Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Christmas Classic from Petros

This piece by Peter Dunn (Petros) of the Isaac Brock Society is destined to become a Christmas classic among us "U.S. Persons" abroad.

It certainly enjoyed a wide audience last year (it was reprinted in Dan Mitchell's blog among other places) and it is worth reading because, while it is certainly great satire, it is also factually correct.  The U.S. government does require that all its citizens and Green Card holders living abroad file foreign bank account reports and tax returns. Failure to do so may indeed "result in civil and criminal penalties including imprisonment."

Ho ho ho....

If this information comes as a surprise to all you otherwise good and law-abiding ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I strongly urge you to head directly over to the Isaac Brock Society to get informed about the Diaspora Tax War of 2012/13.

Santa Claus Arrested Following Joint Investigation by IRS, INS, and FWS
by Peter Dunn

U.S. Federal agents arrested Santa Claus earlier today at the North Pole.

Claus has been charged with multiple counts of money laundering, illegal exportation of currency, illegally importing into the United States toys made of contraband–rare woods, ivory and other banned substances. He has also been charged with violations of slave labor and child labor laws, hundreds of patent and trademark violations, and illegally entering and exiting the United States.

The United States Department of Fish and Wildlife has arrested Santa Claus, an elusive figure with many aliases (e.g., St. Nicholas). 
On the morning of 24 December, 150 heavily armed Fish and Wildlife special agents raided Claus’ North Pole compound, seized several tons of exotic woods forbidden by the Lacey Act, arrested Santa Claus and a female accomplice identified only as Mrs. Claus, and liberated thousands of diminutive slave labourers known only as “Elves”.

Indeed, Fish and Wildlife agents also seized an unidentified aircraft called a “sleigh” which had numerous secret compartments holding the contraband. Fish and Wildlife agents charged Mr. Claus with animal cruelty with regard to the caribou that he used to launch this “sleigh”.

Special Agent Hugo Smith said, “We arrived just in the nick of time. A moment later, and the caribou would have launched the sleigh and Claus would have escaped with the illegal materials. By now, he would be in the United States, breaking into people’s houses and selling this stuff.”

The United States Department of Immigration and the Internal Revenue Service have also had their eyes on Mr. Claus. An immigration official who also attended the raid said that they were able to obtain several dozen passports. He said, “It seems that this Santa Claus character has a different name in every country–his EU passport says, ‘Father Christmas’ and his Canadian passport says, ‘Père Noël’. We have, however, determined with certainty that Santa Claus is a United States citizen.”

Apparently Claus worked in Hollywood during the 1940s and 50s making autobiographical films, such as Miracle on 34th Street. During that time he applied for and received U.S. citizenship.

Douglas Shulman, Commissioner of the IRS, has released the following statement:
"At long last, the notorious tax cheat, Santa Claus, has been apprehended. He has been living in a foreign country for the last 50 years and during that time he has not filed his US taxes even once. It has become clear, however, that he has run a lucrative business at the North Pole and has never reported any of the income. In addition to criminal tax evasion, we intend to charge Santa Claus with 190 counts of criminal failure to file Foreign Bank Account Reports (FBAR), as we found evidence in his papers that he is operating or has signing authority on bank accounts in 190 different countries. It is our contention that the fines alone could help us bring billions in revenue into the United States government."
According to United States law, all United States Citizens are required to pay taxes to the IRS and to report any foreign bank accounts. Failure to obey these filing requirements may result in civil and criminal penalties including imprisonment.

The Obama administration declared that they were very pleased with the news.. ”It is about time,” Obama said from his Hawaiian retreat, “that the United States returned those who have fled the country just because they don’t feel like paying their fair share anymore.”

The Republican candidate for president, Ron Paul criticized the raid, “The United States has neither the authority nor the right to go into another country and enforce its laws. Santa Claus is a citizen of the North Pole and it is overreach for us to go there and arrest him.”

Also running for president, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich responded to Paul, “The United States must reserve the right to arrest terrorists and to violate the rule of law in order to provide safety for the People of the United States.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada said that his government did everything that they could to help the United States, even to the point of allowing the use of Canadian air space. ”We are cooperating with the good faith efforts of the United States to eliminate terrorists in order to maintain the safety and security of all Canadians.”

Monday, December 24, 2012

Joyeux Noël!

To the Flophouse friends and family scattered all over the planet and to all the folks out there whom it has not yet been our pleasure to know,  we wish you all peace and joy this holiday season.

