Living in France Forever: Are you an Expat or an Immigrant?

Living in France Forever: Are you an Expat or an Immigrant?

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expat or immigrant
American Kit Desjacques has been living in France forever. Photo courtesy of author.

I was writing a bio for a publication recently. It began, “American expat living in France.” I changed “expat” to “immigrant.”

“You’re not an immigrant,” observed my French husband.

“Well, I’m not an expat. I have French nationality and I’m here permanently.”

“You’re an American who moved to France for love,” he pronounced. All right then.

But it got me thinking. What do we non-natives call ourselves? What do the terms expat, immigrant even mean? I use the word expat generically to refer to my non-native friends, but is that the right term?

I decided to find out.

Eiffel Tower on map
Photo: Pexls/Pixabay

Semantics: to be or not to be an expat

The generally accepted definition of an expatriate (shortened to “expat”) is someone who lives and works (legally) in another country but plans to go home. In contrast, an “immigrant” is someone who moves to another country permanently.

But at times, there’s a class distinction that influences how the terms are used. A French journalist friend remarked that people’s perceptions and the terms used “depend on whether you’re talking about the first-world or the third-world.”

Is the term “expat” used by people who feel they are wealthy or mobile as distinguished from someone who has been forced to leave their country?

Photo by: Vydumka/Pixabay

Expats come and go

One of the first expats I met was Kathryn. It was 2003. She lived in a spacious apartment in a posh part of the 17th. Her husband was the VP for a large, multinational company. They were in the tall grass.

They had enough money and space to host big parties. Her children went to the American School of Paris on the company dime and they had people who handled all their French administrative paperwork, escorting them to the front of the long lines at the Prefecture of Police.

There were lots of expats then and their circumstances were similar. Companies provided relocation assistance, a housing allowance, and other benefits to their expatriated employees to soften the shock of moving to a new country and a different work culture.

But the numbers seem to be decreasing. Expat community organizations like WICE and Bloom Where You’re Planted, which depend on a ready supply of expat volunteers and tuition for their programs, are experiencing waning membership.

group of women friends
Photo: Unsplash

Immigrants are here to stay

The term “immigrant” applies to me and most of the anglophone crowd I know, but I rarely hear that word used. Why not? Is it because the term has negative connotations?

Soon after moving to France, I was summoned to attend an immigration meeting in our suburb. I was the only white person in a group of about 15 people. We were led from the waiting room to a conference room where they served coffee, tea, and cake, and showed a video on the benefits of immigrating to France.

Each of us was given a thorough physical exam including our eyes and teeth. Afterward, we met with a counselor who inquired about whether we had adequate housing, lived in a safe environment, and had a way to learn French. All of the immigrants were treated kindly and with dignity.

I tried (but failed) to imagine a similar meeting in the US. There, the term “immigrant” is mentally preceded by the word “illegal,” an administrative problem that neither political party has solved. Unsurprisingly, American women in France hesitate to describe themselves as immigrants. 

Bloom Where You’re Planted, an event to help new expats in Paris. © INSPIRELLE

Fitting in

On arriving in France, I met a lot of women from different countries who had married French men. They had moved to France permanently and had more mundane concerns, struggling with French mothers-in-law, learning French, and figuring out how to run their houses with tiny, apartment-sized appliances.

For many of us, money was short. Even though we had the right to work, unlike the trailing spouses of expatriated workers, that is not why we moved. Few of us arrived with both transferable skills and an adequate level of French to get past a French human resources department.

You’re not an expat if you didn’t come for a job.

The differences were clear, and people clumped into groups that reflected their respective realities. For those of us who were staying, it wasn’t worth investing time and effort to make friends with people who would be going “home” after three years, so we created a group called Forever in France. We sidestepped club fees and the cost of outings by taking turns hosting monthly cocktails and pot lucking wine and snacks.

Expats with financial means who were here for the experience made the best of their limited time. In fact, France is the perfect place to be expatriated. The supply of beautiful things to see and delicious things to eat is practically limitless. Tours and lunches and shopping, oh my!

Ironically, 20 years later, some of the people who were supposed to be forever in France are gone. They went home.

INSPIRELLE’s international team of women participating in the annual La Parisienne walk to support breast cancer research. © Grace Wong-Folliet for INSPIRELLE

Are you an expat or an immigrant?

Key themes emerged as I interviewed non-native French citizens. One is the concept of “home.”

Circumstances change, but like marriage, immigration is intended to be a long-term commitment. At first, “home” is the country you left. Over the years, that changes. While most people have family and friends they go visit, “home” has quotation marks around it when it refers to their country of origin.

