The focus tends to be on those emigrants who leave because of extreme problems in their homelands. These are easy cases to explain and study. "Of course they left," we say, "Any reasonable person would have done the same." Their migration is justified and understandable even though many people do not want to let them into their country. Remember that infamous phrase: "La France ne peut pas accueillir toute la misère du monde." (France cannot welcome all the misery of the world.)
France is not a failed state nor is it a place of poor infrastructure or oppression. It is, for me and my family a fine place to live, and she has all the loyalty and love of this American migrant. However, just because I have found my "bonheur" here does not blind me to the fact that for some French citizens this country may not be the best place for them. One's life chances and the opportunities available here vary depending on the human capital one has and its value in this country. Where some degrees and skills have less value here and lead one (especially the young) directly to the unemployment line, is it really surprising that some look elsewhere for a better fit? Of course if they stay they won't starve but that doesn't mean that they don't feel pretty miserable when they discover what they are really worth on the French job market if they manage to land a job at all.
This kind of migration from one developed country to another rouses all kinds of anger. It is not seen as justified or desirable on the part of the inhabitants of the sending country. How the French feel about their emigrants is very similar to how Americans feels about theirs. No rationalization on the part of the individual migrant will ever be good enough to justify the abandonment of the home country. The only exceptions are those who leave to work on short term assignments.
These migrants are judged and sometimes they are judged even more harshly than the low-skilled migrants from developing countries. The latter have reasons that everyone understands which gives them the moral high ground even when countries refuse to let them in. The former are morally suspect and provoke the ire of many in the homelands on the Left and Right of the political spectrum. Many argue they should be punished in some way or another for what they have done.
There are thriving French communities in places all around the world: Tokyo, Japan or San Francisco, USA or Montreal, Canada or Casablanca, Morocco. Most of these folks left France quietly and did not publicly share their reasons for leaving. The French are a discreet bunch and this sort of thing is normally discussed exclusively among close family and friends. Given how people feel about emigration, I think that's very prudent of them.
So it was rather a shock to see this article published early May in Le Point: Lettre d'une étudiante à François Hollande. (hat tip to Loic who shared the link). This open letter comes from Clara G, a history student at the Sorbonne to the French and it's a very clear statement about why she want to leave the country along with 50% of people in her age bracket.
Vous voyez, les temps changent. Mes grands-parents soixante-huitards avaient eu la tentation de la révolution, j'ai la tentation de l'expatriation. Mes grands-parents, qui coulent aujourd'hui une retraite heureuse dans leur petite maison de campagne du Limousin, rêvaient de transformer la société française, je ne songe qu'à la fuir.
(You see, times have changed. My hippy grandparents wanted revolution, I want expatriation. My grandparents, who are happily retired in their little country house in the Limousin, dreamed of transforming French society, I can only thing of fleeing it.)
I imagine that opening paragraph got people's attention and not in a good way. She goes on to explain. She mentions the national debt, the burden of paying the retirements and health costs of a large number of aging French citizens, and a stagnant economy. But those things are not nearly as important as this:
Mais le plus déprimant, c'est de savoir très exactement de quoi sera faite ma vie si je reste en France. Une fois mes études terminées, une fois mes beaux diplômes inutiles obtenus, je rejoindrai sans doute d'abord les rangs fournis des jeunes chômeurs avant d'enquiller pendant des années les stages et les CDD.
(But the most depressing is to know precisely what my life will be if I stay in France. Once my studies are over, once my pretty but useless diplomas are obtained, I will undoubtedly join the ranks of the young unemployed before being screwed for years in internships and short-term job contracts.)
Avec ces petits boulots précaires et mal payés, il me sera impossible de convaincre un banquier de m'accorder un prêt immobilier pour m'acheter un appartement à Paris. Et si jamais, par une sorte de miracle improbable, je venais à gagner beaucoup d'argent, je sais d'avance que non seulement je devrais en reverser l'essentiel au fisc, mais que cela me vaudrait aussi l'opprobre général de mes concitoyens et votre mépris personnel.
(With these unstable and poorly paid jobs, it will be impossible for me to convince a banker to give me a loan to purchase an apartment in Paris. And, if ever, by some sort of unlikely miracle, I do make lots of money, I know ahead of time that not only will I have to turn over most of it to the tax authorities, but also that this will gain me the general disgust of my fellow citizens and your personal contempt.)
These are the "push" factors and while they are not extreme ones like hunger, poverty or oppression, it would be a gross error not to take them seriously. Like other categories of migrants, this is the voice of a person who has little or no hope for the future.
