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Monday, April 30, 2012

Canada: Looking for Labor in All the Right Places

Looking for a job feels a bit like a dysfunctional dating game.  On one hand are companies that have positions to fill (or to create) and on the other are people looking for work.  As one of those unemployed persons I can attest to the fact that the game feels skewed in favor of the employer especially if one is living in the U.S. or Western Europe, regions that have relatively high unemployment these days.

Let's just admit that we may be fishing in the wrong ponds.  Believe it or not, there are actually places in the world that have a dearth of labor - skilled and unskilled - and these countries or sub-regions are not shy about actively recruiting people from abroad.   In these places industry and government are on the same wavelength:  industry wants workers and the government wants human capital.  In general, these countries prefer the young, the educated, the skilled but there are exceptions.  Some also recruit based on things like country of origin and language skills.  The only way to know if you have something in your skillset that matches their needs is to have a look.  And, in my view, the very first place to look should be Canada which not only has some extraordinary opportunities but also has an amazing apparatus for seeking out skilled workers all around the world who are willing to immigrate.

An excellent example of this is the province of Quebec in Canada.  Every year they openly recruit in Europe (with special attention to French-speaking Europe - Belgium and France) through job fairs called Journées Québec.  By putting together québécois employers and bright young Francophone Europeans they gather a good strong pool of candidates for industry who have a demographic profile they would like to see in their population.  They are not coy about their intentions which are spelled out quite clearly in their mission statement:
Par sa politique en matière d'immigration et d'intégration, le Québec, unique société de langue française d'Amérique du Nord, encourage la venue d'un grand nombre de francophones sur le territoire québécois.
(Through its immigration and integration policy, Quebec, the only French-speaking society in North America, encourages the arrival of a large number of French-speakers to their territory.)
Quebec is not the only province that does this kind of recruiting.  Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia have all signed agreements with the Philipines to bring in workers for the construction, health and energy industries.  British Columbia held its own job fair  in Manila in 2008 at the height of the world financial crisis.  Some of the Philipino workers who were targeted were already working abroad in the Middle East.  Other jobs fairs were held in Europe in 2011 to lure Irish workers and more are planned for 2012.  

And in a move that some Americans might find rather shocking, the province of Alberta is actively seeking skilled labor in the United States.  A few months ago the Premier of Alberta, Canada, Alison Redford, made a trip to Chicago and on the agenda was a recruiting drive to entice skilled U.S. labor to come to her province.  Alberta is targeting workers in U.S. cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Pheonix and Denver. 

The Alberta economy is booming and they project a need for 600,000 workers by 2021. The skills needed vary considerably from engineers, geologists and nurses to carpenters and plumbers. Have a look at the Calgary Economic Development study which has a list of the top 500 professions and the vacancy rates to get an idea of what they think they need.  Also see this fine video which talks about the economic forecast for Alberta.  Even if you have no intention of migrating, it's refreshing to hear about a place that has such a positive view of the future - so nice to hear some good news for a change:

In the search for global talent, Canada is second to none.  Other countries should take note of this especially those that have decided to be temporarily anti-immigrant for political reasons.  Not only do they risk losing the international race for labor (which they need whether they admit it or not) but they just might find their own citizens quietly leaving for greener pastures lured by a country that has something they can no longer provide:  opportunity, a positive view of the future and an warm invitation.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

French Economists and Immigration

Does immigration help or hurt a national economy?  That question is complex to answer because one has to determine what immigrants contribute (human capital, financial capital, taxes, jobs) versus the resources they consume (government services).  In spite of the fact that there are numerous studies that address this question, most politicians and citizens rely on anecdotal evidence or impressions or statistics pulled out of context to get their constituents to agree that something must be done about this rather ill-defined "problem."  And you have only to look at the front page of the newspapers or peek at the platforms of the various political parties in France and the U.S. to see that there is indeed a consensus that action is urgently needed.

While the politicians and the voters cogitate endlessly over this topic and whip themselves up into a state of fear and stress,  one group seems to be remarkably serene about the whole business:  economists.  Fancy that, some of the people who have the most knowledge about how immigration effects the national economy don't think it's a problem at all.

This article from Telos, Pour les économistes l’immigration n’est pas un problème , gives an excellent summary of how French economists view the issue of immigration and how they respond to various allegations about how immigration hurts the French economy.

First of all (and I was delighted to read this) economists look at the entire picture - what is referred to as the "solde migratoire" (net migration).  Flows in and flows out, folks.  Migrants don't necessarily come to France and stay forever.  For many the migration is circular - they come for a time and then they leave to return home or to move into greener pastures.  There is also a not inconsequential number of French natives who choose to leave.  So when a politician cites a scary number - a whopping  200,000 foreigners coming to France every year to live and work - that number needs to be put into context.
Cependant, face aux 200 000 entrées, on trouve un nombre conséquent de sorties de Français, mais surtout d’étrangers qui repartent. En 2010, le solde migratoire (différence annuelle entre les entrées et les sorties du territoire) se situe aux environ de 75 000 personnes.
(However, against these 200,000 coming in, there is an important number of French who leave, and a large number of foreigners who also leave.  In 2010, net migration (the annual difference between entries and exits from the national territory) was about 75,000 people.)
In a nation of 65 million people 75,000 per year is nothing.  To get some idea of how this compares to other countries, have a look at this net migration map by Index Mundi.  France has a higher net migration rate than Germany, for example, but a much lower rate compared to countries like the UK, Spain or Canada.  Frankly a net migration rate of 1.46 per 1000 does not make France a "magnet for the world."   It's respectable but not anything to get too worked up about.  Unless of course you want to ask the politically incorrect question, "Why don't more people come to or stay in France?"

What about the contention that even small numbers of immigrants have a terrible effect on natives - also known as the "They steal our jobs" argument.  Immigration is often held responsible for a lowering of salaries and a rise in unemployment.  What do the economists have to say about that?
Aux antipodes de cette perception, les économistes aboutissent, fait rare pour être signalé, à un relatif consensus sur une absence d’effets visibles négatifs sur l’emploi ou le niveau de salaire des natifs.
(Contrary to this perception, economists have come to a consensus (and this in fact is rare enough to be notable) that there doesn't seem to be any visible negative effects on employment or on natives' salary levels.)
One reason for this is that immigrants and natives are not necessarily competing for the same jobs. In France one does not see French workers falling over themselves for certain jobs in the service sector.  Another factor is industries that have a penury of skilled native workers.  If a country does not have enough people with engineering degrees (U.S.) or nursing degrees (France) they can't simply substitute a native worker who doesn't have those skills.  Or perhaps they could but who wants to be a patient at a hospital that provides on the job training to unqualified native workers?  

Economists also point out that  immigrants are consumers of good and services and they pay taxes on these things. More immigrants means more demand and more tax revenue:
Les immigrés contribuent à augmenter la demande finale de biens et de services, ce qui stimule l’activité et, par ricochet, l’emploi. Une étude récente des Nations Unies montre ainsi qu’une hausse de 1% de la population active provenant de l’immigration augmente également le PIB de 1%.
(Immigrants contribute to the rise in demand for goods and service which stimulates economic activity and, be extension, employment. A recent study by the United Nations showed that a 1% rise in the working immigrant population raised GDP by 1%.) 
So anyone looking for an economic argument against immigration is going to have to go through some pretty serious mental gymnastics to ignore all the evidence and the consensus of the economic experts that, on the balance, immigration is more often then not a Good Thing for everyone (at least in the economic realm).  Will this change anything?  Will this quiet the rhetoric against immigrants?  Not entirely because economics is only one part of the very complex and emotional arguments for or against migration. 

