Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Look Into the Mind of a Potential Migrant

Emigration has been described as "voting with one's feet."  That phrase implies that a migrant has looked around and found the country where he or she was accidently born lacking in some way and that he could do better somewhere else.  I think there is much truth in that.

The focus tends to be on those emigrants who leave because of extreme problems in their homelands.   These are easy cases to explain and study.  "Of course they left," we say, "Any reasonable person would have done the same."  Their migration is justified and understandable even though many people do not want to let them into their country.  Remember that infamous phrase:  "La France ne peut pas accueillir toute la misère du monde."  (France cannot welcome all the misery of the world.)

France is not a failed state nor is it a place of poor infrastructure or oppression.  It is, for me and my family a fine place to live, and she has all the loyalty and love of this American migrant.  However, just because I have found my "bonheur" here does not blind me to the fact that for some French citizens this country may not be the best place for them.  One's life chances and the opportunities available here vary depending on the human capital one has and its value in this country.   Where some degrees and skills have less value here and lead one (especially the young) directly to the unemployment line, is it really surprising that some look elsewhere for a better fit?  Of course if they stay they won't starve but that doesn't mean that they don't feel pretty miserable when they discover what they are really worth on the French job market if they manage to land a job at all.

This kind of migration from one developed country to another rouses all kinds of anger.  It is not seen as justified or desirable on the part of the inhabitants of the sending country.  How the French feel about their emigrants is very similar to how Americans feels about theirs.  No rationalization on the part of the individual migrant will ever be good enough to justify the abandonment of the home country.  The only exceptions are those who leave to work on short term assignments.

These migrants are judged and sometimes they are judged even more harshly than the low-skilled migrants from developing countries.  The latter have reasons that everyone understands which gives them the moral high ground even when countries refuse to let them in.   The former are morally suspect and provoke the ire of many in the homelands on the Left and Right of the political spectrum.  Many argue they should be punished in some way or another for what they have done.

There are thriving French communities in places all around the world:  Tokyo, Japan or San Francisco, USA or Montreal, Canada or Casablanca, Morocco.    Most of these folks left France quietly and did not publicly share their reasons for leaving.  The French are a discreet bunch and this sort of thing is normally discussed exclusively among close family and friends.  Given how people feel about emigration, I think that's very prudent of them.

So it was rather a shock to see this article published early May in Le Point:  Lettre d'une étudiante à François Hollande. (hat tip to Loic who shared the link).  This open letter comes from Clara G, a history student at the Sorbonne to the French and it's a very clear statement about why she want to leave the country along with 50% of people in her age bracket.
Vous voyez, les temps changent. Mes grands-parents soixante-huitards avaient eu la tentation de la révolution, j'ai la tentation de l'expatriation. Mes grands-parents, qui coulent aujourd'hui une retraite heureuse dans leur petite maison de campagne du Limousin, rêvaient de transformer la société française, je ne songe qu'à la fuir.
(You see, times have changed.  My hippy grandparents wanted revolution, I want expatriation.  My grandparents, who are happily retired in their little country house in the Limousin, dreamed of transforming French society, I can only thing of fleeing it.)
I imagine that opening paragraph got people's attention and not in a good way.  She goes on to explain.  She mentions the national debt, the burden of paying the retirements and health costs of a large number of aging French citizens, and a stagnant economy.  But those things are not nearly as important as this:
Mais le plus déprimant, c'est de savoir très exactement de quoi sera faite ma vie si je reste en France. Une fois mes études terminées, une fois mes beaux diplômes inutiles obtenus, je rejoindrai sans doute d'abord les rangs fournis des jeunes chômeurs avant d'enquiller pendant des années les stages et les CDD.
(But the most depressing is to know precisely what my life will be if I stay in France.  Once my studies are over, once my pretty but useless diplomas are obtained, I will undoubtedly join the ranks of the young unemployed before being screwed for years in internships and short-term job contracts.)
Avec ces petits boulots précaires et mal payés, il me sera impossible de convaincre un banquier de m'accorder un prêt immobilier pour m'acheter un appartement à Paris. Et si jamais, par une sorte de miracle improbable, je venais à gagner beaucoup d'argent, je sais d'avance que non seulement je devrais en reverser l'essentiel au fisc, mais que cela me vaudrait aussi l'opprobre général de mes concitoyens et votre mépris personnel.
(With these unstable and poorly paid jobs, it will be impossible for me to convince a banker to give me a loan to purchase an apartment in Paris.  And, if ever, by some sort of unlikely miracle, I do make lots of money, I know ahead of time that not only will I have to turn over most of it to the tax authorities, but also that this will gain me the general disgust of my fellow citizens and your personal contempt.)
These are the "push" factors and while they are not extreme ones like hunger, poverty or oppression,  it would be a gross error not to take them seriously.  Like other categories of migrants, this is the voice of a person who has little or no hope for the future.  

