New Flophouse Address:

You will find all the posts, comments, and reading lists (old and some new ones I just published) here:

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Woofie is Not Compliant - What to Do?

Last night I stayed up late and watched the entire 2-hour session of the IRS Oversight meeting and read the Senate Report on Tax Evasion.  It was riveting.  Really.

All this with the intention of posting something this morning about one or the other.

But you know what?  I need a break and I suspect you do, too.


Petros (Peter) over at Isaac Brock posted this funny, New Form 1040-K9.  Check it out - it is hilarious.

And just for kicks (and to tempt you further) here is what Peter posted this on Facebook about Woofie's dilemma:
"Woofie finds himself in an embarrassing situation. He didn't know he was supposed to file his 1040-K9 for all the years that he lived in Canada. Now he has a compliance problem but is not sure how to approach it. Come to one of our seminars. We will have special session just for our furry friends. But Woofie's problems are just starting. He's found that he can't renounce his citizenship because US state department officials believe him to be incompetent or perhaps, that his owners are forcing him."
Woofie, my friend, je vous ai compris.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Battle for Bi-lingualism

"Making sure my children are at least proficient in conversational French is a goal I have set myself despite the setbacks. A recent event has given me reason for hope. At a market in London's east end, overhearing excited shouts in French, we stopped to watch some boys playing football in a yard. They were being overseen by a group of besuited men on the steps of a nearby community centre. The boys and their fathers were from several Francophone African countries, the Ivory Coast, Congo, Guinea. Noticing my son’s interest, they asked if he wanted to join the game. As the football was kicked back and forth, I heard my son speak French, not just once, but several times over."

Ben Faccini
In a world that converses only in English, we’ll talk only of banal things: that’s why I want my children to be bilingual

This is a moment that a frustrated minority language parent will treasure forever - hearing the children use the other family language in public.  

When I listen to people in France or the United States who are shocked that there are innocent children out there whose parents are foisting another language on them at home, thus destroying any chance that they will learn the official language of the country, I literally erupt in laughter.

Their concern is misplaced.  The problem is not learning the official language which they will do because children are social creatures with intelligence and a desire to communicate with their peers, but that the minority language of one or more of the parents will be completely lost in a sea of English, French or whatever majority language the children are being exposed to.

This is the battle that many migrants and partners in a bi-national couple fight every day.   Not to make their homes a bastion of the minority language against the country and culture they live in, but to impart, however imperfectly, some of the mother tongue of a distant land that the parent or parents once called "home".

It's hard to raise children to be bi-lingual and the results of the efforts are uncertain.  Maybe the children will grow to be bi-lingual adults or maybe not. What I've seen is a continuum of children raised in bi-lingual households ranging from the ability to understand a little and say a few words in the other language to full fluency (accent, understanding, reading, writing, speaking). 

And that is just as true of children whose parents are trying to teach them a "useful" or "important" language like English or French, as it is in the transmission of other languages with less prominence and perceived utility.  A child doesn't necessarily understand those adult prejudices - all he or she knows is that mom (or dad) talks "funny". 

Faccini, a bilingual French/English speaker who lives in London and whose dreams of raising French speakers was crashing on the shoals of reality, describes beautifully the forces against the minority language parent:
"Introducing French into the family equation has undoubtedly been an additional complication. It skews mealtimes, often setting off lopsided conversations, pitting my French against everyone else’s English. It makes the children feel they are being judged and tested. And, despite their growing comprehension of French, they’ll find any excuse to walk a few steps behind me on the way to school in case I’m overheard. They stick their fingers in their ears when the Petit Nicolas CD is played in the car. They wriggle their way out of talking to French-speaking friends and family members by perfectly mimicking Gallic shrugs, sometimes accompanied by Parisian-sounding ‘errrrs’, or else they clam up completely. Most of their conversations end up wordless. A thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, offered with a cherubic smile, usually settles a wide range of issues."
One important omission in Faccini's post is the role played by the other parent which in this case is his wife.  From the article it appears she is a native English speaker and he neglects to mention how she feels about his effort to promote French in their UK household.  One thing I have learned from the readers of this blog and from Gabrielle Varro's work is that the attitude of the other parent is crucial.  

Where the native speaker parent doesn't value the other language, doesn't show any interest in learning it, and demonstrates by word, deed and attitude that this is not a common project, he/she subtly undermines the parent with the minority language.  In a bi-national couple this can become the source of much anger and frustration which may never be openly expressed, but festers at the heart of the marriage. 

Is the effort to transmit the minority language worth the trip?  Faccini thinks so and so do I.  He has his reasons and I have mine -  some of which I admit have a lot to do with my struggles as a woman migrant (guilt, pressure from the homeland, and identity crisis).

What we share, I think, is the utter delight we felt when all those efforts  paid off and we heard our mother tongue spontaneously coming from the mouths of our progeny.  Like Faccini  I had to wait many years for those moments and allow me to share with you one of the very best ones.

At the age of 14 the younger Frenchling decided to write a novel in English.  Took her two years of struggle but she finally finished it at the age of 16.  It's a fabulous first effort.

And when I read it, I cried.

Monday, February 24, 2014

French Finance Commission Talks FATCA

On February 11, 2014 the French government Commission des Finances met to discuss the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA).

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

The French government signed an IGA with the United States late last year (summary here).  And, as has happened in so many other countries where IGA's have been negotiated and signed, the account closures of US Persons have begun or accelerated.  

As some of the unintended consequences (and I feel very safe saying "unintended" since I am very sure that the French government never envisioned French citizens losing their bank privileges) have become clearer, the Commission des Finances invited testimony about the impact of FATCA in France.  

The speakers were Mathilde Dupré of CCFD-Terre Solidaire, Édouard Marcus from the Department of Finance Legislation,  Patrick Suet of the Tax Committee of the Federation of French Banks (Fédération bancaire française) and the secretary general of the Société générale (major French bank), and Jean-Marc Vasseux,  the director of Risk, Control and Compliance at AXA Banque.