Still it is helpful to put a few facts on the table, raise the level of the conversation and counter the endless rhetoric that says, "Something must be done!" which only serves to send everyone into spasms of frenetic activity that have about as much useful impact as pushing air around. 

We could even (dare I say it?) go one step farther and consider that the only reason we are discussing it with so much fervor is because we have ourselves defined it as a "problem" that needs to be "fixed." France has been a nation of immigration for hundreds of years and thus far she seems to have muddled through just fine.  Looking around, I'm very pleased to see that she's still here in the year 2012 and doesn't seem the worse for wear after having welcomed millions upon millions of immigrants in times past.    Just a thought here - may I humbly suggest that we could resolve this with one simple mental leap:  just stop considering it to be a problem.  After all, if the economists aren't worried, why should you be?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Frenchling Photo

Cold and rainy here yet again in Versailles.  Last night in front of the fire I went through some of my old photos and came across this one of the younger Frenchling with her cat, Domino.  This was taken when we lived in Paris many years ago.  Alas, poor Domino is no longer with us...

Friday, April 27, 2012

Foreign Policy and U.S. Immigration Law

There are two very good posts here and here by Peter Spiro and Julien Ku and over at the Opinio Juris blog concerning U.S. immigration law.

This week the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against the Arizona Immigration Law SB 1070 which was passed back in 2010 in order to "discourage and deter the unlawful entry and presence of aliens and economic activity by persons unlawfully present in the United States."  The law has been highly controversial for many reasons.  It is seen as being overly severe and potentially a source of discrimination against Mexican-Americans because "it makes the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and give the police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally."  It also raises the question of who exactly gets to make immigration law in the U.S. - the Federal government exclusively or the States as well?  To understand why this might be a real problem, imagine, if you will, what would happen if every département in France decided to pass its own local rules to refine and enhance the national integration and immigration laws.  Whether it's 50 states or 100 départements, one grasps immediately that this has the potential for becoming an unholy mess (not that U.S. immigration law isn't already there, mind you).  That is why the Department of Justice of the United States has taken the recalcitrant state to court.  United States v. Arizona is being closely watched inside the U.S. but it is also a source of interest outside the United States.

It may be of only passing concern to the state of Arizona but it's important to mention that the people they propose to round up and incarcerate without due process are citizens of another country.  Under international law their home countries do indeed have an interest and a say in what happens to them.  That means that this is not just a domestic issue, it's a foreign policy problem.  As such, it is of more than passing interest to the 6-7 million American citizens living abroad as well as those Americans who travel outside the U.S.

Why?  Because it is crucially important that the United States of America treats foreigners (documented or undocumented) well because it just might have some important implications for how well we will be treated by our host countries.  Did you know that that there are around 1 million Americans in Mexico?  Yes, that's right - 1 million.  In addition the Mexican government estimates that there are at least 200,000 "illegal" Americans.  According to this website, most of these "illegals" are retirees living in Baja though there are also reports of more young people moving south to teach English since the souring of the U.S. economy.  I would add that there are probably a fair number of veterans as well, living there and in other parts of Latin America on military pensions.

Now just imagine a scenario where the Mexican government decides to crack down on these people and harass the legal residents and incarcerate the illegals (all those retirees, English teachers and military veterans.)  Not a very pretty picture is it?

Arizona may not be too concerned by any of this but the U.S government certainly is.  After all, they are the ones who will have to manage the international incidents that may come to pass as a result of Arizona's and other U.S. states' laws.  According to Julien Ku, the Solicitor General did indeed make that argument saying that the Arizona law might have this unhappy result:
"And so — so, you’re going to have a situation of mass incarceration of people who are unlawfully present. That is going to raise — poses a very serious risk of raising significant foreign relations problems.
And these problems are real. It is the problem of reciprocal treatment of the United States citizens in other countries."
To those who argue that the United States is not in the business of allowing its domestic laws to be influenced by foreign governments and to hell with the whole business, I do see some merit to that argument.  After all, I know a lot of people who are not at all amused when the United States tries to influence, let's say, France in the implementation of her local laws and the making of her policies.  But the world has gone global, international migration is a fact, and Americans have a natural desire to be a part of the globalization game.  That means growing numbers of Americans outside the U.S. (just think of them as America's very own "hostages to fortune"):  daughters, sons, retired parents, veterans, childhood friends.  To treat these people as irrelevant or beyond consideration in this debate sends a very interesting message to those of us who live abroad - one that I can only hope can be properly interpreted as a misunderstanding based on simple ignorance and not a disavowal.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

20 Minutes on the Train to Paris

On the way into town yesterday I picked up one of the free newspapers someone had left on the seat and was about to cast it aside when my eye caught one of the headlines:  La boutique de sex-toys va fermer (The sex-toy shop is going to close).

What?  With a headline like that, I'm sure you all understand that I simply could not resist reading the rest of the article.

It concerned a little shop in the 4th district of Paris called La Boutique 1969.  Two Catholic associations took them to court under a 1987 law that forbids the sale of pornographic objects within 200 meters of a school.  The owner of the shop, Nicolas Busnel,  defended himself by saying that there was a world of difference between a "love shop" with "desirable curiosities" and a sex-shop.  In this Marie Claire article he insisted that, "On ne vend pas d'objets pornographiques, pas de vidéos. On ne vend même pas de livres comme on en trouve à la Fnac, avec des scènes de nudité trop évidentes. Aucun parent d'élève ne s'est jamais plaint" (We do not sell pornographic objects, no videos.  We don't even sell books with obvious nudity, the kind that you can even find at FNAC.  No parent has ever complained.)

The tribunal did not agree. The judge ruled that the godemichets (dildos), vibromasseurs (vibrators - also called "BOB" in English for Battery Operated Boyfriends) and other amusing objects did indeed constitute pornography and so the owner could be fined (up to 30,000 Euros) and perhaps even imprisoned.  According to the article I read yesterday on the train, Mr. Busnel has decided to close the Paris shop as a result.  If you check out the website you'll see all kinds of great deals which are good until Friday.

Not that I'm implying that any of you, my dear readers, might be interested in such things. :-)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Confusing Politicians with Archangels

In my last post I made a comment about how lovely it would be if American politicians had as much interest as French politicians in their "domestic abroad."  The author of another excellent blog, Overseas Exile, drew my attention to this statement made by our cher president, Barack Obama, back in 2008 when he was trolling for votes and was interested in convincing the 6 million Americans abroad that he was the man for them.  Four years later (an eternity for a politician) it is illuminating to read what he was saying back in 2008:
"Obama understands the special concerns and issues of Americans living abroad and will seek to address these as president."
"Barack Obama believes that the U.S. government should pay close attention to how American citizens are treated in the private sector while they live and work abroad. Our government must work to ensure that overseas Americans have every chance to compete on a level playing field...."
"Obama will work with members of the Americans abroad community and the U.S. embassies to determine how the U.S. government can be responsive to the concerns of overseas Americans.  As a U.S. Senator, Obama has taken seriously the concerns of all Illinoisans, whether they are currently in Illinois or not.  As president, Obama will work to establish a direct dialogue with Americans abroad."
"Americans living abroad have little access to basic information about U.S. government services and affairs.  Barack Obama believes that U.S. embassies and consulates, which are the main U.S. government contact points for Americans abroad, should develop and implement concrete plans on how to communicate basic information to Americans living abroad."
Between 2008 and 2012 Mr. Obama seems to have had a change of heart.  Of all that he promised in 2008, only his commitment to making voting easier for overseas Americans has been realized.  In this policy statement he demonstrated that he had a very good grasp of the facts and of the concerns of the 6-7 million Americans abroad, so the contention of some of my fellow expatriates that he is blissfully unaware of the impact of his recent policies on Americans abroad simply does not stand up to serious scrutiny.