Merry Christmas!  Joyeux Noël!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Conundrums of the Exile

We are just a few short days away from Christmas.  Since we are moving on the 28th of December we are living in disorder - in an apartment surrounded by empty shelves and cardboard boxes.

We are leaving just enough stuff out to be able to do a minimal Christmas. The
Réveillon (Christmas Eve dinner) will be foie gras, smoked salmon and oysters because these thing are really really good and require almost no preparation or cooking.  Christmas day dinner will most likely be a capon (castrated rooster).

Still up in the air is where and when we will attend Mass.  The past couple of years I've celebrated Christmas Mass at St. Joseph's in Paris.  This is the Roman Catholic "mission Anglophone" which serves the English-speaking Catholic community (Irish, Canadian, American, Chinese, Sri Lankan, Indian and others).  This is a church I really love for its diversity, exceptional music and because Father Aidan (Irish) and Father Melvin (American) preach amazing sermons and make the Mass come alive.  The Christmas Mass at St. Joseph's is special to me because I get to hear and sing in English the Christmas carols of my childhood - something that has the power to make me feel both terribly sad and to soothe my spirit all at the same time.   The Frenchlings are interested because they have never been to a Mass in English (only in French) and they think it would be a nice change.

However over the past few months I've become more and more involved in my parish church here in Versailles where the Mass in in French or Portuguese (not English).  I've made connections with people in this parish.  When I go to church on Sunday I know people by name.  So celebrating Christmas here in Versailles means doing so as part of a community of believers in the community where I reside. And I find that matters very much to me these days.

The last option is to go to Mass at the St. Louis Cathedral here in Versailles which will undoubtedly be a wonderful glittering beautiful impressive Mass in one of the city's most extraordinary churches.

If you've been following me so far here you may be asking yourself why all this matters.  Enough already, Madame, going to services on Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Christ.  Does it matter so much if it's in English or French?   And so on.  Point taken.

And yet, when one is thousands of miles away from one's country of origin, this sort of thing does matter.  There is a reason my parish church offers Mass in Portuguese and it's surely not because this community does not speak French.

My choice here would say something important about where I am in relationship to my home and host countries.   Letting the English- speaking Mass at St. Joseph's go in favor of Mass in French in my local parish is a huge step.  And I find that I am unsure about it.  Am I really ready to let one more thing (among the hundreds of other habits and customs and the like I have dropped over the years) go?  I'm not so sure I'm ready for yet another loss.

These are the conundrums of the exile.

"It was when I realised I had a new nationality: I was in exile. I am an adulterous resident: when I am in one city, I am dreaming of the other. I am an exile; citizen of the country of longing.”
Suketu Mehta

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Rorate Mass

Roráte, cæli, désuper, et nubes pluant iustum....
Cieux, répandez votre rosée ; que des nuées descende le salut....
Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness...

A stunning slideshow was passed along to me by my family in California.  It was created by their parish church, St. Stephen the First Martyr, in Sacramento and is up on their website.  St. Stephen's is a Roman Catholic church that uses the "la liturgie romaine de 1962"  also known as the traditional Latin Mass.

Some background.  Since the 1960's in all countries the Mass is usually celebrated in the local language.  When I was growing up in a small town near Seattle my parish church, St. Michael's, had mass exclusively in English though, as I recall, our priest was Irish.  At my Catholic high school, Latin was a required subject for all the students (all girls by the way) but never used during Wednesday services in the priory's chapel.

These days I get the impression (not based on any empirical evidence) that Latin is coming back.  In my parish church, Sainte Elisabeth de Hongrie here in Versailles the Mass is in French (and in Portuguese)  but some of the prayers and songs are in Latin.  There is one church here in Versailles called La Chapelle de Notre Dame des Armées which like St. Stephen's exclusively uses the Latin rite and has 3 masses a day during the week and 5 on Sunday.

So Latin is far from being a dead language as far as the Church is concerned and its use is not confined to the Church hierarchy but is the liturgical language of choice of Catholic communities all over the world.  And it must be said that the Latin Mass is something to see at least once in one's lifetime.  It is simply beautiful - a feast for the senses and a way to worship that takes one out of the ordinary into the world of the extraordinary.

