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

Friday, November 29, 2013

French Migrants in the United States

A good way to get a wider perspective on your own experience is to look at how other people lived the same experience in a different context.

I just finished Jacqueline Lindenfeld's The French in the United States:  an Ethnographic Study  (2000).  I read it with a lot of "what-if's" in my mind because, like all bi-national cross-cultural couples, my French spouse and I had to make decisions about where we were going to live and raise a family.  For us the U.S. was the path not taken for most of our marriage.  And yet, there is is always the shadow of the other country beckoning, and the mere fact that it exists as a choice colors the life in whatever country the couple is living in at any point in time.

Lindenfeld was born in Rouen and left France as a young adult for the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship.  She stayed, taught French and worked as an interpreter, and then went on to get her PhD from UCLA.  In the early 1990's she wanted to understand what it meant to be French in the United States.  She had her own experience as a migrant, but a sample of one isn't very meaningful except on a personal level.  She decided to conduct an ethnographic study of French migrants in the U.S. living in two states:  California and Oregon.

The interviews were conducted between 1993 and 1996 and her 96 subjects were "French-born men and women who had lived in the United States a minimum of five years and intended to stay."  She looked for contemporary migrants (not expats or students) who came to the U.S. in the 20th century - mostly in the latter half.  She made a particular effort to find isolated individuals - French living in a sea of Americans who had very little contact with other French and she found that in rural Oregon.

The data she gathered were quite interesting as were some of the comments freely volunteered by the interviewees about their lives.  The portrait she paints is one of a migrant population that did not come to the U.S. for economic reasons and did not form a distinct community in the U.S.  Individual choices brought them to a distant shore and personal reasons kept them there.

Why They Left France - "Push" Factors:  "Only one-eighth of the respondents unequivocally attribute their emigration to economic conditions in France."  Looking at 9 individuals most of them came to the U.S. in the 1950's and 60's with very limited education.  Six came from rural Brittany or the south of France.

For the older migrants war was a factor in a few cases but in an indirect way.  One subject was a Frenchwoman born in 1936, the daughter of a French army officer and his Japanese wife.  They lived in Provence and her father died in the war.  Wartime France was not comfortable for her so she left to stay with her mother's relatives in California.

The majority of the French in her study gave very different reasons for leaving which ranged from "too many rules,"  to the French character (pessimistic), bureaucracy, racism and xenophobia, overemphasis on tradition, social stratification and scarce housing.

But 27 of the 96 subjects had nothing whatsoever to report.  They had nothing driving them away from France and Lindenfeld argues that even the ones who cited various reasons for leaving were not "pushed."  No strong indictments of conditions in the home country - just personal preferences.  It would be interesting to know if these preferences existed before they left France or if they developed after they settled into life in the United States.  I suspect the latter because the answers can be turned around and read as a statement about what they found and liked about the U.S. - things they could not really have known in their pre-migration lives.

Why They Came to the U.S. - "Pull" Factors:  These were the reasons they migrated and one of the top reasons was marriage.  "Approximately one-fourth (23 out of 96) of the respondents in my sample came to this country as a result of marriage to an American."  Most met their spouses in France and they were very young (teenagers) when they got married.   19 were women and only 4 were men.  Some were war brides and here we see an indirect impact of the 20th century wars in Europe.  "A total of eight women are war brides:  one from the World War I period, two from the World War II period, and five from the period immediately following WW II when numerous U.S. bases were located in France and nearby."

The others came for many different reasons but the ones that seem most important are a kind of entrepreneurial mentality that seemed easier to realize in the US and a desire for adventure.  One woman who arrived in 1963 at that age of 32 was running a childcare center in France and one day just decided she needed a change.  So she found a position in California and entered the country on a five-year visa.

Another, a Frenchman who arrived in 1979, came to the US after high school in France (lycée) and worked first as an au pair and then later for a newspaper.  At the time of the study he was living in California working for the post office.

Education:  This is where things got very interesting.  Lindenfeld compared their educational level before migration and after.  Before migrating 20% had a level between sixth and ninth grade (up to collège or middle school), 11% had some high school and 32% had completed high school.  This means that over 60% of the French in her sample had no university education when they left France.  These were not the "highly-qualified migrants" so sought after by countries of immigration.

But what happened after these migrants came to the U.S.?  Many went back to school.  "The post-immigration figures reveal an almost exact reversal of these proportions:  35.4 percent of the participants have a sixth- to twelfth-grade education, while 64.6 percent are college educated."   In particular those who came with five or more years of higher education (4.2%)  reached even higher and were nearly 20% after migration.  Essentially, they took advantage of the open American university system which is open to people of all ages, not just young people.

Citizenship Status & Identity:  Citizenship is often taken as a measure of integration or a test of loyalty and intentions but I'm rather doubtful that this is generally true.  There are so many reasons to become a citizen that have nothing to do with wanting to be part of a political community or wishing to be assimilated into the larger society.  There are also some very good reasons not to become a citizen.

Back in 1990 the French had a pretty low naturalization rate - only about 50% ever became U.S. citizens.   There were  44 people in her sample who were not US citizens at all.    Why?  Length of stay was one factor she identified.  For those French who had been in the US an average of 18 years, their rates of naturalization were a bit lower and yet she had French who had been in the U.S. over 50 years and weren't citizens.  French law was probably another factor - it wasn't always true that French could be duals.  And yet 25 out of her 44 exclusively French qualified for citizenship at a time when it was perfectly possible to take on US citizenship without losing their French nationality.  So something else was going on here and Lindenfeld argued that it was because the French in the U.S. really had no compelling reason to become Americans.

As a group the French in the United States were not very politically active and showed little interest in US politics (and that includes the ones that were U.S. citizens).  So voting rights were not a pull for them.  They were also a group that was generally viewed favorably by Americans - they didn't need to fight at the political level against discrimination or to stand as a group to assert their rights and fight for acceptance in the American melting pot. "French people do not feel the need, generally speaking, to "prove themselves" by acquiring U.S. citizenship since they are on the whole well accepted by Americans."

I think Lindenfeld is right but I would a few more things based on my experience and alluded to by one of her participants who said in another chapter:
 "I am ashamed to say so, because the United States has given me so much, but I always feel more French than American.  For one thing, I like being a foreigner [speaker's own terms, despite his U.S. citizenship and perfect command of English], it's an advantage, it makes you more exotic, it gives you a more international outlook."
Now this participant was a U.S. citizen and a long-term resident yet he or she did not have an American identity and didn't want one.  That is not unusual.  Underneath even the most visibly integrated migrants is ambivalence and a much more fluid identity than can be discerned by their public personas.  Here are a couple of things I can think of that also apply to many Americans in France:

A presumption of belonging:  A "white ethnic" French who has lived many years in the U.S. and speaks the language well benefits from a presumption that he or she is a citizen.  Whatever the personal identity and how the migrant feels, society will put its own assumptions and prejudices (positive or negative) on to that person.  Natives, for example, may have a great deal of psychological investment in the typical immigration narrative (migrant comes to the "land of opportunity", succeeds and becomes a citizen).  Confronted with someone from another country who has lived 10, 20, 30 years in the second country, they have a bias toward treating that person as a compatriot.  It is more than the migrant having nothing to prove.  It is a world where natives simply assume that the person must be a citizen and act accordingly by treating them as social and political equals.   If a migrant can have all that without ever taking an oath of allegiance, well, that can be a very attractive option.  It's all reward and no responsibility.  The danger here, of course, is the day the person is revealed (or reveals him or herself) as a "foreigner" and the reaction of the natives to this is often quite negative.  I have found this to be true in both France and the U.S. "What do you mean you're not a citizen?  You've been here for 20 years!  Do you not like this country?"

Something to prove:  The migrant may not feel the need to prove anything in the host country but the home country is another matter.  It depends on the person but sometimes not becoming a citizen in the host country (or becoming a dual) is a strong signal to the home country that the migrant still considers him or herself to be French (or American).  Even if he never uses that passport to return, there is a space in the French nation with his or her name on it that can be claimed at any time.  Or not, as the case may be.  Most migrants do not want to give up that possibility.

The narcissism of difference:  When a French moves to the U.S. or an American moves to France, one option is to become a bête exotique.  French culture and language has a very high status in the U.S. and to a very large extent Americans don't really want the French to become like them.  They want the French bakery at the corner with the lovely French couple speaking French to their kids when they come in and buy their authentic French baguette.