Ah well, Obama is not the first politician to weasel out of his campaign promises and he certainly won't be the last.  In his defense, this situation is not entirely his fault - in the euphoria over his election too many of us forgot to heed the immortal words of  H.L. Mencken on the basic nature of politicians:
Their primary error lies in making the false assumption that some politicians are better than others... I propose that it be renounced and contend that its renunciation would greatly rationalize and improve our politics. I do not argue that there would be any improvement in our politicians; on the contrary, I believe that would remain substantially as they are today, and perhaps grow even worse. But what I do argue is that recognizing them frankly for what they are would instantly and automatically dissipate the indignation caused by their present abominations, and that the disappearance of this indignation would promote the public contentment and happiness. Under my scheme there would be no more false assumptions and no more false hopes, and hence no more painful surprises, no more bitter resentment of fraud, no more despair.
Politicians, in so far as they remained necessary, would be kept at work - but not with any insane notion that they were archangels.
And maybe that is why I have a grudging respect for Marine Le Pen (Front National).  Her politics may make me shudder but I don't think anyone (even her supporters) has ever taken her for a Celestial Being

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A French Expat and His Excellent Election Experience

From the excellent blog, Les Chroniques Berliniquaises, a few words about his election experience as a French expatriate living in Berlin.  Americans abroad, pay attention!  Some of what he says, you will find hauntingly familiar.  One part may even have you weeping in despair.  Oh, what I would give to have our presidential candidates favor us with as much attention....

What follows is my translation of one paragraph but I encourage you to go over and read the original post in its entirety.  This blogger's French is wonderful (and very drole) so be aware that I am not doing it justice here in the language of Shakespeare.

"Difficile, pour nous autres membres de la communauté habituellement désignée sous le plaisant vocable de traîtres à la patrie suppôts de l’anti-France déserteurs exilés fiscaux «principaux vecteurs du rayonnement de la France à l’étranger», d’ignorer l’échéance électorale de ce dimanche 22 avril, tant nos adresses e-mail, que nous avions été obligés de communiquer aux services consulaires lors de notre inscription, ont été bombardées de courriels, de harangues, de promesses, d’exhortations, de sollicitations, de clins d’œil et d’appel du pied ces dernières semaines. Sur les dix candidats, sept ont goûté avec un gai abandon aux joies de la cyber-drague, y compris le candidat qui veut taxer à 100% «nos millions» de richissimes expatriés nous la coulons douce sous des cieux cléments, loin des griffes crochues du fisc. Y compris le tenant d’une France «qu’on aime ou qu’on quitte», et qui a bouté hors de France, avec une remarquable diligence, des milliers de diplômés étrangers très qualifiés à qui l’on reprochait de manger le pain des Français. Y compris la pasionaria de la desouchitude, qui dans la même phrase, promettait de supprimer d’un trait de plume le droit du sol et de bouffer du binational, tout en rappelant à ses lecteurs effarés, sur un ton maternel et rassurant, que«les Français expatriés seront bien entendu libres d’accepter la nationalité de leur pays d’accueil s’ils l’estiment nécessaire». Ouf, pendant un instant on a failli croire que la politicienne droite dans ses bottes allait faire preuve de cohérence sur ses principes, mais en fait non. Après tout, une voix est une voix."

Difficult, for us the other members of the community usually referred to under the pleasant terms traitors to the country anti-France henchmen deserters tax evaders  "principal vectors of the radiance of France abroad" to be oblivious to the election deadline this Sunday, 22nd of April, given that our e-mail addresses , which we were obliged to provide to the consulate when we registered to vote, were bombarded with mail, lectures, promises, pleas, requests, winks and appeals these past few weeks.  Of the 10 candidates, seven launched themselves with wild abandon into the joys of cyber-dating, including the candidate who wants to tax at 100% "our millions" in expatriate riches earned under pleasant skies, far from the claws of the French taxman.  Including those who believe in a "love it or leave it" France that has driven out, with remarkable diligence, millions of highly-skilled foreign graduates accused of stealing the daily bread of the average Frenchman.   And including the "mistress of the sons of the soil"  who manages in one sentence to propose with the wave of a pen the elimination of  jus soli and dual citizenship while assuring her frightened readers, in a maternal and reassuring tone, that "French expatriates are, of course, free to accept the citizenship of their host countries if they deem it necessary,"   Huh.   For a moment there I almost thought that this right-wing politician was going to prove the consistency of her principles, but finally no.  After all, a vote is a vote.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Citizens and Their Foreign Spouses

Marriage is a topic on which I am very hesitant to give advice.  There are too many variables and it's impossible to pin down what makes a marriage or long-term relationship work even when both parties share a language and a culture.  There is no magic formula that guarantees success.  Call it one of the "cosmic crapshoots of life."

There are special challenges, however, when two people from two different countries decide to make a go of it.  For one thing, there is a choice to be made:  In which country do you plan to live?  Unless you are very rich, it's not possible to maintain residences and jobs in two very geographically distant places.  There is a choice to make and, to be brutally honest, one party is going to have to leave his or her country of residence. This move can be temporary or permanent but it has to be made at some point.  Some couples have resolved this by choosing a Third Place: a country where neither is a citizen.  That way no one has the upper hand (the "home court advantage") since both are foreigners.

It usually doesn't happen that way for obvious reasons.  It's just a lot easier to choose one of the countries of citizenship and benefit from immigration policies that favor family reunification.  23 years ago I had no trouble getting a French residency permit and that is still true today though some countries in Europe are making noises about limiting this.

But that's just the beginning of a long journey for the foreign spouse and most of us discover that getting the residency permit is the least of our challenges.  Once married and installed in another country, this is not an easy decision to reverse for either party if things go terribly wrong.  There is no way to know for sure how things will work out but I thought I would throw out a few thoughts that might be helpful to those foreign brides and grooms contemplating a move:

The Empathy Gap:  Even before the decision is made, I think its important that both parties recognize that the citizen and the foreign spouse are starting from very different places, may have very different implicit expectations and are going to experience life in the citizen's country very differently.  Every marriage requires love and empathy but bi-cultural couples in one country of citizenship, I contend, have to make an extra effort because one person is "home" and the other is not.

One good sign of trouble is a lack of appreciation on the part of the citizen spouse for just how hard it's going to be for the foreign spouse.  When I say this I am not calling into question his or her goodwill-  I'm just saying that there are some important barriers to understanding here.  The citizen spouse who wants to stay in his home country clearly finds his country desirable and wants to live there.  It may not occur to him that it has never been his spouse's deepest desire to migrate.  For the foreign spouse, it can be hard to talk about this honestly with the citizen spouse because the conversation can quickly disintegrate into a debate about what is and isn't attractive about the potential country of residence. This can be greatly exacerbated when, in the citizen spouse's head, the foreign spouse's country has a perceived lower economic or political position relative to the host country.  Why wouldn't someone want to move to the U.S. or to France or to the U.K. ?  Shouldn't the foreign spouse be grateful to have the chance at a Green Card or a 10-year EU residency permit?   Not necessarily.  The trite saying, "home is where the heart is," applies here.  Doesn't matter what country we are talking about, how poor/rich it is, how politically corrupt/sane, how many/few opportunities.  We all have a very human tendency to love where we are from regardless of how outsiders perceive its lacks/advantages.