And the "pull factors"?  Globalization and the siren song of both near and far shores:
Je ne vois pas du tout la mondialisation comme une menace, mais plutôt comme une chance. Mais ce n'est sûrement pas dans une France qui fait tout pour s'en protéger, où vos ministres et camarades socialistes passent leur temps à dire qu'elle constitue un mal absolu, que je vais pouvoir en profiter. Alors, oui, j'ai envie d'aller vivre dans un pays où il y a de la croissance, où les salaires augmentent, où être riche n'est pas considéré comme un péché mortel, un pays surtout où l'on a le sentiment à la fois individuel et collectif que demain sera meilleur qu'aujourd'hui.
(I do not see globalization as a threat but more of a chance. But this is not true in France which does everything to protect itself, where the ministers and Socialist comrades spend their time telling us that it constitutes pure evil, and I want to take advantage of it. Yes, I want to live in a country with growth, where salaries are rising, where to be rich is not a mortal sin, and where one has the feeling both individual and collective that tomorrow will be better than today.)
Voilà pourquoi, Monsieur le Président, je songe à quitter la France. Pourquoi aussi votre - au demeurant charmant - ministre de l'Intérieur, Manuel Valls, devrait moins se préoccuper des dangers de l'immigration que des menaces de l'émigration de la jeunesse du pays. Je partirai où ? En Allemagne peut-être, dont vous dites tant de mal, mais qui a l'air d'être un pays qui a confiance en lui. Ou alors plus loin, au Canada, en Australie. Ou dans un pays en développement. En Afrique, pourquoi pas ?
(And that is why, Mr. President, I dream of leaving France. Why also your ( to be polite) Minister of the Interior should spend less time on the dangers of immigration and more on the emigration of the country's youth. Where will I go? To Germany perhaps (of which you speak so much evil) which seems like a country with confidence. Or maybe farther, to Canada, to Australia. Or to a developing country. Why not to Africa?

I have a lot of empathy for her position. I left my home country, the US, at about the same age and though my personal migration equation was different I can recognize part of my younger self in her.

 I slipped quietly away - she decided to go out with a bang.

Should she have done that?  I'm not in the habit of telling people what to do and it's not my place to shut anyone up.  I personally would have expressed myself differently - some of what she has to say is very critical and judgmental in its own right.  This response to her letter has some good points to make but I dislike the tone which reminds me a lot of a parent telling a newly grown child, "Look at all we've done for you," and, "You'll see when you go elsewhere how good you had it here."  Older generations of French tried that with their "soixante-huitard" children and see how well that worked out.  Older Americans do exactly the same thing to the same effect and I'm pretty sure that many other young migrant (from rich or poor countries) have heard the same song.  Keeping the young close with talk of debts owed and cries of ingratitude if the parental guilt trip doesn't stick is pretty universal.

My take on it is as follows:  With the exception of naturalized citizens, we are all "accidental" citizens (French, Americans, Germans, Chinese, Chileans, Moroccans) of the places we were born or of our parents' countries.  That's pretty much how citizenship laws work.  Children do not choose their country or their parents.  Furthermore, their society's gifts like education and to a certain extent other things like health care are compulsory.  Does anyone in any country ask a child if she wants to go to school or get a tetanus shot?

I contend that you cannot hold them to a debt they never agreed to unless you imagine citizenship as some sort of intergenerational indentured servitude.  Every society is a pact between the living, the dead and the yet to be born and every generation has the right to renegotiate the deal.  Yes, I understand that this puts a spoke in the wheels of various social welfare programs but I still believe it is deeply immoral to hold anyone to any debt/lender arrangement they did not explicitly consent to.   

I think every adult should have the right to opt out - to "vote with one's feet."  Dismissing the opinions and feelings of potential migrants from developed countries as the "problèmes de riches" and treating them as moral midgets solves nothing.  Proclaiming empathy and understanding for those from developing countries who also wish to migrate while not offering them a place to go is equally futile (and is a bit hypocritical). 