There are powerful rewards for not integrating beyond a decent command of the English language.  It goes beyond acceptance and into the realm of becoming something special, unique and exotic.  It can be a heady experience for a French who was, back in France, just a French among other French.   Something very similar happens to Americans here in France with the very attractive role of "American in Paris."

In both cases Frenchness and Americanness confer a kind of social capital in the host countries (and sometimes the home countries as well).  This means that the migrant might actually feel that he or she is lowering his status in the host country by integrating too much or by becoming a citizen.

(A situation that has interesting implications for various nation-state efforts to push hard for integration or assimilation.  There are societal forces working against it for some migrant groups.  Sometimes even the most anti-immigration, anti-foreigner, pro-integration citizens behave very differently depending on which migrant community is being discussed.  Unfair?  Absolutely but it does seem to work that way. )

Marriage:  Marriage was the reason for many French to come to the U.S. and it was an even stronger factor behind their decision to stay in the U.S.  Lindenfeld's study revealed a very high inter-marriage rate, particularly for French women.

The French-born population in the U.S. is very dispersed and the number of direct migrants in the 20th century who were born and raised in France and then came to the US is very small.  In 1990, she said, "it amounts to 119,233 persons, which represents 0.048 of the total population, or a ratio of 1 French person to 2,086 U.S. residents."  Many settled in California which had 25,507 French migrants.  "It is immediately followed by the state of New York (18,411);  the next three states are Florida (9,958), New Jersey (6,296) and Texas (5,544)."  One of the states that she used in her survey, Oregon, had only 1,104 French in the entire state (out of a total population 2,842,321) and there were only a few more (1,593) in the state of Washington just to the north.

With numbers like these it is not surprising that exogamy was the rule.  Out of 96 participants 61 had married Americans or other non-French.  Only 28 were married to French and of those only 4 had met their spouses in the U.S.  What is even more interesting is that French women had a much higher rate of marriages to American than French men.  Over 70% of the women married Americans/non-French while only about 50% of the French men married non-French.

Lindenfeld attributed this high out-marriage rate to small numbers, dispersion and isolation in the U.S. (demographic factors) but she also speculated that there were other forces operating here.  I think she's right but identifying all of them was beyond the scope of this study.  I suspect that the high-status of French culture, the overall socio-economic success of French migrants and the possibility of  conferring EU citizenship on the children are factors as well. Having bi-lingual, bi-cultural children with U.S. and EU citizenship is a tangible benefit stemming from such unions.

Lindenfeld's book contains many more topics - more than I can reasonably go into here.  There is, for example, an entire chapter on Life at Home which looks at language, national holidays, friends, involvement in associations, religion, French versus American schools, and the names French migrants give their American-born children.  In the back of the book is her survey with the questions she asked.  I'd say that they are just as pertinent today as they were 20 years ago. It would be interesting to redo the survey in the U.S. and update the results.

One question I had was about 911 and the war in Iraq - two situations that may have changed French migrants' perceptions of, and attitudes toward, the U.S.  In the early 21st century there was hostility toward the French (a rather exceptional situation) which I felt as the spouse of a French national.  Did that, and the American war on terror, change anything for the French in the United States?  As a very small and dispersed minority with no experience with collective political action in the US (French-bashing" was pretty widespread and still happens) the French in the U.S. had few means of defending themselves on the national stage.   Things were said about the French that would have had serious repercussions in the U.S. if they had been said about other ethnic groups.

French and American emigrants share at least one broad characteristic - they are migrants that leave their home countries as individuals for a wide variety of reasons which are deeply personal.  That was certainly true in my case and that of the people I know best on both shores.  However, since we all have wildly different answers to our personal migration equation, we might think that that we can't profit from each other's experiences.  What does a French engineer who migrates to Silicon Valley have to do with an American stay-at-home-mother who ends up in Aix-en-Provence?

More than we might think.  Perhaps it is age (yes, I am pulling the age card here) but I came to a point just a few short years when I stopped insisting so stridently that my experience was unique.  In the place of that very egotistical perspective I'm trying to look at migration in a larger context ever since - while always coming back and testing what I discover against what I've lived so far.

There are roughly 100,000 Americans in France and 5+ million in the world.  There are about 100,000 French in the U.S (who have lived what we Americans in France have lived in reverse), and there are at least 1.5 million French worldwide living outside of the Hexagon.

Furthermore, there are literally hundreds of millions of migrants in the world today.  However isolated we may personally feel as foreign nationals in our host countries, we are still all part of this great international migration of people that came along with globalization.  For better or worse, we are the human face of it.

If there is a deeper meaning to all this moving about, I want to find it. If it can connect me to more and more people in the world, then I hope I never get the answer.

If asked today what I have learned so far in my quest I would say this:  whatever our starting point, whatever our cultural, language, socio-economic status or the state of our home countries, whether we have succeeded beyond our wildest expectations or failed miserably, we are the people who move and we have more in common than we ever ever dreamed.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Overseas Exile U.S. Expat Survey

Overseas Exile - a great blog written by a brilliant guy, Curtis Poe.

Earlier this month, Curtis decided to shine some light on Americans abroad by putting together his own Expat Survey.  If you are an American living outside the U.S., please participate.  The survey is completely anonymous and I vouch personally for Curtis' honor here - he is not asking for names or any identifying information and he will not use the data for anything other than this survey.   If you live in the U.S. homeland or you live elsewhere and know Americans living abroad, please pass along the link and and ask them to participate.

This is important.  Unlike other countries, the U.S. government does not even attempt to learn anything about its citizens abroad.  There is zip, zero, nada.  Everyone should think hard about the implications of that - it means that whenever Congress writes a law that impacts us, they do so in an information void. Just about anything that comes out of their mouths is simply a projection of their own opinions and emotions.   That's not only stupid, it's almost criminally irresponsible.  For an example of a country that does a much better job, have a look at the French government's  Enquête sur l'expatriation 2013.  This is the kind of information upon which responsible policy can be based and I am personally infuriated that the U.S. government can't seem to get it together to do something similar.

Ain't rocket science, guys.

Fortunately there are two books coming out that should help.  I am eagerly awaiting the publication of:

Migrants or Expatriates?: Americans in Europe (Migration, Diasporas and Citizenship) by Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels (publication date: Jan 31, 2014) and

The Citizenship of Americans Living Abroad: Democracy and Those Who Leave
by Katya C Long (publication date: December 1, 2014)

Curtis is now publishing the preliminary results of his survey and they are fascinating reading.  Four parts and four posts so far.

Part 1 Expat Results: Personal

The last should be required reading for all homelanders, especially U.S. politicians.  Remember that American expats are looking at the U.S. from the outside. What we think is what we tell our foreign spouses, friends, our fellow church members, and colleagues.  It is how we talk about our country to our dual citizen children.  Who do you think is of greater influence to a Frenchman or a Chinese:  the U.S. President or the American spouse, mother, father, fellow worker, comrade, confidant or friend?  

I honestly think that a few years ago most Americans abroad were very much Goodwill Ambassadors in their host countries.  Even when we didn't entirely agree with homeland politics, we felt (or at least I did) that we had a responsibility to build bridges and try to present our country's case.  When I think of all the times I did this precisely because I felt I had a role to play that was much bigger than just little old me, American IT worker and mother of two Frenchlings, I feel like a fool. 

Forget FATCA reciprocity, there is another kind based on mutual respect and trust that should be the foundation of the relationship between the United States and its diaspora.  In the words of James Baldwin: “Allegiance, after all, has to work two ways; and one can grow weary of an allegiance which is not reciprocal.”

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Funny about FATCA

Passed along by the usual suspects, this is very good satire.  

Yes, homelanders this is exactly what this law looks like to the rest of the world.  I was explaining the law the other day to some friends here and one of them looked at me in disbelief and said, "Wait a minute, Obama did this?"  Yeah, 'fraid so, I said.

There is also an ebook out called FATCA and the New Birth of American Empire by Robert Morris which I will download today and I promise to review here soon.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Liberal Critique of the US, UK and French School Systems

Further reading of The Demands of Liberal Education late into the night revealed a chapter in the book that was just as interesting as the discussion about autonomy:  a look at three school systems from a liberal perspective.