Let's begin with Senator Philippe Marini's introduction to the FATCA discussion:
L'initiative américaine revenait à lancer au système financier une proposition, certes fort recevable, mais en usant d'une méthode pour le moins cavalière. La négociation intergouvernementale a heureusement permis de progresser, et les pays tiers ont finalement obtenu que soient signées des conventions bilatérales pour la mise en oeuvre de FATCA, prévoyant, pour certaines, une réciprocité. C'est ainsi qu'un projet de loi autorisant l'approbation de l'accord signé le 14 novembre 2013 entre la France et les États-Unis sera prochainement soumis au Parlement. D'où cette audition. 
Bien des ambiguïtés demeurent, en particulier sur la question de la réciprocité. Au-delà de la question de principe se pose la question de la mise en oeuvre concrète de la loi FATCA par les banques, avec ses difficultés juridiques, ses questions de responsabilité et ses coûts. Pour y voir plus clair, nous avons donc souhaité recevoir l'éclairage des quatre personnalités ici présentes. 
The U.S. initiative amounts to throwing a proposition at the banking system, certainly one for which there is a strong case, but uses a method that is, to say the least, arrogant. Government to government negotiations fortunately allowed us to move forward and countries finally got signed bilateral agreements for the implementation of FATCA, some of which provide for reciprocity. A bill authorizing the approval of the agreement [IGA] signed November 14, 2013 between France and the United States will soon be submitted to Parliament. And that is why we are holding this hearing.

Though ambiguities remain, particularly on the issue of reciprocity. Above and beyond the question of the principle of the matter, there is also the question of the practical implementation of FATCA by banks: legal difficulties, responsibilities and costs. In order to see more clearly, we have asked the four witnesses present here to shed some light on these  matters.
The testimony that followed that introduction is a unique look into how the different actors in France view FATCA.  Each sector had an important point to make and we'll examine their perspectives.  What is rather unfortunate (but we have already seen this at the OECD and the European Parliament) is that FATCA is viewed very narrowly as a subject that only concerns the finance sector and governments (with a token NGO thrown in from time to time).

What we know from experience is that there are stakeholders missing here, and these are the customers of these banks and the citizens of these countries.

CCFD-Terre Solidaire

Mathilde Dupré was the first to speak. She represented an NGO called CCFD-Terre Solidaire,  the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development, which is a member of the Tax Justice Network.  

National Sovereignty:  She responded directly to the sovereignty question:  "Dans quelle mesure l'accord FATCA ouvre-t-il la voie à l'influence des normes américaines?" (To what extent does the FATCA agreement open the door to the influence of American standards?)  In principle, she said, French law still prevails and it will be the Conseil d'Etat et le Conseil constitutionnel (the State and Constitutional Councils) that will ensure that.  

Reciprocity:  A key problem, she said.  Reciprocity is written into many IGAs, however serious problems remain on the American side.  The U.S. Congress has to agree to reciprocity.  FATCA, the law signed in 2010 by President Obama, only provides for a one-way information exchange from other countries to the United States.  That's not acceptable to most countries and what France and other countries wanted (and got) was a bi-lateral information exchange with France getting information from the United States as well as sending information.  Thus far the U.S. Congress has not voted to permit information exchange from the U.S. though it has been promised by the negotiators on the U.S. side.  It was this issue of reciprocity and the list of exempt entities, she said, that delayed the signing of the French/U.S. IGA until November of last year. 

French Banks

Patrick Suet began by pointing out that although  transmission of financial information to the government is not new for banks,  FATCA is requiring serious and expensive adaptations to systems due to the nature of the information requested.   

IGAs - Help or Hindrance?  Since 2011 France banks have had to put into place some significant compliance projects that he described as "très lourds" (very heavy).  And consider, he said, the case of the French bank the Société générale which has a presence in 77 countries.  This means potentially 77 different IGAs that the bank must take into account.  

Cost/Benefit Analysis:  The definitions of "revenu financier" or of "compte-titre"  are not the same from one country to another, he said,  and he talked about the fact that a simple cost/benefit analysis, "nous conduit à clore les comptes américains dans certains pays" (is causing us to close American accounts in some countries).  Though he admits that is difficult to do when it concerns dual-nationals (France/US).  There is also a real issue with French account holders in France who have a connection to the U.S.:  for example, French citizens who have children living in the United States.

Legal Risk:  Suet raised the possibility that their clients will sue over the data transfer to the U.S.  "un client pourrait contester le transfert en se fondant sur la législation européenne relative à la protection de la vie privée" (a client may contest the transfer based on European legislation that protects privacy.)  A very important point and I personally think it will happen regardless of the IGA or the passing of legislation by the French parliament to implement FATCA.  A case (or cases) will eventually go to the European level to be decided there.

Compensation:  Now, this is a very interesting proposal.  Suet argued that since the banks and their clients are alone in bearing the cost of FATCA,  some compensation is needed here.  Since 2011, he said, the banks have spent 200 to 300 million Euros to get compliant and that's not fair.  "Ne travaillons-nous pas au service de l'intérêt général du monde entier?" (Are we not working in the general interest of the entire world?)

And that proposal led to this interesting exchange between Senator Marini and Patrick Suet:
M. Philippe Marini, président. - N'est-ce pas là un investissement concurrentiel, susceptible de vous acquérir de nouveaux clients ?
(Is this not a competitive investment which might help you get new clients?)
M. Patrick Suet. - C'est plutôt un investissement pour les perdre.... Nos clients pourraient être mécontents de ces nouvelles interrogations. Le coût, en moyenne, est donc au moins de 1 000 euros par client, qu'il faut comparer avec le rendement moyen annuel d'un compte : il faudra cinq à dix ans pour récupérer l'investissement.
(It's more of an investment to lose them... Our clients may be unhappy being asked these new questions. The price, on average, is at least 1000 euros per client, and we must compare to the annual return on an account: it will take 5 to 10 years just to recover the investment.
M. Philippe Marini, président. - Ce ne sont pas n'importe quels clients, cependant...
(But these are not just any clients, however...)
M. Patrick Suet. - Détrompez-vous. Tous les comptes d'expatriés sont concernés. Une banque nous a fourni le chiffre de 2 500 euros par compte en moyenne.
(Think again. All the accounts of expatriates are concerned. One bank gave us the figure of 2,500 euros per account on average.)
Jean-Marc Vasseux of Axa Banque added his concerns.  We are a small bank, he said, with very few American clients (some of whom were also French, I note).  Their logic was simply this:  "Conserver nos relations avec eux supposait des adaptations lourdes : nous avons donc choisi de ne pas poursuivre. Cette décision fut difficile à prendre, car il s'agissait de clients fidèles." (Maintaining a relationship with them meant important adaptations:  we chose not to [maintain the relationship].  This decision was very difficult for us because it concerned loyal clients).  

