Why Are Parisians so Surprised That an American Would Want to Live in France?

An American in Paris crunches the numbers.
Feb. 13 2014 1:10 PM

“But You Speak French So Well!”

Why are Parisians so surprised that an American would want to live in France?

(Continued from Page 1)

In France, if you can pay for yourself and prove you’re not living off the state, you can pretty much assume you can stay. All three of the women who have cared for my child since she was born are immigrants to France from the Philippines; all three came here illegally but are now legal residents with work permits much like mine. One of them came to France 12 years ago under a false passport and worked illegally for 10 years. But at the end of that decade, she took documentation of her previous employment and statements from her employers to the prefecture, and the French government OK’d a work permit. She must renew it every year, and at each renewal she must prove that she is making enough money to pay her taxes and social charges. As long as she does this, she can stay in France.

Were you ever worried about being deported? I asked her. “No, no,” she said. She has several family members who came to the country in the same way, and they are now legal residents with the right to work.

Unlike the U.S., France doesn’t convey citizenship automatically at birth: My daughter was born in France but is American because my husband and I are both foreigners; she won’t be able to apply for French citizenship until she turns 13. So it’s not as easy a path to citizenship as it is for children born in the U.S., but on the other hand, the path for people brought here illegally as children isn’t nearly as hard as it is in America. If you can prove they’ve lived and attended school here for at least five years prior, they can become French citizens when they turn 18.

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You also have to prove you can speak French. This is another point of contrast with American immigration policy: France has an official language and a requirement of intermediate-level language proficiency for any immigrant, and the government will subsidize up to 200 hours of French-language instruction for each applicant. You’ll also have to prove something more slippery—that you’ve “integrated” into French society, “especially by adhering to the essential principles and values of the Republic.” (“I made sure I joined a lot of French organizations,” one American friend told me about her application process.)

There’s a difference between providing a relatively straightforward path to citizenship and welcoming immigrants with open arms, and France certainly has its share of problems and tensions surrounding these issues. France is explicitly secular and explicitly assimilationist in its immigration policy, even though it’s also home to the largest Muslim population in continental Europe. As the French population grows more diverse, there’s been an accompanying rise in far-right, anti-immigrant political power. The notion of what it means to be “French” is necessarily changing as the population changes, and there are a lot of people who hate this and blame it on people who look or act “foreign,” even if they are in fact French citizens. Little of this kind of profiling touches me—I’m white, I look “European.” I’ve never been stopped in the street and asked to show my papers, as has happened to all of my Filipina nannies at one time or another.

When I am profiled, it’s usually as a citizen of another EU country; people are quick to assume I’m German, Dutch, or English, all countries close to France whose citizens can and do immigrate here freely, without the need for a carte de sejour, a jour civique, and all that comes with it. Many are surprised when I tell them I’m American. Invariably, the first thing French people say is: “But you speak French so well!” It seems we’re not really known for our language skills, my fellow Americans.

Underneath this, though, is a surprise that an American would choose to live in Europe, particularly France—it’s like a vote of confidence from an uneasy ally, proof that we may be past the years of war, Bush, and freedom fries. And despite our murky immigration system and patchy social safety net, America is still seen by many here as a land of opportunity, wealth, modernity, and glamour. At the end of my jour civique, which came with a government-funded French lunch at a local restaurant, I chatted with the same Senegalese teenager and a woman from Russia. “Where are you from in America?” they wanted to know. I told them I’d moved from New York, and their eyes lit up. “Ah, j’adore New York,” one said. “Someday, I would like to go there.”

Claire Lundberg is a writer, literary scout, and former New Yorker now living in Paris.

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