Before we start, we should clarify what Levinson means by "liberalism." (No, it is not a synonym for Democrat or democrat.)  Liberal political theory, she says, has three important elements:

1.  A belief in and an acceptance of pluralistic societies where there simply isn't one conception of the good.  Modern liberal societies have a wide range of ideas and values and ways to live and there is no way that all these people will ever arrive at one set of shared values.   Diversity is a fact and we all just have to deal - the idea of assimilation is dead in the water.

2.  Nonetheless, there has to be some sort of public process by which the state and principles of justice are established.  The process must have these characteristics:  it must be public/transparent, all citizens must be able to participate equally and freely and everybody has to agree. Even though society is diverse and can't agree on the good, they do have to come to an agreement about the process.

3.  The outcome of all this is the creation of institutions:  constitutions, democracy, personal liberties, and government responsibilities.

Already I can see all kinds of problems with this but we'll set those aside for another day.  Let this suffice for now as the set of liberal principles Levinson is using to make her argument for liberal education.  Starting from the fact of diversity people should be educated in state schools for tolerance, respect and autonomy so they can participate equally and freely as "active citizens" in the process and the creation or maintenance of democratic institutions.   That would be my summary of her argument.  If you are more familiar with her work than I am, please feel free to correct or revise.

In chapter 4 Levinson takes three school systems, the US, the UK and France, and critiques each one from a liberal perspective.  She sees a continuum here with the UK on one side, France way over on the other side and the US somewhere in the middle.  Since I have experience with two of these systems, I will add my thoughts to her analysis.

The United Kingdom:  In the creation of autonomy Levinson talks about the importance of "cultural coherence" - how we learn to be human and how culture is the base from which we go out into the world and have the capacity to judge for ourselves.  The UK system allows families to separate themselves and have their children educated in ways that are consistent with religious, ethnic and cultural commitments.  The US allows for this too but the difference is that in the UK, the state funds the establishment of such schools.  Is this a violation of church/state neutrality?  Not necessarily since, in theory, just about any group can do this.  So a family can choose a school that most closely fits whatever their values are at home and the state will support that choice.  There is a national curriculum that all schools must teach and this could be seen as the unifying element here in the creations of citizens.

From a liberal perspective, what is wrong with this?  The fact that the diversity of society is not necessarily reflected in the school.  Yes, tolerance and the value of diversity  is taught as a value but parents can opt out of having their children be exposed to it.  How meaningful is this when the child is surrounded by other children from the same socio-economic, religious or ethnic background?  Some of this happens anyway in all three countries in the sense that the larger community may be fairly homogenous and the local public school usually reflects that but is state support for a "millet" system really the best way to prepare children for a pluralistic society?  One can learn that society is diverse in sort of an abstract way in such a system but nobody has to actually live it and here Levinson is very clear that this is not just about educating children from very traditional illiberal backgrounds in the art of tolerance but also for the children of modern secular families.  A child who is raised to think that religion is the opiate of the masses, she says, has just as much need to expand his or her horizons by meeting other children from religious backgrounds so they can see that their parent's position is relative and that reasonable people can disagree about values and the role of religion in society.

The United States:  The American system does not (though there are attempts to do this) fund private schools be they religious or secular.  As an aside here, in Innocents Abroad by Zimmerman, he contends that that the "school choice" movements in the US to subsidize private education through state support was something brought back to the US from the American teachers who went abroad.  They saw worlds where the separation of church and state was a common value and yet that did not prevent the states in question from directly or indirectly funding private schools.  Having seen that, they changed their minds (clearly a good result of an education in autonomy) and came home to tell their compatriots in the homeland, "Country X funds private schools, so why can't we do that here?"

It's hard to say a lot about the US educational system overall because it's not really one system.  Education is local, not national.  There is no national curriculum, just a few standardized tests.  Local school boards have a lot of power to shape the schools and parent involvement is high.   Levinson sees the American system as being very inclusive.  The public space that is the school is very accomodating of difference - the public and the private are allowed to overlap.  If the child's parents have a religious reason for the child not to attend sports class, it's very likely that the school will adjust to meet their requirements.  Parents can ask for (and often get) some sort of arrangement that respects their linguistic, cultural or religious differences.

This is the system I grew up under in the 1970's.  Though multiculturalism was not yet a concept that guided the curriculum, there was, I think, a conjunction of two different worlds that both had tolerance as a very strong value.  I grew up on the West coast of the U.S. which meant that even the most conservative people I knew had a kind of "live and let live" and "mind your own business" mentality.  There was a lot of religious diversity in my school and I was clearly not in the majority. Cultural diversity came with the arrival of refugees from Southeast Asia.  Suddenly there were children in our classroom who didn't speak English and came from what was for us, very exotic places.  And lastly, just one decade prior to this was the cultural explosion/implosion called The Sixties and my hometown at that time was something of a magnet for American internal exiles - people who tried to effect change, it didn't happen to the extent they wanted it to and so they created their own institutions and communities where they could live as they liked.  There were communes, co-ops, gay and lesbian households, alternative colleges and the like. Whatever I learned in school or church, I was also exposed to many adults who simply opted out and I grew up knowing that was an option.  You can leave and I really have to wonder to what extent all that influenced my decision to migrate.  I do know that my first impulse when there is some discussion about what to do about people who are different, is to propose, "How about we just leave them alone?"

What does Levinson see as the limitations of uber-tolerance and accommodating private differences in a public school?  Well, for one, parents can opt out and they do.  If they don't like the diversity of the local public school, there are many alternatives.  Granted, parents have to pay for that and that's a problem for families with limited incomes.  There is a danger that only the children of the middle classes and up get to tailor their children's education to their values which may be very illiberal indeed.  As a result of this diversity will suffer because if the majority of Catholic kids go to the Catholic schools then the kids in the public won't be exposed to children raised in that faith.  Another issue is that it's not easy accommodating everyone.  Can a public school really be everything to everyone in a country of immigration?  And how well does it achieve a balance between respecting individual cultures and creating an American identity and the cultural coherence required by children in order to become autonomous free-thinking Americans?  If being an American is open-ended and all-inclusive then doesn't that weaken that identity?  There have to be boundaries somewhere (otherwise the term "American" is meaningless) but it's not entirely clear where they should be set and who gets to decide that.  To be brutally honest, from other cultural perspectives, it looks like complete cultural chaos - not something that other countries want to emulate.

France:  And that brings us to the French system.   Where the Americans are trying for equal inclusion, the French try for equal exclusion.  Those private differences, be they religious or ethnic or sexual orientation or cultural, get parked outside the school gates.  There is a national curriculum that all schools follow and there are standardized tests that everyone takes.  The system has a very strong commitment to equality though it has been demonstrated by Bourdieu that the reality is not quite that.  My children were raised in this system and you can read what the younger Frenchling wrote about it here.  One of the merits I see in the system is that since they are not trying to be everything to every individual group, they have more time to focus on academics and civic education.  Barring other influences a French child will, more than likely, leave the French school system with a good solid education, a very strong French identity and a clear vision of what it means to be a citizen of the Republic.  This is "cultural coherence" on steroids.

But there are other influences that compete with the school in this community project.  In a bi-cultural family like ours, what the Frenchlings got at home did not necessarily correspond to what they were being taught.  This is not to say that I as an immigrant mother tried to undermine the school but I did speak English to my ladies and, every so often when they shared something a teacher said, I invited them to think of it a bit differently.  There is another way to look at it, I said.

One experience we did have as a family with the French system that I think is worth mentioning here is the time we spent in Japan.  The girls attended the Lycée franco-japonais de tokyo and what I saw was the French system in a completely different context.  The instruction was in French and followed the French national curriculum but they still had to make changes.  Some of them were implemented because the population was very different - mostly French expatriates.  There were English classes, for example, taught by native speakers at the college level and not just grammar classes but creative writing as well.  Basic Japanese was also part of the curriculum.  Some of the differences that were imposed by the Japanese were things that would have simply never happened in France.  Girls and boys, for example, were separated for sports.  I was told that there was even some question of having the children wear uniforms but that didn't happen.  The relationship between the school and the surrounding Japanese community was also a source of some tension.  Sometimes the children before and after school did not behave in ways that the Japanese felt were important.  I heard that they complained that the French children were too loud and boisterous and didn't show the proper respect to elderly people on the street.