After the testimony of the banks the discussion went general with reactions and counter-reactions to the information presented.   To summarize the key issues:  cost, sovereignty, reciprocity and OECD/Europe efforts in the area of automatic information exchange.  

Toward the very end of the meeting, the French senator from the Val-d'Oise (Ile-de-France) Francis Delattre, made a statement that I thought went to the very heart of the matter.  He asked very directly the all important question:  why?  Why are doing this and does it make any sense at all?  
"Nous avons entendu, à plusieurs reprises, nos représentants auprès de l'OCDE. Soixante États ont signé un protocole d'accord. Quant aux Américains résidant en France, ils sont aussi des contribuables français. Pourquoi injecter du droit américain dans les relations interbancaires alors que la négociation devrait avoir lieu d'État à État? FATCA introduit beaucoup de confusion, et n'aide pas l'OCDE. Les États-Unis ont prouvé, avec les listes UBS, qu'ils avaient les moyens de contraindre les grands établissements financiers du monde. Ceux qui sont européens se soumettent. Pourquoi devrions-nous, dès lors, mettre en oeuvre FATCA, alors que ce qui compte avant tout pour nous, ce sont les standards de l'OCDE ? Nous avons besoin d'une régulation mondiale. Nos intérêts devraient être défendus par l'Europe." 
(We have heard many times from our representatives at the OECD. Sixty states have signed an agreement. As for the Americans residing in France, they are also French taxpayers. Why inject American law into inter-bank relationships when negotiations should take place between states? FATCA introduces a great deal of confusion and is not helping the OECD. The U.S. has proven, with the UBS lists, that it has the means to rein in the world's big financial institutions. Those who are European have submitted to these. Why should we now put FATCA into place given that what really matters for us are the OECD standards? We need a worldwide regulation. Our interests should be defended by Europe.)

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Home at Last

Is it my meds or is it my age?

For some reason I don't bounce back from jet-lag as fast as I used to.  I got home last Thursday and have spent the past few days enjoying the lovely Versailles weather.  From -16 to +6 (Celsius) and the latter feels downright Florida-like to me after a week in Québec.

As always, I had a wonderful time in Montréal.  Most of my time was spent spoiling the Frenchlings with shopping trips (books and clothes) and a visit to the new planetarium.  In exchange the girls allowed me to sleep on the sofa bed and follow them about during the day.  I got to exercise my culinary skills learned from my American mother/French mother-in-law which involves making tasty nourishing dishes with very VERY cheap ingredients.  That, mes amis, is the real secret to French and good old-fashioned American cooking.  No matter how limited your budget, you can always make boeuf bourguignon and biscuits (or dumplings).

We shopped at  Provigo (discount supermarket), walked most places instead of driving (or taking the public transportation) and paid close attention to the thermostat and the lights (dark overcast days, electric heat, and no insulation).

The best part of coming home was seeing the changes to the garden.  The daffodils and crocuses are up, the forsythia is about to bloom, and the rose bushes are budding. Yesterday I decided to trust the universe and prune the roses.  And, as always, the French side of the Franco-American Flophouse came out and said, "Aren't you cutting them back too much?  We won't have any roses if you do that. Stop!"

Ahem.  The purpose of pruning is for the health and beauty of the plant. Roses (flowers) are merely a happy by-product of the process.  I prune hard (and if you think I'm bad you should have seen my grandfather who learned his pruning skills in the orchards of Eastern Washington) but I prune well.  Yes, it looks ugly at first but my roses look pretty darn good in the summer and that is the whole point of the exercise.  After 23 years of marriage, why do we still have this conversation every spring?  It's a mystery.

To my surprise I am now sharing my garden with wildlife (one welcome, the other not so much).
As I was lazing around on the back porch the other day a green bird with a red cap swooped down from the neighbor's apple tree.  At first I thought it was a parrot (an escapee).  Nope, it was a European Woodpecker:

From Woodpeckers of Europe

The other "guest" is a rat.  He/she is using the back perennial bed in front of the stone wall as a highway to get from the neighbor's yard to mine.  And what are our two cats doing about it?  Absolutely nothing and makes me wonder why I bother to feed them and let them sleep on my bed.  Ungrateful useless beasts...

The sun is shining and the garden is beckoning so I will leave you now with this picture of the garden I took early this morning.  Have a lovely Sunday, everyone.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Montréal - Arrival

"Qu'il est doux, qu'il est doux d'écouter des histoires,
Des histoires du temps passé,
Quand les branches d'arbres sont noires,
Quand la neige est épaisse et charge un sol glacé !"

Alfred de Vigny

I'm always amazed at how these days you can wake up in the morning in one world and then fall into bed in another. Versailles to Montréal in a few short hours.  

This morning I got up at an ungodly hour to catch Nature adding another layer of white to the layers I slogged through yesterday to get the Frenchling's apartment.  Here are some pictures I took this morning of the view outside the apartment at 6 AM.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Americans in Europe - Migrants or Expatriates?

"Terminology is a subtle yet momentous indicator of identity struggles broiling just beneath the surface of any poised composure... If I am "transplanted," "expatriated," or an "immigrant" - another term avoided by this community - I am "out" of my native group. I am excluded.  Marginalized.  I am that mutation of American individual that chooses to leave and remains away, remains missing.  There is a finiteness of my situation that I may not be comfortable with, though it is, after all, the result of my choice."