This slideshow from Saint Stephen's captures that mysterious beauty.  Here they are celebrating what is is called the Rorate Mass.  This mass is traditionally celebrated during Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas) by candlelight.  Why?   Well, these days because it is hauntingly beautiful but in a previous era:
The celebration by candle light had originally a more practical reason. According to the Missal of 1570 no Mass could be said after 12.00 Noon. On the other hand, people had to go to work in the morning. Also the Rorate Masses were celebrated in a more solemn form and therefore would last longer. For these reasons the Masses had to begin relatively early in the morning when it was still dark due to winter-time.
The accompanying music is the St. Stephen's choir singing Gabriel's Message.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Hitchcock's "Bon Voyage"

I found this short film by Alfred Hitchcock yesterday as I was exploring the links to free films on-line at Open Culture.

"Bon Voyage" was filmed in London, directed by Hitchcock, released in 1944 and was a World War II propaganda film.  It was fun to watch - the accents are delightful and, yes, I agree, "English cigarettes are dangerous."

Enjoy.


Bon Voyage de Alfred Hitchcock par hamletprimero

Friday, December 14, 2012

GRI - Les stéréotypes culturels

A truly brilliant post up on one of my favorite sites,  Gestion des Risques Interculturels, about cultural stereotypes.  

While most of us know more or less that such stereotypes are very dangerous (if not complete rubbish) we still haul them out and use them and we all need to relax and realize that this is not a mortal sin. Let's lighten up and stop being so hard on ourselves or each other.  If I held a grudge for every stereotype used against (or for) me I'd spend my life in a state of permanent resentment.  

It often starts out quite innocently as we search for some way to make a connection with someone who is "Other" and so we grasp for something witty and interesting to say.  This does not always work out so well.  Sometimes before we know it we are saying something we really really regret.  

If I may give an example:  I was presented to a Frenchman one day and as he was shaking my hand he pulled out one of those stereotypes in a very misguided attempt at Gallic gallantry.  "Madame," he said, "It is not possible that you are an American. You are not fat."

Bernard Pelletier says that our thinking and use of stereotypes is natural and universal.   "Face à l’inconnu, le premier mouvement de chacun est d’en penser quelque chose plutôt que rien." (Face to face with the unknown, the first instinct of all of us is to think something rather than nothing.)

Stereotypes are also something that we can all play with.  Using clips from three films, Pelletier  illustrates three possible attitudes we could take toward cultural stereotypes if we are feeling a bit mischievous: la moquerie (humor), le faux-semblant (play along - the clip about the Swiss by the Swiss is excellent) and l'inversion (turning it around).  

Of the three I prefer using humor and playing along because if they are done right, the point is made gently without hurting anyone.  As for the last, inversion, it is, I admit, very powerful and yet it feels mildly aggressive - like a counter strike.  I'll let you decide for yourself.  Here is the video called Africa for Norway that Pelletier uses to demonstrate how it works.  I must say that it did make me laugh and they do get their point across quite effectively.  



Thursday, December 13, 2012

Trustful Surrender

Almost there.  The last two weeks have been very difficult.  As I wrote in a previous post I am undergoing radiotherapy right now.  For those who may be wondering why, the short answer is that this petite Madame has a long-term subscription to the delights at the Rene Hugenin Cancer Center (Institut Curie) in Saint Cloud, France.  Over the past few months I've pretty much had every service they offer:  surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy.  Am I a satisfied customer so far?  Well, yes, because  I'm still here.  Can't argue with that result, right?


So how has it been going?  As I suspected that radiotherapy isn't really better or worse than the chemotherapy - it's just different.  The chemo was every three weeks and had some pretty severe side effect.  The radiotherapy has fewer side effects but still makes me very tired not to mention the skin around the affected area being rather red and sore.  And unlike the chemo for the radiotherapy I have to go in every day.  For the first week or so it was pretty fast since I was only scheduled to be zapped under one machine, the Clinac 600.  But that didn't last.  My oncologist decided to add a second machine with a different dose and that has added hours to my time at the hospital.  So these days I am spending roughly 3-5 hours a day in Saint Cloud and in the clinic.  Happily it's not for much longer - the radiotherapy ends for me on December 20th.  I could not ask for a nicer Christmas present.

Nevertheless there have some unexpected benefits to spending more time over there.  For one thing I've had more time to visit the city of Saint Cloud which has the most amazing church, Saint Clodoald.

Three things about this church that I absolutely love:  the Chapel to Mary which has a really beautiful mosaic of angels playing various musical instruments which appeals to the violinist in me;  the request you see as you enter the church which asks that you pray for the various benefactors who over the years have contributed to the support of this particular parish - the first name on the list is Sa Majesté Marie Antoinette, a woman who may have been a bit clueless but surely did not lack for piety;  and the last a mosaic hidden on the wall of one of the chapels that pays tribute to the visit of an American bishop from St. Louis.  