Even though this was a French school, the Frenchlings still experienced culture shock when they were re-inserted into the French system in France.  It simply was not the same experience.

What does Levinson think of the French system?  Well, she clearly finds it "illiberal" in that it does not value or promote diversity.  Erasing differences leads to homogenity - one identity for all with very little room for personal expression.  She's arguing that it's a "cookie-cutter" system  and the kids get coerced into a sort of bland sameness.  She points out that under such a system there will be a great deal of tension between the public space and the private one with some children being forced to live double lives with one set of values and standards at home and another in public.  The children who don't experience this, of course, are the ones who are native French and who are likely to be getting a consistent message from their parents that reinforces what they learn at school. Those kids will get "cultural coherence."  It's the children of immigration that have to learn to cope with conflicting messages between the school and the family and might feel devalued in the public space because they must hide what they are.

I understand her criticism and I think there is a lot of truth in it.  I would counter her argument on several grounds:

1.  It is perfectly possible for children and adults to have a double cultural life in the same way that they learn to deal with two languages.  Under an OPOL (one parent, one language) system children learn when it is appropriate to use one language or the other.  Culture can be exactly the same way.

2.  At school or in any other public space, there can be one way of acting and another way at home.  Where the two conflict is in itself a lesson in diversity.  Regardless of the lack of pluralistic expression at school, the fact that bi-cultural children experience diversity by moving from one reality to another makes both relative.  They know in their bones that all systems are contingent.  Period.  And they learn to negotiate between the two (or more) cultures.  As adults they can draw from both experiences and make up their own minds as to what they wish to retain from one or the other.

3.  To those who say that this is bad for the community as a whole and terribly for children and turns them into insecure unhappy adults who burn cars when there really is a very deep conflict between what the outside world thinks and what the religious or ethnic group holds, I see what they are saying but I also agree with Scott Fitzgerald who said,

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."  A very useful skill for going global.

4.  School is not the whole world and in today's world it's lost a great deal of its former authority as the semi-exclusive source of information about the world.  Whether the school system likes it or not (and they don't) it has become just one source among many.  If a child or young adult doesn't really agree with something a teacher says, he can go on the Internet and learn what other people have to say.

 Furthermore, French society is more and more diverse (a good thing for some, not so good for others).  The child spends a great deal of time at school but he also spends time playing with other children in the neighborhood, watching television, surfing the Net, going to church or the mosque, going to camp and so on.  So, I'm not all that concerned that French schools try to mold children in a particular way because there are other forces operating here.

5.  The French system contains an "opt out" - one that is subsidized by the state (a bit like the UK). If parents don't like the public school's value proposition there are private schools:  religious or international, to name two.  I've even seen Montessori schools in Paris.  To be accredited these schools still have to follow the national curriculum but they are free to provide another kind of education.  Right now there are 9,000 Catholic schools in France with 134,000 teachers and over 2 million students.

6.  The very fine education that French students receive in the public school is THE ticket for those kids to go out and explore the world beyond France.  The skills the French system so ably teaches are ones that are highly prized by other countries who are more than happy to welcome educated French migrants to their shores temporarily or permanently.   The system does not teach diversity as a value but it gives children the means to seek it out as young adults or adults.  What I'm saying is that the French system itself, however closed it may appear, contains the seeds of exodus.

The last is something that does not please some of the French and I can see why.  They are making an investment in their children's future that may be lost in the short run if the adult decides to leave.

But I would argue that it makes the choice of staying in France and being a part of French society a meaningful choice.  The French are not "captive citizens" - many of them have the tools, skills, and curiosity to leave if that is what they wish.  My great fear right now for the United States is that between the inconsistent academic standards and the price of a good education which requires loans, that Americans have been educated in tolerance and diversity but at the expense of getting the right skillsets to seek out diversity later in life - diversity outside of American culture however wonderfully hyphenated it may be (not to mention the serious disadvantage of leaving school owing obscene amounts of money which ties them to the home country).  That may make Americans much less globally mobile than the French.  And for me, that would have strong implications for American democracy.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Autonomy: Learning to Think for Ourselves

Having lived in two countries where the goal of public education was to teach children to "think for themselves" you might think that I have a pretty good understanding of what that means.

Actually, I don't.  In fact I'd say that this is a proposition that I question even more because I've experienced more than one system that purports to do just that:  create independant thinkers, adults with the capacity to challenge and change their views.

What I have experienced in the two public education systems I know, has caused me to question their commitment to this.   For one, both attempt to create citizens, and not just generic citizens but ones that conform to a particular political environment.  A French citizen is not created in the same way as an American - the end product is simply not the same. It not just the values that are different but the method as well.  There are even attempts in there to go beyond the political and into the molding of people's personalities and characters.  Culture plays a big role here too.  Though cultures contain very broad spectrums of behaviors and beliefs there are boundaries which must exist for the culture to be a culture, a distinct way of life.  The school system which is embedded in the larger society will reflect the cultural ocean in which the citizen fish swim.

So how can we say that either system is producing truly autonomous independant thinkers? That's the question I've grappling with for years.  I recently found one answer to that question in a very good book I'm reading called The Demands of a Liberal Education by Meira Levinson.  Where she caught me is her attempt to define what both systems say they value:  autonomy.  Or, in other words, what do we mean when we say we want to teach children so that they become adults who can "think for themselves?"  And do we really mean it?  Are we prepared for a free-thinker who grows up and says, "I think this Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité thing is bunk"  or "The U.S. Constitution is a piece of paper written by a bunch of white 18th century males and should be thrown out in favor of something a little more 21st century."   This could happen regardless of the formal system that the child is educated under but surely we don't expect the French or American school systems to encourage these lines of thought.

So  much hinges on what we mean by autonomy and Levinson begins her discussion with a very formal definition of the term by Gerald Dworkin.  For him autonomy is "the capacity to raise the question of whether I will identify with or reject the reasons for which I now act."  It is the ability to question one's beliefs and alter them (or not) given more evidence or a persuasive argument.

This definition is so thin, it's hard to imagine anyone in a liberal democratic society arguing with against it.  Furthermore, Dworkin's definition is pretty value-neutral - the belief that is changed or affirmed is  irrelevant,  it's the process of reasoning that makes a person autonomous.

Levinson does not agree.  She argues that there are serious problems with this definition.  There really are people who aren't autonomous (heteronomous). She uses Harry and Abner as examples.  The first says, "I will do whatever my mother tells me to do, regardless of the consequences."  The second says, " I will do whatever my mother tells me to do because she is wiser than I and will help me achieve my goal of X."  If both men reflected deeply before making their decision, then both are autonomous, right?  Not necessarily, says Levinson because Harry is abdicating control over his life to his mother no matter what happens while Abner gives reasons and does not close the door to rethinking that decision later on.  Has not an individual who becomes a slave to another person or thing simply given up any pretense of autonomy, she asks?

That argument has a huge flaw which Levinson recognizes.  What about people who throw themselves into causes?  People who form passionate attachments to other people or ways of life?  Those who take on beliefs that ask them to submit completely to something or someone?  There are commitments we make which limit us in important ways but these things do not make us slaves. We do not lose our autononomy because we choose to follow them.  Religious belief is one example, patriotism is another.  Why is that?

The radically autonomous person who makes no such commitments and spends his or her life constantly re-evaluating his core beliefs with an eye toward adjusting them is simply not much of a human being.  People are not formed out of nothing - they are born into a context, a way of life, a culture to which they will have real attachment and "we must recognize that these commitments are simply necessary for the constructions and maintenance of the self..."   As Geertz put it:  "We are, in sum, incomplete or unfinished animals who complete and finish ourselves through culture - and not through culture in general but through highly particular forms of it: Dobuan and Javanese, Hopi and Italian...Man's great capacity for learning, his plasticity, has often been remarked, but what is even more critical is his extreme dependence upon a certain sort of learning:  the attainment of concepts, the apprehension and application of specific systems of symbolic meaning."

So what Levinson concludes is that autonomy is much broader than just being about choosing what one believes and is willing to commit to.  Yes, self-awareness, critical thinking and so on are part of it but in order for us to be able to use these things we must first become people - human beings grounded in a culture.  From that point we can go out into the world (or even in our home country) and evaluate what we find there and then if we wish, we can change.