Extraordinary, Ordinary Women:  Questions of Expatriate Identity in Contemporary American Paris
Kelly Rogers

I used to refer to myself as a "guest" in France - something that today I find highly amusing. Here I was desperately trying to avoid the words in the Rogers quotation and, unintentionally, I selected what I thought was a fairly neutral, slightly humorous term, that I learned later has nasty connotations here in Europe - as in "guest worker."  It wasn't funny at all;  it was sad.  Hopefully, those who heard me use it in the early years had the wisdom and kindness to understand that here was a woman migrant in the grip of a terrible identity crisis.

Trying to make sense of that life lived "out" of my home country and culture has been a lifelong preoccupation.  At times I've felt slightly ashamed of that because the messages I get back is that contemplation along those lines is interdit because, after all, "You're living in France!"  So, shut up already or write us a pretty book about it that confirms all of our positive stereotypes about the life you surely must be leading.

Having a bit more gumption these days (I am a woman of a certain age now and no longer a sweet but naive child bride) my response to that is:  stereotypes, my friends, are simply excuses not to think.

Worse, I would argue that actively colluding with them is to bow to the tyranny of other people's expectations, something that that is hardly conducive to our growth as human beings.  To cease the search for meaning in the seminal events in our lives (and our reactions to them) is to be perpetually in a state of arrested development.  As Carl Jung said:
"The serious problems in life, however, are never fully solved.  If ever they should appear to be so then it is a sure sign that something has been lost.  The meaning and purpose of a problem seems not to lie in its solution but in our working at it incessantly.  This alone preserves us from stultification and petrification."
In the quest to confront those stereotypes, and to find models and research by which we can try to understand our own experience in a broader context,  we are hampered by the dearth of serious academic research into American emigration and identity.  The few that I have found and profiled here (like Gabrielle Varro, for example) were like spring water in the intellectual desert around these topics.

I was very pleased to see, however, that there is another work out that looks very promising.  The book is called Migrants or Expatriates?: Americans in Europe (Migration, Diasporas and Citizenship) by Dr. Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels of the Brussels School of International Studies.  More information about her study and her initial findings can be found here.  The book is the product of that research and I will be reading it and reviewing it here on the Flophouse.

Please note as well that Dr. von Koppenfels will be speaking in Paris this month on February 19.  This is an event sponsored by the Association of Americans Resident Overseas (AARO).  I will be at this talk and I hope you'll join me. More information about how to register for this event can be found on the AARO website here.

I'm off to Montréal tomorrow morning.  Next Flophouse post will be from that fair city.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Four Pillars of French Nationality

Every time I finish one of Patrick Weil's books I find myself mentally reviewing my agenda for the first opportunity to go down to the prefecture and inquire about applying for French citizenship. Something I have yet to do though I have lived in France for almost 20 years now.  He is simply that eloquent.

Last night I had the immense pleasure of hearing him speak at the Ecole militaire in Paris on this very broad (but fascinating) topic:  Being French in the 21st century:  Europe, national identity, immigration and integration: (Etre français au XXIe siècle: Europe, identité nationale, immigration, intégration).  To my utter delight he was just as compelling a speaker as he is a writer.

It was all the more interesting to me because, unlike most of the audience, I attended as a citizen-in-the-making and not as one who is French by birth or naturalization.  The question of trading in my identity as an American in France for the far deeper commitment which is citizenship is one that is often on my mind and is still on the table.

Patrick Weil is an historian and professor of political science who has done some extraordinary work in both the academic and political realms on French identity past and present.  His history of French citizenship Qu'est-ce qu'un français? is, in my view, the best place to start understanding the context and history of how identity and citizenship has evolved over time.  The answer to the question "What does it mean to be French? very much depends on what era we are talking about it. It is trite but true to say that understanding the present requires a good grounding in the past - something that his book does very very well.

The first part of Weil's talk was a summary of that research - a confrontation of the misunderstandings that the contemporary Frenchman or woman has about his own citizenship. Contrary to popular belief, France has not always been a country of jus soli (citizenship by place of birth).  

 Jus sanguinas was actually introduced in France under Napoleon (and he was not too sure at the time that it was a good idea) for reasons that had everything to do with the ability of the French to travel and live outside of France and to pass their citizenship on to their children.  This citizenship transmission by blood (filiation but only via the father, not the mother) was introduced into French law (Code civil) in this period and was simply borrowed by the Germans who were formulating their own citizenship laws and went looking for a model.  For a number of reasons (one of which was conscription for the army) France eventually went back to jus soli.  It took Germany much longer to do the same thing albeit for different reasons.

The citizenship regime in France today has both - French citizenship can be transmitted through a French parent or through being born in France - but jus soli is not unconditional in the way it is in the United States under the Fourteenth amendment to the US Constitution.  There are residency requirements that must be fulfilled for a child born of foreign parents on French soil.  Something I consider very reasonable given the rather perverse effects of US citizenship law on what we are today referring to as "Accidental Americans."

His summary of the history of French citizenship was fascinating but the heart of his talk (for me) was what he calls the Four Pillars of French Nationality (les quatres piliers de la nationalité) which are:

 1.  Equality of all citizens before the law (le principe d’égalité);

2.  Remembrance of the French Revolution (la mémoire de la Révolution française);

3.  The French language (la langue française);

4.  Separation of Church and State (la laïcité).

Both the equality of citizens and the separation of church and state are very familiar to Americans and, for me, represent a common ground between the two countries and their conception of two relationships:  the first between the state and the individual, and the other between the state and religion.  Granted, there are differences in how these manifest themselves in each society but fundamentally the underlying principles are the same.

Weil made the very good point that the idea of the separation of Church and state has been wrongly extended from its original purpose - the strict neutrality of the state in matters of religion.  What we can see today is another conception of it which views the state's role as an accelerator of the decline of religious belief (a pre-requisite, some argue, to creating a truly "modern" society),  To that end there is an attempt to eject religious expression from public life. (See José Casanova for a discussion about these very different views of secularization.)