The other barrier to understanding is that whatever the citizen spouse's life experience I can guarantee to you that he/she has never been an immigrant of the opposite sex in his or her home country.  He may have the best of intentions, he may even think it won't be a big deal, but he or she is starting from a position of complete ignorance - he doesn't even know what he doesn't know because he hasn't lived it.  If things start to go badly with the foreign spouse (difficulty finding work, integrating or learning the language) he/she may be genuinely surprised and might even call into question the foreign spouse's competence, intelligence and goodwill.

The Information Gap:  On the foreign spouse's side the move is a leap into the unknown.  Sometimes the adventure is welcome and the spouse is eager to go.  In other cases, it takes a lot of persuasion (and a lot of trust) before the spouse agrees to sell everything, quit the job and give up the old life.

Intellectually we all understand that moving to another country things will be different but no migrant can judge the depth of the differences until he/she actually arrives and starts living.  Describing what it's like to be a permanent resident in France is a little like trying to explain how a rose smells.  Nothing I could possibly tell you (assuming I could even find the right vocabulary) would do it justice.  It's just something you have to experience.

But most foreign spouses come to a new country with the idea that they do know what it will really be like "over there."  Their views are informed by the media, the Internet, books, travelers and the citizen spouse.  That is an illusion of knowledge and it's very dangerous.  It is not and will never be enough and I will even go so far as to say that all these sources are unreliable for different reasons.  I personally have a special loathing for the endless parade of very silly books written about France for Americans.  Generally these fairy tales do little harm unless they are taken even semi-seriously by men and women who actually do choose to follow a spouse to a foreign land.  Then they can become very destructive indeed.  Why?  Because the reality almost never resembles the fantasy and the citizen spouse (who may have been very flattered in the beginning by his foreign spouse's pre-move good opinion of his country) may find himself in the unenviable position of being held  responsible when the foreign spouse has a series of bad days or when the dream comes crashing down. This is not fair, I grant you, but it is very very human.

I've seen these two scenarios played out in many places by couples of many different nationalities.  Was it ever inevitable or necessary?  No, and here are a few suggestions I offer up based on hard experience.
  • Citizen spouses need to take their foreign spouses very seriously when they talk about the problems they may be experiencing. For every fairy tale about moving to a foreign country and living a wonderful romantic exotic life filled with opportunity, I can give you others that more closely resemble horror novels: loneliness, isolation, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, marital problems, and suicide. Having a spouse who, from his or her lofty position as a native, laughs the foreign spouse's problems off as minor or who criticizes the immigrant spouse for his or her inability to get a job right away or who makes incessant jokes about the spouse's accent or grammatical errors in the second language or who denigrates the foreign spouse's home country or culture, may be genuinely unaware of how destructive these things are. But they are. Of the bi-cultural couples I know who have divorced, I most often hear that it was a lack of empathy and an unwillingness to listen that was the final straw.

  • Before moving, the foreign spouse should take everything he/she reads about the future country of residence with a grain of salt. The best approach might be to cultivate a Beginner's Mind - a mind that doesn't have preconceived notions about what will happen and what it will really be like. Hard to be disillusioned if one doesn't start with too many assumptions. Once in the host country the foreign spouse can seek out many sources of information and help - never rely entirely on the citizen spouse for information nor cast him or her in the role of being the sole support or sounding-board for all the difficulties encountered. Cast a wide net and listen to true stories by people who have lived, survived and thrived though the good and the bad - those who have recently arrived and those who have been around for years. A foreign spouse should never feel embarrassed or depressed if things don't click right away -  don't let anyone push you around or make you feel guilty because you haven't yet mastered the language or the customs. Integration/assimilation comes in its own time and, like love, it is not worth anything if it is forced. 

And the Winner Is....

The first round of voting for the next President of the French Republic is over and it is Francois Hollande Socialist Party) by a hair.    He received 28.63% of the vote with Nicolas Sarkozy, the incumbent, a close second with 27.08%.  Marine Le Pen (Front National) did very well indeed with over 18% which didn't surprise me.  Sarkozy's efforts to seduce her supporters by being anti-immigrant, anti-Europe were a nice try but it didn't seem to make much difference.  Le Pen has a lot going for her:  she's young, charismatic, fairly new on the scene, a good speaker, and her message has real appeal.  Not enough to win the election but certainly enough to influence it.

For those of you who want a snapshot of the candidate's positions on the major issues, have a look at this page up on the Al-Jazeera website, Where do France's election candidates stand?  What a wide variety of parties and positions - makes the U.S. elections look downright dull by comparison.  Obama versus Romney?   Snore.  Just wake me up when it's over....

Naturally I am most interested in the candidates' positions on immigration.  Sarkozy and Le Pen want to reduce it (no big surprise there) but they have wildly different targets with the former proposing a reduction of 50% and the latter wanting to pretty much shut it down all together.  If Al-Jazeera is correct Hollande's take on immigration is: "What's the problem?" which did much to endear him to me.

Do I take these positions seriously?  Not so much.  Sarkozy and Le Pen can propose any number they like but they don't necessarily have the power to make it happen.  The EU is a factor here and so are other stakeholders like sending country governments, French industry and higher education.  The devil is always in the details and once the abstract immigrant is given a face in the media following some anti-migrant initiative, public opinion changes very quickly.  When the impact becomes real, when people see families being ripped apart, highly-qualified immigrant workers desperately needed for certain industries happily leaving for Canada or watch French higher education start to lose its international luster,  the reaction is, "Wait a minute, that's not at all what we had in mind."  There is no way Marine Le Pen could reduce immigration in France by 95% - this is a wild promise without any substance at all.  Even Sarkozy's more modest goal of 50% is probably unrealistic and, if he won (and he probably won't), his government would find ways to get around it to satisfy all the actors with an interest in maintaining, or even increasing, the number of foreign "guests" in France.

Immigration is dangerous territory for all politicians.  I think the French political parties who propose to kick the whole business up to the EU are on to something.  An elegant, if not terribly courageous, way of getting rid of an really sticky problem that has no solution that will not come back to bite a politician hard and in tender places.

Last remark - I find it amusing that any country can have a national discussion about immigration without talking about emigration.  Where there are flows in, folks, there are also flows out.  Check out this graph at the France Diplomatie website.  Since 1985 the number of French expatriates has steadily grown with only a minor dip in 2007.  Officially there are 1.6 million French men and women outside the Hexagone but this number only includes those who have registered as expats and my guess is that the real number is much higher.  In 2011 alone the number rose by 6% compared to 2010.  French politicians are conspicuously silent about this trend.  Is it because they think it is a good thing?  It is, after all, a very effective way of getting those unemployment numbers down.  When the young cannot find jobs, just send them abroad to countries that are thrilled to have them.  It doesn't take a genius to see that this can be very good, very sane policy, though perhaps not one that would win elections if it was spelled out for the voters.

Or is it because the French population isn't really aware of the numbers and, frankly, would prefer not to know?  I don't know.  All I can say is that the reactions of my French friends to their "domestic abroad" resembles closely those of my American friends:  "They are just temporarily abroad" or "French citizens always come home eventually."  Interesting.  I'd like to see the empirical evidence supporting those statements.  I've met a lot of French citizens abroad in the U.S., Japan and Canada and  many of them are long-term residents, if not actual citizens of those countries.  Once someone has lived in another country 10+ years, I just don't see how you can fool yourself into thinking they are "temporary."

And I really wonder what Marine would have to say about that. :-)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Sedaris: What's so Funny about America

In response to a comment I gave a link to a very interesting talk by David Sedaris, an American humorist who has been an expatriate for some time now.  He lived in France for a while and is now living in the UK.  His humor is a bit off the wall - I have no idea how it translates - but I encourage you to give him a try.  His books, When You are Engulfed in Flames and Me Talk Pretty One Day, had me howling on the train much to the amusement of my fellow passengers.