It's a rather nice argument and is, for me, a satisfactory answer to why two different school systems very invested in raising children to be thoughtful, open-minded adults start the formation from very different places, using dissimilar methods.  It could not be otherwise since the two cultures are very different.  But I would argue that they do converge at the end - different paths to the same result.

Vive la diversité culturelle!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The News from Cancerland

All the tests are in and I got the results today at a consulation with my oncologist.

The news is rather good.

No recurrence of the cancer.

But the tamoxifen does not agree with me so we are switching to anastrozole.  The change in treatment means a few more tests:  cholesterol levels and a check for osteoperosis.

As for the really annoying (sometimes quite painful) thing in my hip, what's up with that?

Arthritis.

Yep, as my oncologist put it, "C'est l'age, Madame." (You are getting old, lady.)

Next full set of tests in 6 months.

Yippety-skip. :-)

Modernity, Desecularization and Religious Pluralism

Discussions about the role of religion in public life are quite common  here in the Hexagon.  And that's a bit surprising when you consider that this is a country where church attendance is dropping (to the delight of the secularists and to the dismay of the Catholic church) and where other religions only make up a small percentage of believers.  For all the concern about Moslems, they are barely 5% of the religously affiliated. The numbers are even lower for Protestant Christians (3%)  and Jews (1%).

A solid majority of French (64% in 2009) self-identify as Roman Catholics compared to 81% in 1952.  The  number of those who actually attend Mass regularly (the messalisants) is down to about 4%; it was 27% in 1952.  The number of individual sans religion has been slowly growing - it was 21% in 1987 and it was 28% in 2009.

You can read more about those numbers and what's behind them in this analysis from IFOP:  Le catholicisme en France en 2009.

France is not the world.  What happens here is not even necessarily representative of Europe, a region with enormous diversity.  The most we can say is that France has some influence in the matter of religion versus the state and public life which one can see reflected in the current political fight over the proposed Quebec Charter.

I approach the topic of religion in France, in the United States and in the world with a great deal of curiosity.  On one hand I am a believing Roman Catholic but I was raised in a country where Catholicism is not the majority religion.  In my home country, the U.S. the separation of church and state (in many ways even stronger than in France) has led to a lively religious pluralism and a majority of croyants of many different faiths.  In France that didn't happen.  True, the religous landscape here is slightly more pluralist than in times past but this has not led to an explosion of faith among the population here.  On the contrary, it feels (and this is a purely subjective feeling on my part) a lot like the choice is binary:  Catholicism or nothing. A very limited religious menu.

And the question I had to ask myself, of course, was which country is the outlier:  France or the U.S.?  If we lift up our heads from our purely local view, do we see a religious decline or do we see a resurgence of faith in the world?

Peter Berger argues for the latter in his introduction a very nice volume of essays entitled The Desecularization of the World:  Resurgent Religion and World Politics.  Berger is a very well-known sociologist and he's written a number of books about the sociology of religion. After reading a MacArthur Foundation report about religious fundamentalism, Berger had an epiphany - this million dollar report which tried to shed light on religion and anti-progressive forces in the world instead seemed to show that religion was not only alive and well but actually growing in many parts of the world.  Not just in places that were "backward" but in places that were fully engaged in becoming modern developed countries.  The idea that somehow "progress" requires (or automatically leads to) a decline in religious expression is not consistent with the facts.  Berger came to this conclusion:

"My point is that the assumption that we live in a secular world is false.  The world today, with some exception to which I will come presently, is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever.  This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientist loosely labeled 'secularization theory' is essentially mistaken."

That may be going a bit too far.  Jose Casanova qualifies this statement by pointing that there are three separate ideas that can be pulled out from the overall argument about secularization and modernity:

1. Separation of church and state.  A legal framework that keeps religion out of the business of the state and vice versa.
2.  A decline of religious belief and practices like church attendance or baptisms or marriages in the synagogue.
3.  Attempts to remove religion from ALL public spheres so that it no longer is part of the public discourse whether we are talking about politics and/or the pressing moral questions of our time.

If what we call secularism is simply separation of church and state then, yes, most (not all) modern states do this and the U.S. is, in this respect, just as secular as France (perhaps even more so since the US, with one exception, does not permit religious holiday to be public holidays and does not subsidize religious schools).

It's the other two that are more problematic.  Clearly, the separation of church and state in many countries did not lead to a decline in religious observance.  Instead it created a world where there's a kind of marketplace of faith where people can and do change their religious affiliation as they please.  It may be that because the churches must compete for members, they tend to be a bit louder and a lot more visible.  It's not Mormon or nothing or Catholicism or nothing or Islam or nothing, it's a broad range of churches, mosques and synogogues with different ideas and dogmas.  Is this religious pluralism exceptional?  Not really.  Looking at South America or Africa or even Asia what we see today alongside the traditional religions is increasing pluralism and a change in religious affiliation.  Brazil, secular since 1891 in the church/state sense, was traditionally Catholic but now has many converts to evangelical and pentacostal churches.  Something similar seems to be happening in Mexico.  In Taiwan, the top 3 religions were Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity and 81% of the 23 million people on that island belong to one of these or other sects.

So what's up with Europe?  Even here it's not entirely clear.  Grace Davie (and her book Religion in Modern Europe is next up on my to-read list) takes a shot at interpreting some interesting data from the 1990's.  What we can say is that Europe does have a common Christian heritage whether we're talking about France, Poland, Germany or any other of the 28 countries in the EU.  Looking at the European Values Study she sees evidence that Western Europeans are "unchurched" and yet though their participation has dropped, they have not abandoned completely their religious inclinations.  When asked about such things as belief in God, a soul after death, heaven and other things of a supernatural nature, a surprising number of Europeans (even in very secular countries) said they did believe in these things.  In France 57% indicated a belief in a higher power - the lowest of all the countries polled but still a significant number.  All the other countries ranged from around 60 to 90+%.  However, France is an outlier in the sense that it does have a higher percentage of individual who are not affiliated with any religion whatsoever.

Is it because there is the large minority (and, yes, the unaffiliated are still in the minority) that calls for a more complete secularization of French society are so strident and so invested in removing all traces of religion from the public sphere?  Maybe.  But the argument that somehow all this is an indication that France is a more modern nation as a result, just doesn't hold water. Other perfectly modern countries are still quite religious and that doesn't seem to prevent them from being successful.

Other explanations will have to be found and one place I would look is in the area of religious pluralism.  Starting from the fact that separation of church and state is pretty widespread in most modern democratic nation-states, why is it that France, unlike countries like the US, Canada and Brazil,  does not have much religious diversity?  Where is the marketplace of faith?  That it doesn't exist here (and you can argue with that proposition) says that there is something different about this country.  Exactly what, I'm not sure but it's worth thinking about.

One argument I've considered seriously is the conjunction between national identity and religion in France.  What the unchurched and the Catholics here have in common (in my view) is the sense that being an atheist or being a Roman Catholic is compatible with a French identity while being a Protestant Christian or Moslem isn't.  So my hypothesis would be:  for the French who have a deep attachment to a French identity or who feel that this identity is threatened in some way, there are only two plausible socially acceptable religious options:  be a Catholic or be an agnostic/atheist.  All the other possibilities for so many I talk with are simply unthinkable.

I sense a very strong resistance to any sort of religious pluralism here which makes it very difficult for other religions to come in and "compete" in  order to gain converts.   If this is true then that says something about the neutrality opf French society and the state vis a vis organized religion.  It's not religion per se that is the problem, it's other religions that are a threat.

Your thoughts?

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Review of the France/US FATCA IGA

FATCA is an American law that requires all foreign financial institutions to turn over lists of people with connections to the U.S. (US Persons) and their financial information.  Generally, this kind of thing is illegal in most countries and a clear violation of basic privacy rights assured by many nation-state charters and constitutions. The intergovernmental agreements (IGA's) were necessary to making FATCA fly outside the U.S. because they set up a governmental framework that mitigates some (not all) of FATCA's problems AND offers at least some level of reciprocity - information exchange going in both directions and not just from the rest of the world to the United States.  

Well, it finally happened.  Was there really any doubt?  Last week France finally signed a FATCA Integovernmental Agreement with the United States to implement FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) in France.  I believe that brings the number of IGA's signed to a grand total of 10 out of the 190+ countries in the world.  Not a great score for a system that is being touted by the U.S. as THE worldwide model for information exchange.  But I'm sure Treasury broke out the champagne anyway because before France signed things were looking pretty bleak.