He contends, and I agree wholeheartedly, that this was never the intention behind la laïcité.  The state is not there to hobble religious expression public or private - on the contrary the state is prevented from favoring any religion over another and is not permitted to do anything to restrict an individual's freedom of conscience and the expression of his or her beliefs.  Here I would say that this attempt on the part of some in the Hexagon to do that is just as much a problem for me as a Roman Catholic as it is for the members of minority religions here.

 The other two pillars - the memory of the French Revolution and the French language - are more specific to France, though not entirely.  Despite the negative opinions of some, French is still an international language and is spoken in countries all over the world.  In the living memory of my American family there are French speakers.  Yes, these francophones are separated by several generations but still, between my great-grandmother Celeste (a Québecoise) and myself (who could be considered in some ways a case of reverse migration),  French is very much alive.  Furthermore I have done quite a bit of traveling outside both France and the United States and from Asia to Africa French has proven not only to be useful but in some cases was the sole means by which I could communicate with the people I met.

There were some very good questions asked during the question and answer period at the end of the talk but the one that was the most poignant was about the perceived rejection of France by immigrants and the children of immigrants.  This is something that is very painful for all parties and is one element among others cited when there is talk of a "crisis" of French identity.  There is suspicion that the machine of integration which has worked so well has somehow failed today and the French are searching for reasons why.   Weil's response was that it has not failed.  In the bitterness of these young people one can see that their disappointment comes from a sense of rejection.  If they didn't want to be French and didn't love France then there would be no sense of love thwarted.

This is something I can speak to directly as an immigrant.  I would not have the audacity to compare myself directly to the situation faced by North Africans here - the relationship between my home country and France is very different - and I would be the first to say that theirs is the harder road.

And yet their expressions of bitterness find a faint echo in my own heart.  Above and beyond the constantly changing requirements for naturalization here what I have sensed for years is a lack of any encouragement to become a French citizen.  A desire to do so is often met with a great deal of suspicion. "Why would you want to be French?"  is a legitimate question but the way it is all too often formulated is a bit perverse.  Sometimes I have to wonder if the French person asking the question actually values his own French citizenship since he seems to be implying that being French is simply not interesting in light of the citizenship I already possess.

In other cases there is a sense that the person asking the question is searching for some sort of ulterior motive, a purely utilitarian one, as if somehow trading in my residency permit for a French would actually provide me with some sort of material benefit above and beyond what I already receive as a long-term resident. (The answer, of course, is that there is really only one and that is voting).

Even in the heart of my French family here there is no enthusiasm for my desire to become a French citizen.   If I add to this all the conversations I am privy to in which foreigners are vilified for their presence and perceived abuse of social services and their  integration issues then, yes, all this culminates in an overall sense of rejection.  It is not a question, as one person put it, of having the red carpet rolled out before me, but rather ridding myself of the sense that I am not wanted here any more than any other foreigner.  

To those who say, well, fill out your naturalization dossier and let the French authorities determine the answer to that question, my reply would be that I have absolutely no desire to be a "paper citizen" - one with a passport and identity papers without the acceptance, equality and freedom of conscience. That is the path of frustration taken by other migrants and their children before me with the consequences we see today.

That I can listen to Weil's words and be so inspired and yet remain unsure about the reality of two of his Four Pillars of French Nationality is a bad sign.  I can only speak for myself and make no claims whatsoever to speak for any other migrants here in the Hexagon but I suspect that Weil's calls for a dialogue would be welcome.

Let us indeed mettre à plat these concerns, suspicions and misunderstandings.  If we can, as Eva Hoffman proposes, try to "think from the other point of view, to stand on the other end of the triangle's base,"  the exercise in empathy alone would take us in the more positive direction which is the sharing of our mutual "topologies of experience" and the search for common ground.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Axa Banque - U.S. Person Account Closures in France

It's official, Axa Banque sent letters out recently to their U.S. Person clients informing them that they are no longer welcome chez eux and giving them very little time to find alternatives.

This has hit the French news.  Le Figaro had this article by Anne de Guigné: Axa Banque ferme les comptes de ses clients américains.  Unfortunately, it's only available to subscribers so let's turn instead to another one that was published yesterday in Le Point:  Axa Banque ferme les comptes de ses clients américains en France !

In both articles the ejected clients of Axa Banque who are cited are, in fact, French citizens.  They are what we call "Accidental Americans" - they were born in the United States but have always considered themselves to be 100% French. To their surprise (and dismay) they are now learning through a private bank that they are also U.S. Citizens. (And is there not something deeply wrong with that? A private entity determining an individual's citizenship status?)

Here is Daniel's case as described in the Le Point article.  Daniel, a French citizen with a U.S. place of birth, has had an account with AXA for nearly 10 years:
"Peu importe que Daniel ait été élevé en France, qu'il n'utilise que son passeport français (il n'a jamais renouvelé le passeport américain). Il est né aux États-Unis pendant que son père (un Français) effectuait une partie de ses études. En vertu du droit du sol, il est donc légalement citoyen américain. Désarçonné, le Franco-Américain, qui n'a aucune attache outre-Atlantique, envisage alors de renoncer à cette pesante nationalité. Mais renseignement pris auprès de l'ambassade américaine, le délai est bien trop long (plusieurs mois)."
("No matter that Daniel was raised in France, that he only uses a French passport (he has never renewed his U.S. passport). He was born in the U.S. when his father (a Frenchman) studied there. Because of jus soli citizenship law [citizenship granted through place of birth] he is legally an American citizen. Flabbergasted, this Franco-American, who has no attachments on the other side of the Atlantic, thought to renounce this unwanted nationality. But after inquiring at the American embassy, the delay [to renounce] was too long (several months).")
Daniel's situation is actually even worse than Le Point describes.  Daniel is an American citizen which means that (according to American law) he should  have been filing U.S. tax returns and reporting his foreign" banks accounts to the American government (and by that I mean all his accounts in France).  Reading the article, I really doubt he is compliant with these requirements and that makes him, in the eyes of the United States of America, a "tax evader"  (fraudeur fiscal). 

His problems are just beginning:   he's been "outed" as a U.S. citizen, he is not compliant with U.S. tax law, and, in principle, if he wishes to renounce his U.S. citizenship, he is supposed  to file those back tax returns and bank account reports. 