All this and the nave which is quite stunning.


Another benefit has been a gradual getting to know the other patients and the technicians that manage the accelerators for our daily doses.  Again teamwork is required here.  The techs have a hell of a job keeping the machines up and running and the flow of patients moving.  Over the past few weeks there have been technical problems which have meant delays of up to 2 hours.    I was under one the other day and it was taking longer than normal and so I looked up at the screen only to see something that looked suspiciously like a Windows error message.  First and I hope the only time in my life I will ever pray, "Please God, be cool and do not let this machine be managed with Microsoft software..."

As patients our job most of the time is to be patient.  Sometimes we do complain (the French are very creative "râleurs") but mostly everyone is calm and, to my surprise, quite friendly and more than happy to strike up conversations. It even gets a bit giddy from time to time.  Earlier this week we spontaneously held a "concours" in the waiting room - we whipped off our various scarves to see who had the most hair.  I didn't win but I wasn't dead last either.

And finally the last big benefit is that I get to take the train a lot from Versailles Chantiers to Saint Cloud.  I'm a huge fan of trains and I like nothing better than to hop onto a warm train, settle into a seat and watch the world go by as we clickety-clack down the tracks.  I get a lot of reading done as well some of which is pure brain candy (my beloved paranormal romances) but not all.  You might find this odd but in the face of one's possible demise the question, "How shall I live?" becomes oddly pressing and of enormous interest.

Right now I'm working my way through two books, the first of which was sent to me by family in California called Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence by the 17th century religious writer, Father Jean-Baptiste Saint-Jure, and a few words from Saint Claude de la Colombière (both French and of the Society of Jesus aka the Jesuits) all translated from the original French.  A pretty extraordinary little book.

The second is also pretty amazing, and though it comes from a different starting point from the above book, it ends up more or less in the same place with similar counsel.  It's called Stoic Serenity by Keith Seddon and it's both a self-paced course on that philosophy which has you reading excerpts from Seneca's Letters from a Stoic and the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and a very good read all by itself since Dr. Seddon is quite a good writer.  I'll end this post with one of the quotations I've been contemplating over the past few days:
Can what has happened to you prevent you in any way from being just, high-minded, self-controlled, prudent, deliberate in your judgement, empty of deceit, self-respecting, free, or prevent you from possessing any of the qualities that, by their presence, make it possible for man's nature to come into its own. 
So henceforth, in the face of every difficulty that leads you to feel distress, remember to apply this principle:  this is no misfortune, but to bear it with a noble spirit is good fortune. 
Marcus Aurelius
Meditations
Book 4.49

Monday, December 3, 2012

EWSI Report on Access to Citizenship in Europe

An very interesting report dropped into my mailbox this morning via the Migration Policy Group newsletter.

This special feature was prepared by MPG for the European Website on Integration (EWSI) and it concerns Access to Nationality for Third-country Nationals in European countries.

Nationality/citizenship law is never static.  This past year there have been changes to the rules for acquiring citizenship in certain European countries.  For example a few months ago Poland revised her residency requirements (lowered them from 5 to 3 years) for certain categories of foreigners.  Belgium on the other hand is tightening her requirements and is making it harder for foreigners to naturalize.

What is fascinating about this is that on some level all this different country-specific naturalization requirements and procedures are useless.  Remember that once an immigrant becomes a citizen in one member state, he or she is an EU citizen and so has the right to move to any other EU state.  So Belgium can certainly tighten her requirements for citizenship if that makes Belgians feel better but it's not going to do much good if other countries are doing the exact opposite and relaxing their requirements for obtaining citizenship.  It also has the rather nasty result of pitting different EU countries against each other in the chase for desirable migrants and future productive tax-paying citizens.  Some sort of harmonization of these requirements across the EU just seems logical.  I think they will get there eventually - it just doesn't make any sense to do otherwise - but for the moment I imagine the political climate is not right.

Some other interesting tidbits from this report:

Citizenship ceremonies:  some European countries have decided to start holding ceremonies to swear in new citizens (Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK) and in some cases new citizens are being required to take a loyalty oath.

