In this five-part series, an American in Paris pits the French welfare state against the U.S. market economy in five key categories: childbirth and health care, preschool, higher education, immigration, and shopping. Read all the entries in the series here.
About nine months after I moved to Paris, I found myself in a government classroom near the outskirts of the city with a group of other immigrants to France. We were all there for our jour civique, a daylong class in French history and government that is mandatory for all applicants for a titre de sejour, France’s residency card. Instituted by former President Nicolas Sarkozy in one of his attempts to appear tough on immigration, the jour civique is designed to help foreigners integrate into the French legal and cultural system. I was the only American in this group, most of whom came from former French colonies or protectorates. As our teacher went through the specifics of France’s parliamentary government and its key laws, many of the students looked bored—they’d already studied this in school, and the whole thing had a whiff of colonialism about it.
I was more interesting to some of them than the class was. “You’re American?” a teenage girl from Senegal asked me. “Who do you think is better—Rihanna or Beyoncé ? I told her Beyoncé. “Yeah,” she said, “me too, but the boys all like Rihanna.”
My husband, who is also American, and I came to France in 2010, when he was offered a job at a big Parisian research institute. We’ve now been here for three and a half years; our daughter was born here, and we’re considering staying indefinitely. I don’t think either of us anticipated spending our lives in a country other than America. But as I’ve outlined in this series, several aspects of life here in this big welfare state are both easier and cheaper than in the U.S. What we are saving in child care and health care alone makes it hard for us to justify a move back, at least while we have small children. Indeed, until this year when I started working again full-time, we literally could not have afforded to return to the U.S.
Are we immigrants or just expats? I’m not sure. The distinction seems to involve both permanence and necessity. You’re not truly an immigrant, in the eyes of many, unless you are moving for a better opportunity than you’d find in your home country. Expat carries with it the sense of choice, but also a whiff of flightiness and dilettantishness, the idea that you’ve rejected the country of your birth for reasons of lifestyle rather than need. For us—and for many others, I assume—it’s a bit of both. During the economic crisis, the number of Americans 25–34 living abroad went from 1 percent to 5.1 percent, and the number of Americans who said they were interested in living abroad jumped from 15 percent to 40 percent. Though the government doesn’t keep exact numbers, it’s estimated that more than 6 million Americans are living and working outside the U.S.
In the eyes of the French government, I’m an immigrant. As Congress continues to debate how to handle the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America, it strikes me that although it’s never easy to immigrate, at least in France there’s more clarity and more humanity in the path to citizenship than there seems to be in the U.S. (Even if the required classes are a little boring and condescending.)
France has the second-largest immigrant population in the European Union, according to Eurostat. It has its share of undocumented immigrants, and the government has come under fire for its strict deportation policy toward the Roma, a stateless group migrating to France largely from the EU countries of Romania and Bulgaria. However, France’s deportation rate is nowhere near ours in the U.S. France deported 33,000 people in 2011; in the U.S., the number was closer to 400,000. Even adjusting for differences in population, the U.S. rate is double that of France.