This Frenchman does not only need a new bank, he needs a very good lawyer.

This is the direct collateral damage that FATCA causes.  However, the underlying issue, the real problem, is citizenship-based taxation.  There are serious consequences to being a "U.S. Person."  All FATCA does is reveal cases like this and demonstrates the complete idiocy of taxing individuals according to their nationality and not according to their place of residence (and the U.S. is the only country other than Eritrea that does this).  

In my humble opinion the U.S. consulate in Paris should give him his renunciation interview right now and waive the fee (yes, there is a fee to renounce U.S. citizenship).  And he should get his Certificate of Loss of Nationality within a few days after that.  As for the back tax returns, he should be absolved of having to file anything at all with the U.S. IRS or Treasury.  

After reading the Le Point article, I was inspired to write a comment in response as an American abroad living in France.  Here it is with my translation:
Il ne s'agit pas de "rapatrier" l'argent 
Je suis américaine et je vis en France depuis presque 20 ans. Mariée a un français, nous avons deux enfants Franco-Américains. Apres avoir quitté mon pays natal, j'ai gagné ma vie entièrement en France. Pas un centime de notre patrimoine familial vient des Etats-Unis et nous payons nos impôts ici EN FRANCE.  
Mais selon la loi américaine (l’imposition des particuliers basée sur la nationalité) je dois également déclarer cet argent au fisc américain. Dans certain cas il m'arrive de payer aussi les impôts américains sur mes investissements en France - l'argent que j'ai placé avec ce que j'ai gagné EN FRANCE.  
Résultats de cet exercice ? Nous avons moins d'argent pour réinvestir en France.  
J'ai du mal à voir comment tout ça est dans l'intérêt de la France. Et très honnêtement, j'ai honte face à ma famille française. C'est notre argent qui s'envole dans un pays étranger et nous recevons aucun bénéfice des Etats-Unis en retour.  
Donc, je pense à renoncer - pour ma famille et pour ce pays - la France - pour lequel j'ai beaucoup de reconnaissance et d'amour. 
(I'm an American and I've been living in France for nearly 20 years.  Married to a Frenchman we have two Franco-American children.  After having left my birth country, I earned my living entirely in France.  Not one cent of our family savings comes from the United States and we pay our taxes here IN FRANCE. 
But according to American law (taxation of individuals according to their nationality) I must also declare this money to the American IRS.  In some cases I have had to pay American taxes as well on my French investments - money that I invested with what I earned IN FRANCE. 
What is the result of this?  We have less money to reinvest in France. 
I have a hard time seeing how any of this is in the interests of France.  And honestly, I am ashamed to face my French family.  It's our money that is flying off to a foreign country and we receive no benefits from the United States in return. 
So, I am thinking about renouncing - for my family and for this country - France - for which I have a lot of gratitude and love.)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Montréal Bound!

I'm headed for Canada next week.  I will be in Montréal from February 13 - 19.  The Frenchlings have graciously agreed to allow me to sleep in their spare bedroom.  I think their apartment is near the Atwater Metro station...

As for requests from the Hexagon, I have been told simply to bring Milka (milk chocolate, no nuts) from France.  There you have it - what those French kids really miss from the Old Country.

My schedule is very flexible so if anyone would like to meet while I'm there, just send me an email at

A très bientôt, mes amis...

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Another Context for Understanding American Immigration

In 1907 the famed American photographer Alfred Stieglitz took this photo called Steerage.  The image captured men and women sitting and doing laundry on the lower-deck of a steamer and it was interpreted (and, in fact, became rather famous) as the quintessential image of immigrants fleeing their homelands and coming to America.

Actually, that wasn't it at all.  This photo was taken on a cruise from New York (U.S.) to Southhampton (England) and Bremen (Germany).  These people weren't coming to America, they were leaving it.

How could this photo have been so misunderstood by Americans?  The answer to this and a review of other odd ideas Americans have about immigration can be found in Donna R. Gabaccia's book Foreign Relations:  American Immigration in Global Perspective.

The underlying narrative about immigration in the United States goes something like this:  immigrants come to America from their poverty-stricken, badly governed, repressive (sexist, racist, homophobic), politically incorrect countries.  They hit the shores of the U.S. and they are transformed into something else.  Something better.  Old allegiances are cast off.  They are Americans-in-the-Making.  They gratefully take up the opportunities America has to offer.  They become citizens in huge numbers and then they have American-born children who dream of one day becoming President of the "greatest nation on earth."

This is what is taught in every American school to every American child.  This is how it works here in America and we should all be very grateful to our ancestors for having slipped the leash and left France, England, China, Germany, and all the other inferior places in the world.  E pluribus unum. Amen.

Do I think this is still true today in 2014?  Absolutely.  God help the American immigrant living in the U.S. who, when asked some variation of this question, "How does it feel to be free?" gives the wrong answer. Or the American emigrant facing down a homelander who wants to hear why he or she is living somewhere outside the United States.  I have learned from bitter experience that these kinds of queries are very dangerous and there are only a very few acceptable answers which can be summed up in three words:  War, Commerce, and Empire-building.

Gabaccia does a very good job of challenging the myths about American immigration.  But her argument is much more than just myth-busting.  What she's saying is that the context that Americans have for talking about immigration in the 21st century is simply too limited.  Since it's perceived by the American government and public as a strictly domestic concern, the debate tends to be focused very tightly on the United States (controlling borders, building walls, deporting "illegals", amnesty programs, and so on.)  And that simply isn't true.

Looking around the world today, all kinds of countries have exactly the same concerns about immigration as Americans do and face the same challenges.  Furthermore, immigration always involves more than one country which puts it firmly in the realm of foreign/international relations. Immigrants don't come out of thin air - an American immigrant is always some other country's emigrant.

To get that larger view, no better place to begin than the United Nations 2013 International Migration Report.

Just look at all the countries that are prime destinations for international migrants.  The U.S. and Canada are there, of course, but so is Mexico, France, Spain, Australia, and many other places.

