Yanam, and would be happy to derive their citizenship,” he said. She submitted the requisite documentation in 2004, and became a French citizen soon after that.
Since then, Anusuya has divided her time between India and France. “There’s a lot of respect and care, and I enjoy my freedom,” she told me in Telugu, about her time in France. She gets free healthcare, and can travel anywhere she wants with adequate support, both financial and supervisory. Sadanala echoed this. “We are very proud to be French citizens, and I have grown more fond of the fact that they take care of their people so much—not only financially, but also in terms of smoothness of services, like getting a birth certificate issued,” he said. Sadanala hopes to relocate to France in about five years, after he retires.
Many of Yanam’s French citizens receive financial support from the French state. People who have worked for the French government and retired—and, when they die, their spouses or minor children—receive a service pension that varies between Eur 300 and Eur 500 per month, or between about Rs 21,000 and Rs 36,000. But even those who have never held government jobs, some of whom have never even set foot in France, receive monthly security payments of about Eur 200 or Eur 300—between Rs 15,000 and Rs 21,000. Anusuya gets even more than that—Eur 860 per month, or about Rs 63,000—in the form of an old-age pension for people living in France. “They check every six months to ensure that the senior citizen is present in the country and safe. That’s why she has to travel to France every few months,” Sadanala said. (While Sadanala was open about the monetary support that he and his family receive, many of the French citizens I spoke with were much more reluctant to speak about the topic—with some closing doors on me, others not turning up for scheduled meetings, and yet others telling me they did not want to discuss their citizenship status or the money they get from the government.)
For now, Davouloury is happy spending his post-retirement life split between France and India. But still, “it’s a very difficult divide,” he said. “I grew up here and have properties in this place. I long to come back here; yet when I am here, I am constantly reminded of my friends, relatives, and my community there and I yearn to get back there.”