One step forward, two steps back.  Citizens in two countries are pushing back:  Canada (still negotiating an IGA) and Switzerland (they signed a Model II agreement).  In Canada organizations like the Isaac Brock Society have been organizing protests and articles about FATCA are starting to appear in the mainstream media:  there was this article in Macleans and this segment on CBC's The Current.  Will they succeed in stopping FATCA in Canada?  Who knows, but they are having a great deal of success in raising awareness in Canada and they are keeping the heat on the politicians responsible for negotiating with the US.

In Switzerland  another citizen organization, le Lobby des Citoyens, has started a referendum movement to repeal the Swiss FATCA IGA.  This is one to watch closely.

Now that we have the context, let's have a look at the French IGA.  What follows here comes from my notes after a careful reading.  I've been immersed in this subject for some time now and I can tell you that I still don't understand everything I read here.  Where I am unsure, I raise the question in the hopes that someone reading will help clarify. In any case, please bear in mind that I am not an international tax lawyer and you should not simply take my interpretation as gospel.  Seek other sources as well.

This document, this intergovernmental agreement, lays out a framework for an automatic exchange of bank account information between the two countries. In the first section both countries affirm their common interests and frame this agreement as an extension of the tax treaties that already exist.

Reportable Accounts 

"Reportable Accounts" are the accounts that fall under this agreement.  There is one definition for accounts in the U.S. and another for the accounts in France:

In France a U.S. Reportable Account is "a Financial Account maintained by a Reporting French Financial Institution and held by one or more Specified U.S. Persons or by a Non-U.S. Entity with one or more Controlling Persons that is a Specified U.S. Person."

This means all the accounts in France held in French financial institutions that are owned by US Persons (US citizens, US residents and immigrants, Green Card holders and others) or that are held by an entity (like a company) and there is at least one US Person with authority over that account.  Some examples:

A checking account held by a US citizen living in France.
A checking account held by a French person living in the United States
A company account owned by a French company that has a US Person in management or as a partner who has authority over the account.

In the U.S. a French Reportable Account is "a Financial Account maintained by a Reporting U.S. Financial Institution if: (i) in the case of a Depository Account, the account is held by an individual resident in France
and more than $10 of interest is paid to such account in any given calendar year; or (ii) in the case of a Financial Account other than a Depository Account, the Account Holder is a resident of France, including an Entity that certifies that it is resident in France for tax purposes, with respect to which U.S. source income that is subject to reporting under chapter 3 of subtitle A or chapter 61 of subtitle F of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code is paid or credited."

A "Depository Account"  is a basic commercial checking or savings account.  These accounts become  Reportable Accounts if over 10 USD is paid out in interest to a resident of France over the course of a year.  For other kinds of financial accounts these are reportable if the individual holding the account is either a resident of France or an entity that is a French tax resident.

The language is a bit confusing here.  Nowhere do I see a definition of "resident" or "resident for tax purposes." Are they the same thing or does this paragraph treat people and entities (which I assume are companies) differently?  

The Data

On the U.S. side American financial institutions will provide: name, address, French taxpayer identification number, date of birth, account number, the identity of the financial institution and the interest, dividends and US source income credited to the account.  Not all the income will be reported.  The IGA cites two US laws which limit what the US can legally provide to the French:  Chapter 3 of subtitle A (witholding for Non-resident Aliens or Foreign Corporations) and Chapter 61 of subtitle F of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code.   

On the French side French financial institutions will provide:  name, address, US taxpayer identification number, the account  number, the identity of the financial institution, the account balance or value at the end of the calendar year, the interest paid and (this was a real surprise):

"the total gross proceeds from the sale or redemption of  property paid or credited to the account during the calendar year or other appropriate reporting period...."

and

"in the case of any account not described in subparagraph 2(a)(5) or 2(a)(6) of this Article, the total gross amount paid or credited to the Account Holder with respect to the account during the calendar year or other appropriate reporting period with respect to which the Reporting French Financial Institution is the obligor or debtor, including the aggregate amount of any redemption payments made to the Account Holder during the calendar year or other appropriate reporting period."

So the US asked for and got reporting on all property sales in France that involve US Persons and information on loans made to such persons.

Again, I'm not a lawyer or a tax expert but it seems that the United States did much better in the negotiations than the French.  That is quite a lot of information that French banks will be handing over, and what the French government is getting in return is, well, it's something but not anywhere near full reciprocity.  The US will not be providing account balances and will not give information on all US source income - just certain kinds within the limits of US law. 

On the other hand the The French fisc is pretty smart (and very efficient) and I predict that they will make the most of the information they get.  It is not hard, for example, to extrapolate from an interest payment, roughly how much is in that account.  If it looks tempting then the French simply ask the Americans for more information about that particular account using the standard information exchange provided for under the existing tax treaty. 

Timing

On the French side only the basic account information (name, address, account numbers and balances) are required for 2014. The rest is due in 2015/2016.  On the US side all the information will, in theory, be provided starting in 2014.

The big question right now is whether or not the US will actually be in a position to start the information exchange next year.  There is growing domestic political opposition to FATCA reciprocity.  There is a lawsuit by a banking association and some American politicians are not pleased at the idea that the banks in their jurisdictions will be having to gather this information for foreign governments.  Impossible to know what will happen but it does introduce an element of uncertainty and the American political process being what it is today, this could be a major problem.

Confidentiality

A lot of concern about this information falling into the wrong hands.  Bank personnel will be responsible for compiling the data into lists which will then (under the Model I government-to-government agreement) be passed along to the tax authorities who will then send that information to the other country's revenue service.

Granted the banks already do this kind of reporting to their local tax authorities.  However, this information is destined for a foreign government so there are legitimate concerns about  how to safeguard the data and worries that the data will be used for purposes other than tax compliance.  The IGA does address this:

"All information exchanged shall be subject to the confidentiality and other protections provided for in the Convention, including the provisions limiting the use of the information exchanged."

What is this Convention?  It's the tax treaty between France and the US.  Article 27 Exchange of Information says:

"Any information received by a Contracting State shall be treated as secret in the same manner as information obtained under the domestic laws of that State and shall be disclosed only to persons or authorities (including courts and administrative bodies) involved in the assessment, collection, or administration of, the enforcement or prosecution in respect of, or the determination of appeals in relation to, the taxes covered by this Convention. Such persons or authorities shall use the information only for such purposes."

This would seem to preclude using FATCA information for purposes other than the enforcement of each country's respective tax laws.  This contradicts proposals by a US politician to share this information with other agencies in the US government like Homeland Security.

Furthermore, it is a bit troubling to read that this IGA allows the banks to outsource the compliance burden - use third-party service providers to fulfill the terms of the IGA.  The banks remain ultimately responsible but surely there is a risk that some information will "want to be free."

Identifying US Reportable Accounts

This appears in the annexes and is the outline of the procedure for identifying the US accounts to be reported by French banks under FATCA.  This is where it all gets a bit sticky because here FATCA becomes visible to the customer.

Pre-existing accounts:  The banks can choose not to review or  report an already existing individual or depository account held by a US person if the account balance is under 50,000 USD (or 250,000 USD for Cash Value Insurance or Annuities).

If the account exceeds 50,000 USD but is still under 1 million USD then it is called a "Low Value Account"  and the French bank must search its records for the following U.S. indicia:

Identification of the person as either a US citizen or resident
A U.S. place of birth
A U.S. address or telephone number
Account transfers to the US
Power of attorney or signatory authority granted to a person with a US address

That is a pretty wide net.  Clearly many French citizens will appear.  For example, a French family with a child going to school in the U.S.  Or an "Accidental American" - someone who was born in the US but left as a child and never sought a US passport as an adult. And, of course, the duals - those with both French and American nationality.

So is that the end of the story and will these people be treated as "reportable" to the US?  Not quite and this is where the IGA gets very interesting indeed.

The French bank (not the French or US government mind you) can elect not to report those individuals born in the US (US citizens under US law) if the following applies:

1.  Self-certification that the person is not a US citizen or tax resident;
2. Proof of citizenship or nationality in a country other than the United States;
3.  A copy of an American Certificate of Loss of Nationality; or
4.  Lacking such a certificate a reasonable explanation for why that person does not consider him or herself to be an American.