"Nothing," says Gabaccia, "makes the challenges of globalization more visible - or more terrifying, apparently - than mobile people."  And Americans are just as scared (maybe more so post-911) of this as people in other countries.

Gabaccia sees the immigration debates in the U.S. as a "symbolic defense" against a world that Americans perceive as being hostile to them.  There is a connection between Empire-building, American intervention outside her borders, globalization, and immigration.  When a people see the world as unfriendly, it's not a leap for them to be suspicious of people coming from those places.

Add to that the dawning awareness that these immigrants do not necessarily behave according to the myth:  they do not leave their old allegiances behind - many are duals and live transnational lives;  they do not necessarily integrate as fast as the natives would like; some simply refuse to ever become U.S. citizens;  they send huge amounts of money out of the country as opposed to investing it locally:  and they don't seem to value "freedom" in the way that they were perceived to value it in the past.

Gabaccia says that these things have always been true.  Even in the grand era of American immigration (18th - early 20th century)  immigrants were doing all the things described above but it simply wasn't visible in the way it is today.  To a certain extent, I contend, it still isn't.  Where are the figures for American emigration?   You won't find precise numbers or studies coming from the U.S. government - only State Department estimates.   Why is that?    Surely those numbers are important, too, and would add an important dimension to the debate about immigration in the U.S.

The lack of data is construed by many homeland Americans as a sign that, well, it's so small as to be insignificant and it's simply a few rich folks escaping tax obligations.  Really?  "The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence" and there are other sources of information if one is curious and starts looking.  Something that, interestingly enough, U.S.-based journalists are not at all motivated to do.  And yet the data is there.  Patrick Cain, for example, writing for Global News Canada produced this report Canadian data doesn’t support stereotype of the wealthy U.S. expat using public Canadian census data.   Another good recent source is the already mentioned 2013 UN study on international migration.  Using that study American immigration and emigration are the subject of this Pew article which has this intriguing chart:
U.S. Immigrants  Increasingly Are Born in Latin America and the Caribbean …and U.S. Emigrants  Increasingly Are Living in Latin America and the Caribbean

 In an otherwise very good book about American immigration in a global context, Gabaccia has the same blindness to American emigration as any other American academic or journalist.  American emigration is mentioned in just one context - Empire-building in the early 20th century.  She gives some tantalizing data (and a a few harsh words) of what Americans abroad looked like in that period: "In 1910, 10,000 American citizens like the Cadens constituted 2 percent of the population of Mexico City;  another 11,000 lived outside the capital city, making Americans the third largest group of foreigners (after Spaniards and Guatemalans) in Mexico." And,  "In Canada, in 1911, there lived an even more astonishing 303,680 persons born in the United States:  they constituted 4 percent of the population."

That was the state of emigration 100 years ago.  And in the final chapter of her book which talks about the period from 1965 to the present day, there is nothing.  It is as if these Americans abroad simply ceased to exist. (There is one mention of a Chinese Accidental American in the Nixon era.)   And that's a pity, not only because I am genuinely interested in this data for obvious reasons, but because I think a discussion of this would have contributed greatly to her overall argument. There is an estimated 6-7 million American civilian citizens abroad in 2014 and I strongly suspect that they aren't out there "Empire-building" any more.

There are reasons why homeland Americans are uncomfortable with the topic of emigration and they are closely tied to feelings about immigration and a sense that the U.S. has lost control over globalization and is facing a hostile world in the early 21st century.  And that, I think, is worth a mention or two.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The American/L'Américain

"To be human is to ask unanswerable questions, but to persist in asking them, to be broken and ache for wholeness, to hurt and to try to find a way to healing through the hurt.  To be human is to embody a paradox, for according to the ancient vision, we are 'less than the gods, more than the beasts, yet somehow also both.'"

The Spirituality of Imperfection:  Storytelling and the Search for Meaning
Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham

The expatriate autobiography is a literary form that is both popular and pernicious.  These books about Americans living abroad sell very well in the United States.  Written in the first person the authors of these books past and present are absolved from strict accuracy in their accounts which leaves them free to be, well, entertaining.

Odd to think that these children of immigration (and all Americans are that except for the native peoples) are writing about their own immigrant/emigrant experience.    The "I" they use incessantly (and that itself says something about the culture they came from) is misleading because every American abroad is, in fact, entangled in a new network of friends, family, and colleagues in the host country.

As he or she observes and tries to make sense of his or her life in a new world, he is also being observed and judged.

It is this perspective that we lack when we read the autobiographies of Americans abroad - the perspective of the native citizen spouses, the ostensibly bi-lingual/bi-cultural children, the colleagues at work, and the other members of the community with which that American interacts.

Do such accounts exist?  Indeed they do and here is one I read last week  L'Américain by Franz-Olivier Giesbert, a famous (or infamous) French journalist/writer here in the Hexagon. I read it in French but it has been translated into English and is available in the usual places.

Giesbert is what we are now referring to as an "Accidental American" - someone born in the U.S. (or born abroad to an American parent) who spent most if not all of his life outside the United States in his other country of citizenship.  He was born in Delaware in 1949 to an American father and a French mother and the family left the U.S. for France when he was three years old.  This book, written in the first person, is about his relationship with his American father.

Not an easy book to read.  Their relationship was fraught with violence, anger, and contempt.  At the time of his father's death Giesbert was barely speaking to him.  The portrait he paints of him is of a man who was psychologically damaged by the war, who hated America with passion and who loved his adopted country - a love nevertheless tempered with a certain cynicism.

Frederick Giesbert was an American GI who landed on Omaha beach in Normandy, France on June 6th 1944.  He met Giesbert's mother, a young lady from Elbeuf, at a dance in Rouen and their romance led her to the United States where they were married and back again to Normandy a few years later.  He never returned to the United States and died in France.