How about we skip the moral platitudes and the guilt trips and just let people sort themselves out?  It would put even more pressure on every country to take a good look at its "value proposition."  This does not, contrary to the prevailing opinion in the US, mean drastically lowering taxes.  I pay higher taxes in France than in the U.S. but I also believe that I get good value for my money here.  Or to put it another way I get the things that are important to me personally in exchange.  Many migrants I know have come to the same conclusion and have chosen EU or Asian countries or Canada over the U.S. for that reason.  Cash is only one factor in every migrant's migration equation and other things count for just as much:  social mobility, personal safety, affordable health care, less or no discrimination, good schools for children and a family-friendly environment.  If people could choose where they want to live, surely they would come up with a combination that works for them.  Nation-states might even find it's a lot nicer to have citizens and residents who are happy to pay the taxes and are supportive of the existing social welfare system. 

So it with great pleasure that I welcome Clara G. into the ranks of "those who move around."  May she have a long, fulfilling, and prosperous life wherever she lands. 


P. Moore said...

A very thoughtful piece, Victoria. I bet you were not only thinking from your point of view, but there must have been some 'silent' insight of your daughters' in there as well. I suspect you have had lots of thoughts and discussions as to where they might actually end up.

I for one left the US many years ago as a young man to live in Canada, a country with higher taxation. For me it always looked like the grass was greener in Canada from the time I was about 10 years old. Compared to my siblings, it definitely turned out that way for many reasons and they do not judge me harshly for doing so, they think I made a good move. Many of our other relatives don't understand it, however. I find most who do not understand or view us emigrants with scorn do not even possess a passport, so I have trouble giving much thought to their opinions on the topic.

A big difference I notice is that most Canadians I know have no problem with other Canadians looking for something in a life abroad. Perhaps the difference is that most Canadians travel outside of Canada (particularly to the US...winter might have something to do with that), while I read recently that the percentage of Americans holding a passport has 'spiked' up to about 30%, since the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, in 2004 (I think). I believe the number of Canadians with passports is over double that percentage and of course Europeans would likely even be higher.

Anonymous said...

Hear! Hear!
Thank you Victoria for your wonderful and thoughtful prose.

Tim said...


Along these line the Montreal Gazette did a very good series a few years back about 1970s era anglo emigration from Montreal.

Watching the videos it is kind of weird because many of the people featured in the documentary of the same generation as many Brokers and Sandboxers and live in a lot of the same places especially Alberta and BC. Cowichan Bay BC in particular has a huge population of former Americans. If not for the currently legal and tax issues it would be kind of neat for the historical record to do a similar documentary some day of Brockers and Sandboxers(Again as some of you know I am of a much younger generation than the people in the documentary and most Brockers/Sandboxers).

As to the Gazette documentary. At the time Anglo emigration from Quebec(even within Canada) was HEAVILY controversial and politically charged both among the francophone population and the Anglophone population that stayed. The documentary though in my opinion gives a very honest view of the economic and political issues that faced the people profiled.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Tim, I'm watching right now. Really interesting and very well done. I'll put them into a post tomorrow. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

@P. Moore, You're right. There have been many discussion among the four of us and also with the extended family in both the US and France.

I think what you say about Canadians is also true for people from Scotland and England. Long history of emigration there and perhaps (can anyone confirm this?) for a person from the British Isles who leaves for Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand it's not such a large leap and it's one people back home understand. There is a connection there that some have called the "anglosphere."

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Tim, One question. The song that is playing in the introduction that goes "Will you stay or will you leave?"

I just loved the song.

Do you know who is the artist? Does anyone?

lymphomajourney said...

Nice piece. One of the ironies of a lot of discussion, particularly among conservatives who talk about freedom, is that many tend to have a traditional view of citizenship as fundamental, rather than the more instrumental reality of today's society.

Rosy the Riveter and Thorn in the Side said...

My sons are beginning to want out also. I've just had an idea! Appealing to the FATCA mess, I've been wondering about something. If we have to report so much of our foreign banking lives and foreign-earned income to Uncle Sam, with eventual back or other taxes,then shouldn't we also have to right to US unemployment benefits on our foreign unemployment ???

Tim said...


Unfortionately I don't know the name of the artist of the song.

I do have to say this whole "FATCA" thing is kind of weird in that at the surface it has nothing to do with emigration control. However, I like you am becoming increasingly convinced that in privately many supporters like Hollande, Moscovici, and Eva Joly who oppose economic and political emigration as a threat to social "solidarity" are quite happy with the precedent set by FATCA. The square pegs in a round hole tend to be countries with a lot of immigration like Canada and in a perverse way the US with its opposition to providing any type of FATCA reciprocity.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Andrew, I agree. Citizenship is so strange in that people seem to conceive of it as a sort of genetic inheritance.

