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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.