In this talk which he gave to an audience in Melbourne, Australia in 2011, he tells the audience a little bit about his journey from the U.S. to France to Great Britain and about how different his home country looks from abroad.  I think this is a very common experience.  Culture is to man what water is to a fish.  When we're swimming in a particular sea we take most things for granted and it doesn't even occur to us that things might be radically different somewhere else.  Oh, do we wake up when we go live in someone else's ocean for a few years.  His comments about how money has a very different place in French culture versus U.S. culture is absolutely correct and a bit unsettling for those intrepid souls from either culture who dip their toes in the world of the Other.  What I like about Sedaris and a few (very few) commentators on cultural differences is how they quietly show that it possible to talk about these things in a non-judgmental way.  We can even poke gentle fun at each other or at ourselves.  Instead of saying, "Isn't this exotic?" or "How dreadful that these people have no sense of [insert lack here], " we could choose to look at these differences with wonder, surprise, or even appreciation and say, "Wow, isn't that interesting? I never looked at it that way before."  And then you roll with it and see where it takes you.

This reminds me of something my father said once about professional experience.  He said that he sometimes asks people to clarify what they mean by "10 years of experience."  Is it 10 years of progression in your metier, sir, or is it the first year of experience repeated 10 times?  Can this happen with expatriates/immigrants?  You bet it can.  I think we've all met people in our travels who seem to be saying, "You know, I've been here for over 20 years and it's the strangest thing - these natives are still not like me."

That, in and of itself, is pretty funny.  And, to be honest, we all do it at one time or another when we've uncovered another layer in the host culture that sets us back on our heels.  The antidotes to this are, I suggest to you, humility and humor.  A Beginner's Mind and a willingness to lighten up and laugh at ourselves.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Ted Talk: Chip Kidd - Designing books is no laughing matter. Ok, it is.

Remember books?

Vaguely.  Every since I got my Kindle last year the ratio of electronic books I buy to physical ones is about 20 to 1.  It' so bad that I curse when I see a title I want and the Kindle edition does not exist or I'm not allowed to buy it.  My most recent frustration came yesterday when I tried to purchase a David Sedaris book and discovered that the e-book version is not available to me in Europe.

In this very entertaining and very funny Ted Talk, Chip Kidd was neverthless able to temporarily provoke a bit of nostalgia in me.  He's right, I would look pretty silly sniffing my Ipad/Kindle.  Will I change my habits as a result of his gentle chiding?  No.  OK, I do have a few very precious hardcover books in my library like The American Language (fourth edition) by H.L. Mencken which I bought in a used bookstore in Seattle 20 years ago but my copy was published years before Mr. Kidd was even born.  The other physical books I have are French ones and the covers are very stark - no book designers required.  My most recent purchase was Sanche de Gramont's Les Français: portrait d'un peuple which I think was first published in English many years ago.  But I found a used copy in French at a local store so I went with that one.

But those are the exceptions.  For almost everything else (and especially when I want to do research and find books that are so off the beaten path that you won't find them on bestseller lists anywhere) I look for the electronic version.  I'm sympathetic to Mr. Kidd.  I loved his talk and you should watch because he is a very entertaining and convincing speaker.  But my reaction to his talk reminded me a bit of how I once felt about my 40 year-old Viking (Swedish) sewing machine.  It was a beautiful machine and a real precision instrument.  I used it for many years but it was heavy and every time I hauled it out of the closet I was guaranteed lower back pain for the next couple of days.  I really miss it but these days I have a spiffy new Janome (French) 8077 which is not nearly as pretty but it's light and quiet and has an automatic needle threader and all kinds of bells and whistles that I may actually use one day.  I may feel a twinge of regret when I come across one of the accessories for that old Viking in a closet, but when I actually sew,  I don't miss old that machine one bit.  And when I stuff my Ipad/Kindle into my backpack and I take off for Paris in the morning to read on the train, I don't miss physical books either.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


As Michael Walzer has observed, modern liberal democracy cannot comprehend the classical institution of the metic, the hereditary status above slave but below citizen.  It is not only progressivism that supports legal membership for those who are members in fact.  It is an understanding that pervades the political spectrum.  Status equality among community members is a trumping proposition;  it can be contested in its application but the premise stands undisputed.

Peter Spiro
Beyond Citizenship

Is this true?  Are we as members of democratic nation-states really committed to the equality of all community members both as a basic principle and in the creation of laws?  Some hard cases would imply that we don't.  There are situations where citizens seem perfectly happy to deny a category of their fellow citizens all the rights that theoretically come with membership in a political community.  Conversely, citizens of some countries accept the granting of some citizenship rights to non-citizens as a matter of simple justice.  Long-term residents of most moderns states may enjoy almost all the rights of citizenship, even the right to vote and the right of residence.

Perhaps the problem here is thinking of citizenship as an all or nothing category.  Is it really like that and can we honestly say that we think that either you are a citizen or you are not and there are no intermediate categories?  The Peter Spiro quotation above is one that has bothered me since I read it a few months ago.  I think the premise is disputed not only in the making of laws but also among citizens themselves.  We do distinguish different levels of citizenship and we are more and more willing to grant a kind of status to non-citizens that blurs the line between citizens and non-citizen in a way that makes it more and more unclear what those two supposedly completely different categories mean.  A recent poll showed that the French are quite willing to give the vote long-term residents but the EU supported the Greek governments right to deny the franchise of its citizens living in other EU states.  A friend from the U.S. who wholeheartedly supports the right of due process for permanent residents inside the U.S., nonetheless supported the killing of an American citizen abroad without it. 

We do not always accept the premise of status equality for the members of a political community.  We do, in both word and deed, make distinctions between different categories of citizens and we offer or take away rights on that basis of those distinctions.  And it is entirely conceivable in some situations that non-citizens can end up with more effective rights then some categories of citizens. 

Elizabeth Cohen, in her book, Semi-citizenship in Democratic Politics, argues that, yes, there are political categories of citizens because citizen and non-citizen are not binary concepts.  Between the two are intermediate categories that we don't even question:  felons in the U.S. lose some of their civil rights, military personnel and some Americans abroad lose due process rights, some EU citizens abroad don't have the right to vote and so on.    To be clear, her argument is not about whether or not this is fair or right.  What she's saying is that we are looking at a continuum and that "full citizenship" is a myth.  "It exists in gradations and has 'degrees of membership' and no clear boundaries." Pretending that this isn't true means that we don't have a framework for thinking rationally and honestly about it.

She attempts to rectify this by proposing a framework of her own based on rights and she uses Charles Tilly's definition of what rights are:
Rights exist when one party can effectively insist that another deliver good, services or protections, and third parties will act to reinforce (or at least not hinder) their delivery.  Such entitlements become citizenship rights when the object of the claims is a state or its agent, and the successful claimant qualifies by simple membership in a broad category of persons subject to the state's jurisdiction.
Based on that definition Cohen divides rights into two groups:  some are "autonomous" and required by every person to access things he or she needs under any and all circumstances - like healthcare, for example, or the right to reside somewhere and have freedom of movement.  And then there are "relative" rights that depend on a specific political context like the right to vote.  From there she creates a quadrant that matches four combinations (from strong to weak) of these rights.  She then places different groups into one of the quadrants and orders them from "First-order semi-citizens" (strong autonomous and relative rights) to "Fourth-order semi-citizens" (weak autonomous and weak relative rights).