I'm having some fun with David Graeber's book Debt which I recommend to you. Right now I'm reading a discussion of something called "Primordial Debt Theory" which attempts to link membership in a society to the government's right to tax. Really interesting. Graeber hates it and to be honest I think it's pretty silly too. :-)

@Tim, On some level I think emigration control is seen as a happy byproduct of the US tax and reporting rules.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Rosy, I think you've hit on another point of attack. What if we started demanding services? I can think of quite a few I would like. What do you think would be their reaction?

Anonymous said...

Hi Victoria
You might be interested in a free university course (Emory University) that is currently underway and available on-line on US Citizenship and Immigration. There are students from all over the world who are participating and there are some very interesting and lively debates on the discussion forums. This course can be found on the Coursera website:
The professor, Polly Price, is excellent.

Christophe said...

Great post, Victoria. Wonderful writing.
Sorry I did not comment earlier, but let me express my feelings about it.
I think it is sad that she thinks this way. I see a sense of disgust in the government policies, a feeling of being powerless in changing them, that leads to her wanting to leave.
But in a way, I feel that "elle crie avant d'etre battue" (she yells before being beaten). Why doesn't she try to first find a job in France before threatening to leave.
One can question the reasons people emigrate. In developed countries, the main reasons are career opportunities abroad, going on an adventure and loving the place where you land, or follow a foreign partner. She's mentioning a new one, which is disagreement with the policies of the current government, that may lead to difficulties in finding a job, high taxes, etc. I personally think that's a little extreme. She hasn't even tried to find a job yet!
Each country has its pros and cons. The grass is not greener on the other side. It's just different. In their pursuit of happiness, people need to understand that. And maybe the only way to understand it is to live it.
After 15 years of living abroad, I have enough experience to compare, but lots of it depends on your situation and your goals in life. Some times life can be better in one country, some times, it can be better in another. Once you made a choice and the circumstances are that you can't really move again, it probably is better not to try to answer the question anymore, because that is the recipe for not being happy.

Tim said...

One comment I will make in response is it has been many years since I have been to France. I do remember though I felt that during the Jacques Chirac era France has a sense of swagger or edge especially in its relations with United States(This was during the period of the Iraq War and immediately afterwards). However, I tend to view from afar that both Sarkozy and Hollande are basically suck-ups to Obama and the US. I personally think that that is probably bad for the people of France. That edge or rebellion was a good thing for people's morale.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@anonymous, That looks like a really good class. I'm interested. If they are still taking students, I will sign up. Thank you!

@Christophe, You're right, the grass is NOT greener on the other side of the Atlantic. She is very pessimistic but then I've noticed that many French fall into the "my glass is half empty" group. :-)

But young people do pay attention to what's going on with others in their age cohort. It is tough for them right now and what's available isn't always what they have in mind. My daughter had a burning desire to do psychology but because she was an L student it wasn't possible (or very very difficult) in France. She was not happy about that. Turns out it wasn't a problem in Canada and so off she went. I just read her Honour's thesis and was blown away. She's really passionate about it and is working her butt off to be good at it. That said, she didn't leave for Canada with bitterness but rather excitement. I wish Clara G. had talked more about that part and not about what's wrong with France. But, hey, life is in session and she'll figure it out. :-)

@Tim, Yes and it drove Americans nuts. :-) Obama is very popular here. During the election I went to see my confessor/friend at the Jesuit center in Paris and he told me how hard he was praying for Obama's re-election. I kept mouth firmly shut but of the effort not to say something....

Tim said...


I suspect your confessor/friend is not a big fan of Clara G.

Second does your confessor know who John Boehner is and has any opinion of Boehner vis a vis Obama.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

I don't know, Tim. My friend is from Madagascar originally though he came here as a very young man and today he's retired and a French citizen. He's told stories of leaving his village to come here and how hard it was. He came to France to enter the seminary and has spent his entire priestly career here. His French is impeccable but he still speaks malgache.

No, he doesn't know of any U.S. politicians other than Obama (he read Obama's book). I'd say that is true of all my family and friends here. The US president is really the only one folks I know pay attention to - the members of Congress are just not of interest.

Tim said...

I don't have all the details but I heard there was a bit of a catfight in Brussels between MEP Sophia In't Veld and Eva Joly over FATCA. Joly is big time pro Obama and pro FATCA>