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.