Think about that for a moment.  The bank, a commercial financial institution, is responsible for determining an individual's citizenship status.  That is beyond bizarre.  That is sheer abdication on the part of both governments.  It's passing the buck and putting the burden (and the risk) onto institutions whose expertise and authority (I think we can all agree) is not in adjucating questions of citizenship status.

 Unbelievable. This is going to be interesting to watch.

New Accounts:  Different reporting thresholds here for any account opened on or after July 1, 2014.  The bank is not required to report depository account balances or Cash Value Insurance Contracts values under 50,000 USD.  All accounts over those thresholds are subject to  "self-certification" as part of the broader process of opening an account.  From what we've seen other banks doing, this will probably come in the form of a questionnaire that asks about any US connections the potential account holder may have. In short, they will be asking people to 'fess up to some sort of relationship to the US however innocuous.  There is no mention in the IGA of the privacy waivers we've heard about in other countries (these are documents US persons are required to sign that waive for example, their EU privacy rights).

Identifying French Reportable Accounts

Interesting enough, there is absolutely nothing I could find in this IGA that instructs American banks on how to track down their accounts holders to be reported to the French government.

Does this mean that Americans banks get to make their own rules and use their own procedures? Inquiring minds would really like to know....

Exempt French Financial Institutions and Products

At the very end of the IGA is the Annexe II (starts on page 47) which lists the FFI's and financial products that are exempt from FATCA reporting.  I will let you read the document for yourselves but I'll end this post on a high note and give you a few of the products that are exempt:

- Livret A and Livret Bleu

- Livret de Développement Durable

- Livret d’Epargne Populaire

- Livret Jeune

- Plan d’Epargne Logement and Compte d’Epargne Logement

- Plan d’épargne populaire / PEP

 Bonne lecture, my friends, and after you've cogitated over all this, please come back with your comments and questions.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Flophouse American Diaspora Reading List

“Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools.”

Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

A few months ago I said that I would try to put together a reading list of the best books and articles I could find about American people and communities abroad.  This is what I have so far.  Please feel free to add to the list.  

The first part of the list has general books - the larger view.  Some talk about specific issues, like citizenship, others are studies, portraits or serious research about Americans abroad.  One is a book about diasporas that mentions American communities in the world as part of the larger topic of diasporas in general.  

The second part of the list has books I've read that are the accounts of Americans in different countries.  These are not books that tell a potential American migrant how to live in Mexico, for example.  These are books that delve into why that migrant left, what happened to him or her, and his or her reasons for staying abroad or returning to the U.S.  These are personal accounts that talk about what happens to American identity when it gets transplanted somewhere else for a year or two or for a lifetime.  

Americans Abroad: A Comparative Study of Emigrants from the United States by A. Dashefsky et al.
Published in 1992 this is a study of Americans migrants in Australia and Israel (Canada is briefly mentioned as well).  It asks provocative questions about motives for leaving, adaptation in these countries, and why the migrants stayed, returned to the US, or decided to move on to a third country.  In the final chapter are some interesting conclusions and proposals for policies around this emigration one of which is:

" Deter efforts to force migrants to change citizenship or otherwise make a permanent, formal commitment to one society or another."

Published in 2007 a very interesting book that re-examines the "American Dream" in the light of American emigration.  Talks about Americans in Canada, Israel, Australia and New Zealand.  It's one of the few I've found that includes African-American emigration and women.  Some good statistics (or at least estimates) at the end of the book.

The Unknown Ambassadors: A Saga of Citizenship by Phyllis Michaux.
Published in 1996 this is the story of how Americans abroad organized around issues of particular importance to Americans living outside the US:  citizenship for the children of Americans who were born abroad, voting rights and many other issues like Medicare from the 1970's to the 1990's.  This is the diaspora going to the homeland government for recognition as a distinct group with particular interests.  It's a battle that is still ongoing but this book is important because it's the only one I know of that gives the the history and the context behind today's efforts.

Americans Abroad, How Can We Count Them? This book which came out in 2010  is the transcript of a hearing held in 2001 by the U.S. Congress House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, Sub-committee on the Census,  on the feasibility of including Americans civilians abroad in the census.  This is the diaspora meeting the homeland government directly and the interplay between homeland interests and the interests of Americans abroad is fascinating.  In particular the testimony of the representative from the U.S. State Department shines a light on the relationship between the US Embassies/Consulates and the American communities in the host countries.  I found it very interesting that Mr. Betancourt said this over 10 years ago:

"There are thousands of persons around the globe who are in fact U.S. citizens, but have never chosen to make that fact of record by applying for documentation as a U.S. citizen. Yet a person's status as a U.S. citizen is determined by the laws enacted by Congress regardless of whether a person has come forward to confirm that status."

Diaspora Politics: At Home Abroad by Gabriel Sheffer
This is a general book about diaspora politics but I include it here for two reasons: 1.  It will put the efforts for recognition in the three previous books on this list in a much larger context.  There are patterns, general strategies that all diasporas use or try to use as they attempt to manage the relationship with the homeland over different issues and 2.  He examines the question of whether or not the American communities abroad (some of which have a history that goes back to the American Revolution in the 18th century) constitute a true diaspora. 

"The inclusion of those overseas Americans in this category raises some interesting theoretical questions:  Can the Americans, who themselves are of diverse ethnic origins and are citizens of a civic state rather than an ethnic state, be regarded as belonging in the category of ethno-national diasporas, or do they constitute yet another borderline case?"

 His conclusion is interesting:  they have all the elements to become one but for the moment they remain a dormant "proto-diaspora".

This book focuses on one of the largest and most visible group of Americans who live and work abroad: teachers. Zimmerman talks about the distinct differences between those who went abroad in the first half of the 20th century and those who left in the latter half. Though the social, historical and political frameworks changed over time, he notes that there has always been a diversity of opinion and a debate about just what these Americans were doing (or supposed to be doing) abroad. There are things in here that will make Americans wince - not just how some Americans viewed the countries where they worked (especially those that were a part of the American empire like Puerto Rico or the Philippines) in the first part of the 20th century, but also how this continued with a different twist in the second half of the century.

Beyond Borders: Portraits Of American Women From Around The World by My-Linh Kunst
A beautiful book about American women abroad - the photography is stunning.  These are ordinary women who have done (and are still doing) extraordinary things outside the US: Jean Darling (Ireland), Yuzana Khin (Thailand), Gillian McGuire (Italy), Kim Powell, (France), Lucy Laederich (France), Marcia Brittain (Uruguay), and Jane Cabanyes (Spain) to name just a few. The book came out of a FAWCO (Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas) project and is the work of two members: My-Linh Kunst (photography) and Charlotte Fox Zabusky.  A longer Flophouse review of the book can be found here.

The Transplanted Woman by Gabrielle Varro
I read this one many years ago and will read it again and do a longer review. Gabrielle Varro is a CNRS researcher in anthropology and sociology who has studied bi-lingualism, immigration and the sociology of mixed-marriages. This book came out of a study that she conducted with AAWE of French-American marriages and families over generations.  Some of it is about the dynamics of cross-cultural marriages but it also looks at American identity as it is transmitted through the American wives of French men.  What is retained by the second generation and what is lost?  There were some fascinating articles that came out of this research and Arun Kapil and Gabrielle Varro were kind enough to pass some along to me.  A Flophouse discussion of Varro's work can be found here.

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Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language by Katherine Russell Rich
All about the trauma of losing identity and forming a new one in a new language and country.  Very honest account of how she felt during the process.  A longer Flophouse review of the book is here.

The musings of a "redneck socialist" which are mostly about homeland politics but there are some excellent essays in this book about his time in Belize. His political views are pretty clear:  "Capitalism is dead," he said, "but we still dance with the corpse." Really engaging writer and his expat perspective is one you don't come across everyday.  Just have a look at his bio.  

Tales of Mogadiscio by Iris Kapil
I just finished this book and am still thinking about it.  It's a series of essays written by an American woman in a cross-cultural marriage (her husband is Indian and they got married in the 1950's) as a serial expat and the two years the family spent "on the economy" in the capital city of Somalia in the 1960's.  Very nicely written and beautiful descriptions of what that city was like before the country descended into chaos and became the epitome of a "failed state."  