Another issue is assimilation. Living in a country where you don’t speak the language is difficult.

Learning French is critical if you’re planning to stay. People who don’t tend to go back.

One friend, Shelly, remarked that being an expat is a choice. The words mean the same thing, but “immigrant” suggests that you’re somewhere you don’t want to be—like you’ve been displaced from a hostile country. “When you’re an expat, it sounds like you’re part of a community. It’s friendlier.”

There is an undeniable need to “find your tribe” when you’re the new kid in town. Whether it’s an expat group or a part of town you can relate to—Chinatown in the 13th and Belleville, J-Town on rue Sainte Anne in the 2nd, the Indian community in the 10th, or the Arab community in Triangle d’Or near Barbes. Expat or immigrant, we all need to belong.

How do the French feel about immigrants?

How do the French perceive us? Are we just a fungible mass of foreigners who speak French clumsily or do they have subcategories for immigrants from different countries?

Assimilation does seem to be the key factor. Adopting the culture and behaving French — “going native” — are preferred by the French population as seen in the recent presidential election. With the increasing popularity of the far-right Front National party and extreme-right candidate Eric Zemmour’s success as an outspoken critic of immigration, anti-immigrant sentiment in France is alive and well.

Parisian home for dinner
Dinner chez Philippe and Dzjanis in Paris © Daisy Chen

How French are you?

They say that when a foreigner is invited into a French person’s home for dinner, it’s a sign that they are being accepted. But accepted as what?

My friend Nancy has a full skill set (fluent French, a professional job, French nationality, cultural finesse). She summed it up this way. “The French might like me, find me entertaining, even love me; but do they truly see and accept me as a ‘new Parisienne’?” She wonders if she will ever go from being an immigrant to being French.

I got my French nationality in 2009. It’s a long process, even when your spouse is French, with lots of documents, translations, late evening police checks to make sure it’s a real marriage (not a “mariage blanche”), an oral exam, and even a court appearance.

The most surprising part to me was when the judge asked if I wanted to “Frenchify” my name. “But Desjacques is French!” I responded. She clarified that she meant my first name, Kathleen. No, Kathleen is who I am. I think I’ll stick with it. I politely declined.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting insight into questions which don’t have answers. Both terms are loaded with biases. I refer to myself as an immigrant mainly because I’m permanent. I don’t mind being associated with the street cleaners. I was naturalized on my own (no husband), I speak fluent French (finally) and I am as ‘French’ as I ever will, or care to, be. And I, too, kept the original spelling of my name.

  2. Great article and a true reflection of every day experiences for us “immigrants”. The country side in France (Bretagne where we are) is a little more forgiving and we have made some wonderful friends, both French and foreigners. I have worked extensively in Paris for a french company, and found Paris a wonderful mix, even if the rest of France hates the Parisians! The French will test your commitment to their culture, environment, food and language, but it has been a wonderful experience.

  3. I liked your article a lot! I have been living in Paris for 60 – yes I said 60 years by choice. I think the secrect is tryiig to integrate oneself into French society and not simply sticking to the American community. At the beginning it’s not easy, I will admit. But it’s worth it. Thank you.

  4. I really enjoyed this article. I’ve traveled a bit in France, so can relate a bit to that. I was also an expat living overseas for many years. While writing a book about that experience, an editor was really nasty with me about the expat-immigrant piece. As a person who had moved to the USA from Colombia, he has a lot of personal baggage and wanted to make the brown people- white people argument, and I understood his point of view. It was difficult to work with him, as he constantly argued with language I used—insisted I wasn’t an American, but a United Statesian. Sigh. I terminated my working relationship with him, as he was happy to be paid, but miserable to try to work with. Lots of issues, and you unpacked them well. Thank you!

  5. Thanks for this interesting read which broadens the scope beyond the privileged expat segment of society’s experience to encompass other immigration experiences. The semantics around immigration are very laden and it’s useful to stop and examine them. 🙂

  6. Interesting piece, Kit! Lots of great ideas in here. You are dead on about the privileged permanent ex-pats not thinking of themselves are immigrants. But we are!

  7. Excellent article. I am a person who moved to France from the USA 16 years ago. This was my choice — I didn’t come for a job, or because of a marriage, or due to persecution. I simply preferred to live in France, and I have no intention of ever living in the USA again. I have residency here in France (ten year, renewable), and I have many close French friends. I’m not part of any expat community. After reading this article, I feel comfortable now saying that I am an immigrant. Thank you1

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