Some examples?  Permanent residents, subjects in U.S. territories and refugees are "First-order semi-citizens" with strong autonomous and relative rights.  "Second-order semi-citizens" include children, felons and members of the U.S. military who all have strong autonomous rights and weak relative ones.

I'm sure at this point someone has read and been offended by the idea that U.S. military personnel enjoy something less then full citizenship status (not to mention putting them in a category that includes felons).  But the reality is that, yes, when they join the military they enjoy fewer rights then other U.S. citizens - a fact that probably a lot of Americans are unaware of.  The utility of Cohen's framework is that we can use it to see things that we might otherwise miss.  At that point we can address what could be reasonably argued is an unjust situation (since when does a member of the U.S. military lose a right held by citizens and permanent residents alike?) or make another argument that the context makes it necessary for one reason or another.  I think she makes a very valid point:  all U.S. citizens are not equal and do not enjoy the same "bundle" of rights.  

I, of course, am reading Cohen's work through another lens.  It has occurred to me over the past year or so that Americans abroad effectively have something that is less than full U.S. citizenship and that homeland Americans think this is right and just.  A lot depends on the situation but those of us who live abroad are aware that some U.S. citizens overseas have very weak relative rights.  Some cannot vote, for example, or cannot pass U.S. citizenship on to their children.  In other cases, some have lost the right to due process and even the right to life since they can be hunted down and killed by government order.  It would be interesting to use Cohen's framework to examine the case of Americans abroad versus homeland citizens and permanent residents.  In fact, it might be very illuminating for all diasporas to do this exercise.  You might disagree with me but I contend that it never hurts to make the implicit explicit. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Service Revolution in France

I've been wanting to write this post for some time now and, after my experience this morning at my local Social Security office, I'm inspired this afternoon to tackle that old, outdated and very unfair notion: "you can't get good service in France."

Truth is, there have always been places in France where the service was not only good, it was great:  small shops, the local market, any business where you went regularly and got to know the owner and the employees.   Other places had a reputation (even among natives) for being less than welcoming, if not downright hostile: any branch of the official administration (police station, post office,  unemployment office, tax office, social security office), chain stores and any business where you were not a regular customer and not likely to return.

I came to France as a young adult in 1989 and so I have some basis for knowing a thing or two about this topic from direct experience .  And I've watched it evolve over the years and I think the this country has not only come a long way but, in some places, may even have better service now in 2012 then can be found in other countries touted as being "service oriented."  Here are a few places in the public sector where I think this "service revolution" can be seen:

La Poste (post office):  Back in 1989 the post offices I went to were rather grim places.  I remember (and some branches still have them) the awful "hygiaphones" where the postal worker and you were separated by glass (often very dirty) and you slipped your mail and money in a little box that shuttled it from one side to the other.  My little post office at Porchefontaine still has one but if you go to the main post office near the castle you will see something entirely different:  a huge open space, very welcoming, very bright and airy, yellow-toned and clean as a whistle.

There are specialized counters for different services and clients.  If you get in the line for postal services and the line is long, a person will come out from a back office and start going down the line of people waiting asking how he/she can help.  If you are simply there to sign for a registered letter or pick up a package, the person will go back and take care of it for you right away.  For even simpler services like buying stamps, there are self-help stations where you can take care of it yourself.  Last time I was in, I had a registered letter to send and wasn't sure if I could get that service through one of the kiosks, so I asked.  The woman behind the counter said "Bien sur, Madame" and then personally walked me through the process so that next time I could do it myself.  Wow.  And lest you think that this is just Versailles, I had a very similar experience at a post office in Paris near rue de Sevres and at others located in different places around France.    If you go and look at their website, you'll see that they've embraced on-line services:  you can do all kinds of things like follow packages you've sent, consult your account balance if you bank with them, get an email account and purchase time for your mobile phone.  They even have a service called MonTimbraMoi where you can personalize your stamps for special occasions.   I don't know what their motto was in 1989 but in 2012 they say, "La Poste s'engage pour ses clients" and "La Poste à votre service."

La Sécurité sociale (Social Security):  This is the place you go for all administrative matters concerning the national healthcare system.  My local office (just a hop and skip away from my house) is another bright and airy space.  Entering the main office, there are two areas:  one for the insured and another for the uninsured.

The insured have two options for service:  If he/she needs to talk to a person, he inserts his Carte Vitale (national insurance card) into a machine and gets a number.  There are two counters and two people serving insured clients on a first come, first serve basis.  The waiting area has comfortable blue couches where people can sit.  If, after being called to the counter, the client has a complicated (or confidential) problem, he is ushered into an office where it can be handled away from the waiting area.

For really basic services, however, la Sécu has set up self-serve kiosks so you can help yourself.  I went in this morning to print out a form called an "attestation" and I would have been out of there in less than 5 minutes if the operating system for the kiosk (Windows XP Pro) hadn't crashed.  Thank you, Microsoft, for adding 10 minutes to the time I had to wait. 

Saving the best for last, there is now an on-line service called Ameli.  Here you can track your reimbursements on-line, find a doctor, print out forms and get information about your rights.  There is also a portal here where information about the French system has been translated into English.

Even today though the welcome can be uneven.  I've gone to my local office and have been efficiently and pleasantly received and then I've had a few experiences that were not so pleasant.  The balance, however, has really shifted toward a good experience most of the time.

SNCF/Transilien (national train service):  Last week I was on a suburban train from Paris to Versailles and saw something that caused my jaw to drop.  Two agents were checking voyagers' tickets.  I presented my Passe Navigo and then they moved to the tourists sitting in the seats in front of me.  One of the agents turned to one group and ask them, in very good English for their tickets.  Then he turned to the other group and, in flawless Spanish, asked them for their tickets.  There was a problem because this group thought that their Paris tickets were good for the entire trip and in fact a different ticket is needed to get out to the Versailles castle from the city center.  In his dealings with me, the French and the tourists, the agent was impeccably polite and pleasant and so were his colleagues (not to mention that amazing display of multi-lingual prowess.)

I take the train several times a week from either Versailles Chantiers or Porchefontaine.  I don't drive and am completely dependent (except for taxis and my feet) on the public transportation system here.  In the last few years I've seen a constant evolution toward better information for travelers and better service.  It's not just that the trains are almost always on time and clean - it's also about having access to information at my fingertips (on-line or in the station), helpful people and on-line services that help me plan my trip as efficiently as possible.  And those double-decked train cars?

Are any of these things perfect?  Are the trains always on time?  Are people always pleasant and helpful?  No, of course not.  Trains are sometimes late, people have bad days (or just poor dispositions) and mistakes get made.  I have friends here who are tearing their hair out over some glitch in a medical reimbursement or problems getting official documents or who have arrived at the station to find their train has been cancelled making them very late for an important appointment in Paris.

But, on the balance, I'd say it is light years away from what it was 20 years ago and it's getting better every day.  I salute all the people at the public sector agencies highlighted above for their great work.

Now all we have to do is spread the word. :-)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Some Perspective on FATCA

I remember vividly the furor over the French rock star Johnny Hallyday's announcement that he was seeking Belgian citizenship.   While he insisted that he was sincere, prior public comments that he had made concerning the French tax system led most of the people I talked to about it to conclude that he was simply doing this to evade taxes.  I don't know the veracity of that since I try not to get into the habit of doing other people's thinking for them but I did note the reaction of my French friends:  anger, disgust, betrayal.

What one person calls "tax evasion" is another person's prudent "international tax planning."  Alternative citizenships, off-shore banking in discreet places (like Delaware, USA, for example) or literally picking up and moving one's self, family and assets to another locale are all strategies the wealthy use to protect and maximize their patrimoine.

FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) is an American law that aims to tighten the net on such people by requiring foreign entities to report on the accounts of American citizens, green card holders and immigrants.  It will go into effect in January of 2013.  The intent of the law is to catch (as Just Me put it) "Whales:" those millionaires/billionaires who sock their money away in places like Switzerland or the Cayman Islands or who pull out of their home countries to bestow their munificent presence and lavish good things (like jobs) on a grateful receiving state.  Of course a number of "Minnows" have also been caught in the net but that is another story.

FATCA may be an American law but it is not exclusively an American idea. Almost all countries watching that outbound capital flow have been trying, with the enthusiastic backing of their homeland citizens, to at least get something out of them but enforcement has been an on-going problem.  Costs money.  Takes effort. Means negotiating with those "damned foreigners."  But looking at the budget deficits of nation-states these days, it's not surprising that they are starting to be highly motivated to cooperate with other countries even if they have to relinquish some sovereignty.   Balancing the books is a high priority because the national engines of the U.S., France and other places are running on fumes (if not staring down a needle that is now firmly pointed at "Empty.")

In this grand endeavor (or desperate response to oceans of red ink) there are two strategies, two models, that are being proposed to "fish" for revenue outside of national borders:  anonymous withholding and information exchange.  Both are based on the idea that financial institutions like banks or investment companies can be used to track and collect such taxes across borders.  Not such a far-fetched idea when you consider that most banks already do this domestically.

Anonymous withholding is an arrangement between countries where country A's banks collect the foreign tax and sends the money off to country B without disclosing any account information.  No names, addresses, accounts numbers and the like are passed along.  Switzerland and Germany signed such an agreement in 2011 and you can read more about the particulars here.

Information exchange is more direct but dicey.  This involve entities sharing information across borders:  things like names, account numbers, balances.  This method can run afoul of national privacy laws but as the recent 6-nation FATCA agreement between the U.S. and France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the UK demonstrates, like-minded people can find ways around those pesky privacy laws if they just put their minds to it.

Asking which method is superior is an interesting intellectual exercise.  Asking what method will win out - now that, my friends, is the question.  Cited in this article at Isaac Brock called A Global #FATCA in the future,  one analyst at the Financial News argued that FATCA will probably become the template for a global information exchange system and, by extension, a global tax system.  This is not because the idea is original but rather because right now the U.S. (perhaps not so much in the future) still has the power to shape the direction in which everybody wanted to go in anyway.

For a second opinion along the same lines, and an every broader perspective on FATCA, I found this excellent draft article by Itai Grinber at the Georgetown University Law Center entitled Beyond FATCA: An Evolutionary Moment for the International Tax System.  In his abstract he says:
Four incongruent initiatives of the European Union, the OECD, Switzerland, and the United States together represent an emerging international regime in which financial institutions act to facilitate countries’ ability to tax their residents’ offshore accounts. The growing consensus that financial institutions should act as “tax intermediaries” cross-border represents a remarkable shift in international norms that has yet to be recognized in the literature. What remains is a contest as to how financial institutions should serve as tax intermediaries cross-border, and for which countries.
The article is fascinating.  Not only does he go into great detail about the merits of the two different methods described above, he also has an analysis of the impact of this proposed global financial information-sharing system on different regions.  According to Grinber's sources only 2% of North American wealth and less than 8% of European wealth is held off-shore.  That is nothing compared to Latin American and Middle Eastern/Africa offshore wealth (25% and 33% respectively).  He also points out that the areas where wealth is growing the fastest are not regions like North America or Europe, but places like Asia and South America.  In Argentina alone a whopping 47% of their national wealth is no longer managed within its borders.  It could be argued that the main beneficiaries of information exchange will be emerging countries.  As for the losers, they just might be places in developed countries like Florida, USA which has an estimated 14 billion USD in local banks from Latin America and the Caribbean.

This is going to be interesting to watch.  Once the information starts flowing I predict countries will be falling over themselves trying to get a piece of the pie that anyone with the most tenuous connection to their nation has parked or earned elsewhere:  French start-ups in California, Chinese millionaires in Canada, American owners of trust funds in the UK, African heads of state with investments in France, South American businessmen with savings in the southern U.S. and, of course, all those folks who had the temerity to think they could hold two passports, marry a foreign national or live outside their home country and not pay for the privilege.

Looking at the context it seems clear that FATCA is not a new idea that sprung out of nowhere - it's just one proposition (albeit one of the most ambitious) among others that are all designed to do the same thing:  force disclosure, trap tax evaders and expand tax bases.  FATCA implementation is already moving in the direction of compromise.  Grinber points out that, in spite of the unilateral tone of the original FATCA law, the recent agreement the US entered into with five EU countries brings FATCA into harmony with the EU Savings Tax Directive (EUSD).

So, folks, my reluctant conclusion is that FATCA (or something like it) is here to stay.  Which means that those of us who are negatively impacted by its implementation might do better to direct our efforts away from "Repeal FATCA" and toward "Mitigation for Minnows."  

Monday, April 16, 2012

French Presidential Candidates - Les Guignols

While we are on the subject of election humour, someone at the Survive France Network posted a link to last week's Les Guignols, a satirical television program that I used to watch religiously.

On April 13 they presented the French presidential candidates in all their glory.  Not as good a watch, I think, as the Japanese mayoral candidate but not bad.

Veuillez installer Flash Player pour lire la vidéo

The Japan Smile Party

Andrew Edsall posted this link to one of the best campaign videos I've ever seen.

Mack Akasaka ran for the position of Mayor of Tokyo last year.  He has a very small fringe party (he may even be the only member) called the Japan Smile Party.  To no one's surprise, he lost the election but he did produce this video outlining his platform.  It's delightful.

OK, I don't really know who this fellow is or what he represents but what a refreshing change from dark suits and expressions of "deep concern" over the "pressing issues" of our day.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Diaspora Voting Rights - a Recent ECJ Ruling

Peter Spiro, the author of the excellent book Beyond Citizenship, has an interesting article up about a recent ECJ (European Court of Justice) ruling concerning voting rights for the Greek diaspora.

Unlike most EU countries Greece does not allow its citizens abroad to vote in Greek elections. Figures vary but there are around 3-5 millions Greeks living outside of their home country concentrated in places like the U.S., U.K. and Canada.  The recent Greek crisis has provoked considerable emigration with Greeks headed for other EU countries and North America.  According to this site, there are about 35,000 Greeks living in France and two of them decided to fight on behalf of Greek overseas everywhere.

In 2007 two EU civil servants living in Strasbourg who are Greek citizens asked the Greek Ambassador to France to allow them to vote from France (their country of residence) in Greek parliamentary elections.  The Greek ambassador said "no" because it was not practical for them to do so - no process existed to make this possible.

That led to the case Sitaropoulos and Giakoumopoulos v. Greece.  The plaintiffs argued that denying Greek expatriates the right to vote in Greece elections amounted to "disproportionate interference with the exercise of their voting rights."  It appears that the Greek Constitution does indeed have a provision that allows for expatriate voting but it doesn't seem to have ever been implemented - theoretically it's possible but the mechanisms have never been put into place to make it a reality.

EU citizens living outside their hosts countries should sit up and take notice because they lost.  Here is how the ECJ ruled:
The Court notably found that neither the relevant international and regional law nor the varying practices of the member States in this sphere revealed any obligation or consensus which would require States to make arrangements for the exercise of voting rights by citizens living abroad.
So if you are a citizen of France, for example, living abroad, understand that your right to vote in France is viewed as "desirable but not mandatory" from the standpoint of the EU.  This is true even where that right may be enshrined in the national constitution.