And the "pull factors"? Globalization and the siren song of both near and far shores:
Je ne vois pas du tout la mondialisation comme une menace, mais plutôt comme une chance. Mais ce n'est sûrement pas dans une France qui fait tout pour s'en protéger, où vos ministres et camarades socialistes passent leur temps à dire qu'elle constitue un mal absolu, que je vais pouvoir en profiter. Alors, oui, j'ai envie d'aller vivre dans un pays où il y a de la croissance, où les salaires augmentent, où être riche n'est pas considéré comme un péché mortel, un pays surtout où l'on a le sentiment à la fois individuel et collectif que demain sera meilleur qu'aujourd'hui.
(I do not see globalization as a threat but more of a chance. But this is not true in France which does everything to protect itself, where the ministers and Socialist comrades spend their time telling us that it constitutes pure evil, and I want to take advantage of it. Yes, I want to live in a country with growth, where salaries are rising, where to be rich is not a mortal sin, and where one has the feeling both individual and collective that tomorrow will be better than today.)
Voilà pourquoi, Monsieur le Président, je songe à quitter la France. Pourquoi aussi votre - au demeurant charmant - ministre de l'Intérieur, Manuel Valls, devrait moins se préoccuper des dangers de l'immigration que des menaces de l'émigration de la jeunesse du pays. Je partirai où ? En Allemagne peut-être, dont vous dites tant de mal, mais qui a l'air d'être un pays qui a confiance en lui. Ou alors plus loin, au Canada, en Australie. Ou dans un pays en développement. En Afrique, pourquoi pas ?
(And that is why, Mr. President, I dream of leaving France. Why also your ( to be polite) Minister of the Interior should spend less time on the dangers of immigration and more on the emigration of the country's youth. Where will I go? To Germany perhaps (of which you speak so much evil) which seems like a country with confidence. Or maybe farther, to Canada, to Australia. Or to a developing country. Why not to Africa?)
I have a lot of empathy for her position. I left my home country, the US, at about the same age and though my personal migration equation was different I can recognize part of my younger self in her.
I slipped quietly away - she decided to go out with a bang.
Should she have done that? I'm not in the habit of telling people what to do and it's not my place to shut anyone up. I personally would have expressed myself differently - some of what she has to say is very critical and judgmental in its own right. This response to her letter has some good points to make but I dislike the tone which reminds me a lot of a parent telling a newly grown child, "Look at all we've done for you," and, "You'll see when you go elsewhere how good you had it here." Older generations of French tried that with their "soixante-huitard" children and see how well that worked out. Older Americans do exactly the same thing to the same effect and I'm pretty sure that many other young migrant (from rich or poor countries) have heard the same song. Keeping the young close with talk of debts owed and cries of ingratitude if the parental guilt trip doesn't stick is pretty universal.
My take on it is as follows: With the exception of naturalized citizens, we are all "accidental" citizens (French, Americans, Germans, Chinese, Chileans, Moroccans) of the places we were born or of our parents' countries. That's pretty much how citizenship laws work. Children do not choose their country or their parents. Furthermore, their society's gifts like education and to a certain extent other things like health care are compulsory. Does anyone in any country ask a child if she wants to go to school or get a tetanus shot?
I contend that you cannot hold them to a debt they never agreed to unless you imagine citizenship as some sort of intergenerational indentured servitude. Every society is a pact between the living, the dead and the yet to be born and every generation has the right to renegotiate the deal. Yes, I understand that this puts a spoke in the wheels of various social welfare programs but I still believe it is deeply immoral to hold anyone to any debt/lender arrangement they did not explicitly consent to.
I think every adult should have the right to opt out - to "vote with one's feet." Dismissing the opinions and feelings of potential migrants from developed countries as the "problèmes de riches" and treating them as moral midgets solves nothing. Proclaiming empathy and understanding for those from developing countries who also wish to migrate while not offering them a place to go is equally futile (and is a bit hypocritical).
How about we skip the moral platitudes and the guilt trips and just let people sort themselves out? It would put even more pressure on every country to take a good look at its "value proposition." This does not, contrary to the prevailing opinion in the US, mean drastically lowering taxes. I pay higher taxes in France than in the U.S. but I also believe that I get good value for my money here. Or to put it another way I get the things that are important to me personally in exchange. Many migrants I know have come to the same conclusion and have chosen EU or Asian countries or Canada over the U.S. for that reason. Cash is only one factor in every migrant's migration equation and other things count for just as much: social mobility, personal safety, affordable health care, less or no discrimination, good schools for children and a family-friendly environment. If people could choose where they want to live, surely they would come up with a combination that works for them. Nation-states might even find it's a lot nicer to have citizens and residents who are happy to pay the taxes and are supportive of the existing social welfare system.
So it with great pleasure that I welcome Clara G. into the ranks of "those who move around." May she have a long, fulfilling, and prosperous life wherever she lands.