Kapil retired with her husband in the US and she is now going back over the years she spent abroad and writing about her experiences.  Some beautiful essays there and if you are in a cross-cultural marriage I urge you to read them.  Some of what she says will surely resonate with you and I think she has some insights that are quite brilliant.  For those of you in France she also has essays about their sojourn in that city and the American community there at that time.  Her blog is called Iris sans frontières.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

CBC The Current Exposes How FATCA will Affect Canadians

Brilliant interviews by Anna Maria Tremonti:  Allison Christians of McGill School of Law, Ruth Freeborn, a former US/Canadian dual citizen who has renounced her American citizenship, and Marion Wrobel of the Canadian Banking Association.

The show is called FATCA under fire from tax experts & Canadian citizens and it explains very clearly how detrimental this American law is going to be.  Ms. Tremonti focuses on Canadians but everything said on the show applies to every other country in the world.  This is what FATCA means for ordinary people.

And for the French citizens reading the Flophouse today, let me say that we all have a lot to worry about here, because your nation (my host country) will be signing up (or to put it another way, bowing to the realities of American power) for something that about everyone in the world outside the United States thinks is a misguided, poorly-crafted, extra-territorial piece of legislation tomorrow.


Wednesdays in the Hexagon

Perhaps  you've followed some of the strident debates here in France over whether or not commerce in the Hexagon should be allowed to open on Sunday.  Yes, Sunday as a "day of rest" is something that is taken very seriously here and is a matter of national debate on the Left and the Right.  If you want start a conversation here in France, just ask someone what he or she thinks of "la généralisation du travail le dimanche" and you'll get an earful - everyone has an opinion.

But there is another day of the week that is a bit particular here and that's Wednesday.  What makes mercredi different in the Hexagon?

Well, to start, a lot of kids here don't go to school that day or only go for half a day.  When the Frenchlings were in maternelle (nursery school) they had Wednesday's off.  Later, when were living in Paris and they were going to elementary school, they had a half day on Wednesday and then a half day on Saturday.

Like many couples here, we were a dual income household, and the school schedule meant we had to scramble to find childcare for Wednesday. When the girls were at nursery school, they local school offered a kind of camp that would take them that day.  Later on we cobbled together a mix of paid care at the home of a local stay at home mother, in our home with a high school student who was available and finally at the apartment of their French grandmother in Paris who took them home and to catechism at her church in the 17th.  The last seems to be the preferred option for many.  I look out my kitchen window on Wednesday afternoon and chances are very good I will see my neighbors' grandson playing soccer with his Italian grandfather in the back yard.  He's a very nice child with impeccable manners.  No prompting necessary when he sees me, he knows to wave and sing out, "Bonjour Madame!"  Now that I think about it, this is generally true all over France - children have manners and are taught to be excruciatingly polite to adults.  Rather a refreshing change from the country I came from.

In my home country the school schedule was very different:  five days a week from Monday to Friday and the school day generally ended sometime in the afternoon.  So it took some getting used to on my part and in the early days I was very curious as to why exactly children got Wednesdays off.  The answer varied depending on who I asked.  My secular friends (those not affiliated with any religion) would just look at me like I was an idiot and answer, "Of course children can't go to school five days in a row.  It's too much for them.  For their general health and overall well-being, they must have a break."  
OK.

I got a very different answer from my fellow Catholic friends. "Oh," they said, "It's so children can go to catechism (religious instruction) that day."  And then they bolstered that argument with the same argument as the secular folks that children were too fragile to study five days in a row.

Where did this custom come from?

Turns out that my fellow Catholics were basically correct,  only the original day set aside for religious instruction was Thursday.  La Croix says:
Claude Lelièvre, historien de l’éducation et professeur émérite à la Sorbonne, explique, dans son ouvrage Les Politiques scolaires mises en examen, qu’à l’origine, le choix d’un jour chômé au milieu de la semaine répondait à une raison religieuse. En 1882, les autorités avaient adopté le jeudi qui était traditionnellement le jour de congé fixé par les Frères des Écoles chrétiennes, une congrégation très influente dans le monde éducatif. L’article 2 de la loi du 28 mars 1882 sur la laïcité de l’École publique disposait que « les écoles primaires vaquer(aient) un jour par semaine », de manière à permettre aux parents qui le souhaitaient de délivrer à leurs enfants « l’instruction religieuse en dehors des édifices scolaires ».

("Claude Lelièvre, an education historian and professor emeritus at the Sorbonne, explains in his work Les Politiques scolaires mises en examen, that originally the selection of a day off in the middle of the week was for a religious purpose. In 1882, the authorities chose Thursday which was traditionally a day off set by the Brothers of Christian Schools, a congregation that was very influential in education. Article 2 of the law of March 28, 1882 on the secularization of the public school called for 'the primary schools to liberate one day a week' in order to accommodate parents who wished to have their children attend 'religious instruction outside the school.'")
Liberating that day was a compromise because the way I read the above paragraph religious instruction was originally available in the public school itself and when it was removed (separation of church and state)  Catholic parents and the Church still had enough clout to insist that Catholic children would at least have the opportunity during the week to attend catechism elsewhere.

In 1972 the only thing that changed in this arrangement was that the state moved the day off to Wednesday.  In any case it didn't make much difference for most families at that time.  In the early 1970's in France only about half the women worked or were looking for work.  Among my friends who are retired now, most of the women I know either never worked outside the home or worked part-time or in some sort of family business which gave them flexible hours and meant they could be home when the children weren't at school.  That's changed to a certain extent and I recommend this INSEE report that traces the evolution of workforce participation by French women since the 1980's.  

Clearly, the organization of school hours has an impact on families today.  It favors the traditional family and accommodates religious practices.  It encourages part-time work for women or work in sectors where women are the majority like primary education or secretarial work.  Of all the people I know who work four days a week and take Wednesdays off, I cannot find one man who does this.  (Perhaps they exist and my social circle is simply too small to include the stay-at-home guys.  So, if you take exception to this generalization, please don't hesitate to correct me.)  This is why on Wednesdays when I go into the center of town, the sidewalks are filled with women and their children going to the market or just talking a walk and burning off some of that young energy.  

Like the rules about Sunday being a day of rest, what was once a custom grounded in religion has been continued for reasons that are ostensibly secular.  I am not arguing that this is bad or that there is something wrong with the French system.  On the contrary, being a rather conservative individual, I am disposed to like this kind of thing since it is the antithesis of hasty reform, radical innovation, and throwing out the cultural baby with the religious bathwater in the name of "progress".

I will admit however that there are advantages and disadvantages to arranging the work/school week in this manner and I lived both.  As a dual-income family, it was not easy to cobble together childcare - all the more because our profession, information technology, wasn't (and still isn't) favorable to part-time work.  As a Catholic, I liked the fact that my children were able to attend catechism and spend time with their grandmother.  It is inconvenient to have the shops all closed on Sunday but I wouldn't want to be forced to work part of the weekend and I don't see why anyone else should be pressured into it either.

It is nice to live in a world that restricts commerce to particular days of the week, does not think that work is the end all and be all of one's existence, and takes particular care for children and puts their well-being on the top of society's agenda.  Not all worlds do this and that doesn't make them wrong and the French right but I find that it suits me quite well since it corresponds to values that I've come to embrace.

Which makes me something of a cultural convert, doesn't it?  These are not the values I grew up with in North America (or at least these values are not raised to the level of national importance and are usually left to the private domain of individuals and their families).  Speaking to my compatriots and members of other diasporas I come across, there seems to be a consensus that these thing make France a bit different but in a good way.  

Something that might, perhaps, reassure the French nation that their values are attractive and give them ammunition to resist the ignorant chiding of other nations to change their ways.  I take particular exception to the conservative faction in the US which is hardly being "conservative" when they call on the Hexagon to cast aside centuries of common values in the name of improving their economy.  Since when do conservatives call for economic considerations to trump all other values?  In my eyes these people are not conservatives at all but dangerous radicals out to remake society whatever the cost.  This makes them them nearly indistinguishable from American "progressives" - they just have a different idea about which direction change should go in and from where I sit, their vision leads directly to worshipping before the altar of the almighty dollar (or Euro, if you prefer).   

So, pay them no mind, mes amis. I certainly don't.