"Out of country" or "overseas voting" is a really tough call.  Let's be honest here - many countries and their citizens do not like this idea one bit.  I've had many hostile reactions from my compatriots when they discover that, after many years abroad, I still vote in U.S. elections.  I think it's fair to ask if this a good thing or not.  This excellent report from the European Commission on overseas voting rights in the EU is worth reading because it not only talks about where the different member states and other countries are in conferring these right on their expatriates, it also gives some pros and cons.  Here are some of the arguments in favor:
  • Citizens are citizens wherever they are and should have the same rights regardless of where they live
  • Overseas voting allows these citizen to participate in the "political life of the nation."  Though they live abroad they still have an interest and a stake in home country politics.  Voting is one way they maintain a tangible connection with the home country. 
  • Not allowing them to vote would be discrimination.  Expatriates would be unequal to resident citizens.
  • If overseas citizens lack the right to vote in their home countries and in their host countries, then they effectively have no right to vote at all, anywhere.  This shuts them out of any democratic process.
And here are some of the arguments against:
  • Citizens abroad may be less concerned with or even have very limited knowledge of issues in the homeland.  I have absolutely no stake in American Social Security (U.S. state retirement program) so is it reasonable that I have a voice about what happens to it?  There is something to that "tenuous link" argument.
  • Countries that have lots of citizens abroad could see their elections skewed by overseas voters.   This could happen in the U.S. in certain state elections but it could also be true of other countries that have large numbers of emigrants abroad.  It is possible that their vote could change the course of home country politics.
  • It may be impractical.  There has to be a process for overseas voters to exercise the right to vote and some countries may simply lack the means to make it possible. 
It's quite a conundrum and, frankly, as proud as I am of my King Country voter card, I can see both sides.  Is this a topic on which, as member of the American Diaspora, I would be willing to negotiate?  Absolutely.  I don't speak here for anyone but myself but I would consider trading my U.S. voter rights for the right not to be taxed by or report my assets to the U.S. government.  I'm sure some of you would violently disagree with that but I think it is an option that we could discuss. 

All diaspora past, present and future rights are the result of negotiation between the home country and the "Domestic Abroad."  The expatriate Greeks may have lost this round but I don't think they should give up.  If this is something they really want then surely something could be arranged.  And, for those of you who are fortunate enough to be citizens of countries where voting rights and even direct representation are a fait accompli, be careful.  They have been given but they could be taken away and, in the case of Europe, this could happen with nary a peep of protest from the EU since it seems to be a "nice to have" and not a fundamental right.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Big and Small Trips

Shirl and Rowan, an American couple, are leisurely making their way around the globe and having an excellent adventure.  I had the great pleasure of meeting Shirl as they passed through Paris after winding their way through Japan/Australia/Asia.  There are surely many travel blogs out there but I visited theirs after returning home to Versailles and liked it and their take on life so much that I've signed up for updates.  These two are having the time of their lives and their enthusiasm for the people and places they encounter is both infectious and inspiring.

And over at the Les Chroniques Berliniquaises, the photos of  his weekend trip to Rome reminded me that living in Europe one doesn't have to go very far to see some extraordinary things.

Reading these blogs, the travel bug bites hard.  Time to get out of town and use some of those Air France Frequent Flyer Miles I've been hoarding.  But where?  Arun with a View is proposing Tunisia but I'm not sure I'm ready for "Revolutionary Travel."

All suggestions would be most welcome.

Bon weekend, everyone!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Pax Ethnica: Islands of Peace

There is a good post over at Arun with a View about L’exception marseillaise (The Marseille Exception).  Recent events in France have revived the debate about assimilation versus integration and the violence that can erupt in some places fueled by ethnic, linguistic and religious differences.  Arun points out that:
When it comes to immigration/ethnicity/race, Marseille really is exceptional in France, in that français de souche are likely a minority (and many, if not most, white folks there—apologies for the Americanism—have recent origins in Corsica, Spain, Italy, North Africa pied noir, Armenia, Greece, Lebanon, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, etc.; and as there are no banlieues to which poorer immigrant-origin populations are relegated, everyone lives in the city).
I think he's right and I say that knowing that there is violence in that city:  muggings, murders, drug-trafficking and the like which is probably true of any large metropolitan area, including Paris.  The elder Frenchling's boyfriend got to experience this up close and personal on a train one day when he was robbed and beaten for his electronic devices.  But what you don't see in Marseilles is communities at war with each other over things like national origin, race and religion.  As the New York Times article that Arun links to in his post points out, "In the fall of 2005, as ethnically charged riots consumed Parisian suburbs and spread to scores of other cities and towns, peace prevailed in Marseille."

How this came to be fills an entire chapter in a book called Pax Ethnica by Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac.   (Meyer authored the piece in the NYT).  I'm reading the book now and though I'm only two chapters into it, I will be very daring and recommend it to you.  The premise of the book is an excellent one:  as much as we "tsk tsk" over all the places in the world where diversity seems to breed aggression and violence, there are communities where people have managed to work out their differences without forcing everyone into one linguistic/religious/ethnic mold.  These places are a direct affront to those who say that, "multiculturalism doesn't work" and that may be why you don't hear very much about them.

For example, does anyone remember the conflict between the Danish and German populations of a little region in Northern Europe called Schleswig-Holstein?  This is a place where the Danish minority (and Sinti, Roma and Frisians) live peacefully alongside a German majority.  A 1955 agreement actually protects the rights of the Danish minority:  the right to profess loyalty to the Danish people and culture, the right to use Danish if they so choose in their daily lives and the right to the very same treatment afforded to Germans.  Reading this you do have to wonder what in the heck Merkel meant when she said that multiculturalism has "utterly failed" in Germany and that everyone must learn German "as quickly as possible."  To those who might argue that, for the Germans, the Danes are "not so foreign," let's go back and look at the history.  Within living memory, clashes like this one in Europe were real and angry and fraught with violence.  In this particular conflict, the Germans did their best to assimilate these minorities and destroy their Danishness or Frisianness.  Yes, today they are  "not so foreign" but how quickly we forget there was a time when those "small differences" were a big deal and treaties and laws were required in order to control a tendency toward violence, discrimination and forced assimilation.  The result of this multicultural journey can be seen on the website of Schleswig-Holstein where they proudly proclaim that "Schleswig-Holstein’s unique cultural diversity is a hallmark of the federal state."  Do you honestly think anyone was saying that back in 1955?

It is useful to read history if only to put things in perspective.  We look at ethnic and religious conflicts today and excuse ourselves from doing anything about them because they are "intractable" and based on centuries of ill-will and irreconcilable differences.  Nonsense.  All situations crafted by human hands  and minds are impermanent.  My father-in-law pointed out to his son one day that, in his time, the Spanish and Italian immigrants in France were the object of much contempt and discrimination.  My goodness, how things have changed.  The current French President's wife was an Italian (she became a naturalized French citizen in 2008) and this was a complete non-event as far as the French were concerned.

So the lesson I take away from my (albeit limited) reading of Pax Ethnica is that time changes everything and all we really can be sure of is that things will evolve in unexpected ways.  Whatever is today, will surely be different tomorrow (or in ten years or a hundred years.)  So we could conceivably wait and see how things shake out.  Time is, after all, said to heal all wounds (and wound all heels).

Or, when it comes to ethnic conflict, we can read about places like Marseille, Kerala, Tatarstan, and Queens  and try to devise a strategy based on their experience in order to shape a course toward resolution and a more peaceful future.  Not only for the violence that is but for the conflicts yet to come.