Looking beyond the horrendous stories of domestic violence, there are some very revealing passages in Giesbert's book that hint at other forces that were pulling and pushing his father in ways he had not anticipated and that Giesbert could not have known at the time and probably still doesn't understand today:
"Il était comme les immigrés, souvent.  Il ne voulait pas retourner dans son pays.  Il redoutait de se faire remarquer, qu'on lui confisque sa carte de travail et qu'on l'expulse aux Etats-Unis d'Amérique, sa mère patrie, pour laquelle sa détestation était la mesure de ma vénération."
(He was often like the immigrants. He did not want to return to his country. He was afraid to be noticed, that they would confiscate his work permit and deport him to the United States of America, his mother country, for which his hatred was as strong as my adulation.)
"He was often like the immigrants."   What, in heaven's name, is Giesbert talking about?  His father was an immigrant.  By what other possible term could you call a man or woman from another country with a residency permit and an "accent américain à couper au couteau"?  A man who was clearly afraid of being thrown out of the country where he lived, worked and raised a family?  A man who, as Salman Rushdie put it, "falls between two stools."

And yet Giesbert clearly does not put his father in the "immigrant" category; in other parts of the book he simply refers to him as a "foreigner." Was it because this category in France did not (and still doesn't) include immigrants of European origin from developed countries and, in this case, from a country that Giesbert admired?  Or is it Giesbert rejecting an identity that would make him the son of an immigrant?

Reframing his father's life as an immigrant in France changes how one reads the book.  It's not so much "My father who happened to be an American living in France" as it is "His father the immigrant, the Other, on this shore, in this world, at this time."  The latter being a cross that the children of immigrants bear with great ambivalence - sometimes with pride and sometimes with deep discomfort.

In that light we can look harder at his father's relationship with his home country.  Giesbert wrote that his father was very negative about the United States - in particular, what he saw as the gross materialism of the United States in the 1950's. According to the American family members cited in the book his father came back from the war in Europe a changed man and simply could not adjust.

 He had expectations for a career in the home country that did not come to fruition ("Il ne trouve pas de travail à sa mesure.") And when he was offered a job in France in his father-in-law's company, he took it.  Let's call him an "opportunity migrant."  Whatever he said to his son about the "push" out of the U.S., there was a very strong "pull" of meaningful work, recognition, and a better life.

What it sounds like from Giesbert's account of his childhood is that the siren song of the opportunity - the hope that things would be better somewhere else - was not realized in those early years.   Instead, he became, according to Giesbert, a very frustrated and angry man who took his emotions out on his family.  Perhaps, I speculate, an example of what Eva Hoffman calls "immigrant rage."

Having left one country disappointed and angry (or perhaps just extremely hopeful that a change of geography would be beneficial), the migrant finds himself in another and sometimes encounters a completely different set of reasons to be disappointed and angry (or to lose hope).   One web of stifling relationships and an unsatisfactory culture is simply exchanged for another with one important difference:  far greater precariousness and the delicious frustration of being forever viewed in the adopted country as the Other, the Exotic Beast or l'Américain.  From Hoffman's Lost in Translation:
“I don’t want to be told that ‘exotic is erotic’ or that I have Eastern European intensity or brooding Galician eyes. I no longer want to be propelled by immigrant chutzpah or desperado energy or usurper’s ambition. I no longer want to have the prickly, unrelenting consciousness that I am living in a specific culture.”

Such as being told constantly that one has an "accent américain à couper au couteau."

None of this should be taken as an attempt to explain away his father's earlier behaviour which, according to Giesbert, was extremely abusive.  But reading the book with an immigrant eye (and note that I am in the same position as his father was, being the American parent in a French family) there is a great deal in this book to think about.  In spite of my general dislike for the expatriate autobiography I find that I regret that Giesbert's father never wrote one. Today we can only know him in a limited way through his son's words and through his actions as described by his child through a child's eyes.

Returning to the homeland was an option -  Giesbert never mentions his father naturalizing in France (and explicitly talks about his father having a work permit) which meant that he most likely retained his U.S. citizenship and had the right to go back if he wanted to. He never did.   So why did he keep his U.S. citizenship if he was that disgruntled with America and had no intention of returning?
Was it simply to maintain the connection with the family back in the U.S.?  Were there things in the U.S. he cared about and feared to lose?  Or was it the right of return which gave him a sense that he had choices?  Was it a comfort knowing that he could exercise this option and using that possibility as a way of distancing himself from the host country when things were difficult?  Were there advantages to being an Exotic Beast that outweighed the disadvantages of being an immigrant?  Or was he simply caught between two failures?  Failure to be successful in his own country or failure to be successful according to his own standards in the new one?  We will never know but these are the questions I ask myself, often.

As for his son, in many respects Giesbert depicts him in much of the book as someone with enormous negative influence and almost celestial power in his formative years.  He is clear that his early views of his father's country were shaped in direct opposition to his father's anti-Americanism.

That young love did not translate into action for Giesbert - there was no reverse migration. According to the biographies I found, Giesbert only spent a short time actually living in the U.S. - a few years as a reporter for a French publication and then he returned to France where he has lived ever since.  I suspect that the fact of his dual nationality, which may have meant so much once upon a time, now probably means much less - dual citizens being rather more common than they were and Accidental Americans in particular being a rather large club thanks to generous jus soli and jus sanguinas U.S. citizenship laws.

At the end of the book Giesbert relents and he regrets many things but above all, for not forgiving him.  In the end his father is no longer a God or a beast, but a mere mortal:  broken, hurting and prone to error and vice.  But also capable of great love.  He seems to have healed with time and Giesbert ends the book with the belated recognition that his father was a very different man at the end of his life.   Was he really?  Or was it Giesbert who changed?

And so we come full circle and ask what can legitimately be asked of any autobiography:

Is it true?

And here I find myself suddenly at odds with my earlier statement about the questionable veracity of books written in the first person:  Does it really matter?  We can always ask questions and speculate (it is in our nature to do so) but stories will never give us definitive answers - just different perspectives.  I like T.E. Hulme words - ones that are ringing in my mind as I end this essay:
"Never think in a book:  here are Truth and all the other capital letters;  but think in a theatre and watch the audience.  Here is the reality, here are human animals.  Listen to the words of heroism and then look at the crowded husbands who applaud.  All philosophies are subordinate to this."