Citizenship via jus soli:  There is a definite trend where countries that used to allow transmission of citizenship primarily via blood (jus sanguinis) are moving toward granting it via birth on that country's soil (jus soli).  However it is usually not an unqualified jus soli like one sees in the United States - there are conditions that must be met before citizenship is automatically granted on this basis.  The EUDO  citizenship policy brief reports:
Ius soli has, for example, been introduced or strengthened in Germany (2000), Portugal (2006), Luxembourg (2009) and Greece (2010), while ius soli was removed in Malta (1989) and qualified in Ireland (2004). Ireland was the last pure ius soli regime in Europe, and here it has been made subject to additional conditions.
The trend is thus towards the wider availability of ius soli citizenship, but in more conditional forms, dependent on limited forms of prior parental residence and other conditions identified with integration.
Naturalization Procedure Reforms:  Some countries were looking into making the process easier and simpler.  Portugal, Germany and Romania had initiatives to encourage foreigners to apply for citizenship and will help them through the process.  All of them cited in the MPG report are rather old (the latest one is the Romanian 2009 project).  It would be interesting to know if that trend continued or if the Great Recession killed it.

And finally (and I thought this was a lovely idea) MPG linked to an article about one region in Italy which held honorary citizenship ceremonies for children of foreigners born in that Italian region.  It's not legal and these kids don't really get Italian citizenship as a result (they have to apply at age 18) but it's a powerful symbolic act and a very nice way of saying, "we consider you to be one of us." 

According to the article, during the ceremony, "The children will be presented with a certificate attesting to their new nationality, a copy of the constitution, the tricolour flag and the sweater worn by the Italian football team."

Except for the soccer jersey, it sounds lovely.  Sorry, I am not at all a fan of "le foot." :-)  

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Ted Talk: Ernesto Sirolli

Another very powerful Ted talk. Here is Ernesto Sirolli, an evangelist in the area of sustainable development, giving his unvarnished opinion about aid in developing countries.  From the title of his talk you will quickly grasp his first and most fundamental requirement for making any aid project successful, "Shut up and listen."

Amen to that.  But there was another message in there about something I've been mulling over for a few months that I call the Tyranny of Expectations.  This is not just the paternalistic, patronizing, "let's remake them in our image" attitude of the developed world toward what we used to call the Third World, it is also something that we all do to the people around us on a regular basis:  our friends and our families, our neighbors and colleagues.  It all starts with the belief that there is something wrong with them that needs to be fixed.  From there it quickly moves to our explaining to them how they need to change according to our quasi-divinely inspired plans for them.  Stop drinking.  Lose weight.  Go back to school.  Eat your carrots.  Quit your job.  Be polite.  Stand up for yourself.  Lose the accent.  Do this.  Don't do that.  Care about this.  Don't care about that.  Here's the plan and you're a chump or a fool if you don't follow our advice and do what we think is best for you.

This, in my view, is just another way we do violence to each other.  Having expectations for other people is another way of degrading them.  People are not "fix-it" projects.  Same is true of cultures or countries.  In the guise of being "helpful" we try to make them less by making ourselves more.  If this were a play we would cast ourselves in the role of the wise, the prudent, the perfect.  They, on the other hand, are the lacking, the screwed up, the flawed, the perfectible.

At the country level it isn't just the developed world doing it to the developing world, it's also citizens of developing countries doing it to each other.  Just ask a European about gun control in the U.S. or an American about "Socialism" in Europe and then watch the "donneurs de leçon" have at it.

As Sirolli points out so eloquently, isn't it interesting how this doesn't seem to work out too well?  For a very recent example of an aid program run amok read this very funny take on the U.S. development projects in Iraq, We Meant Well by Peter van Buren.

Frankly just as I've never known anyone to lose weight or quit smoking because they were nagged into it, I think it is also pretty damn unlikely that Americans will change their laws to conform to European standards or that Europeans will suddenly change their minds about social security just because both sides are wrinkling their noses and wagging their fingers at each other from across the ocean.

Put that way it sounds pretty stupid and childish, doesn't it?  And it is but look one level deeper and recognize that there is real violence underneath the criticism, the nagging and the finger-wagging whether it is happening at a personal level or between citizens of nation-states or between some development workers and the people in the countries in which they operate.

Here are two very modest suggestions for getting out from under the Tyranny of Expectations.  The first is to accept that people are just fine the way they are.  Just start with the assumption that there is nothing that needs to be fixed in that person, that culture or that country.  There are no "should's" - there are only "could's."

And then approach the situation with an attitude of service.  Listen to what the other person has to say, think it over and then propose things they could do if they were so inclined.   Make it very clear that your skills, talents and time are at their service should they choose to accept.

And if they don't accept?  Then you shut up and leave them alone.

Enjoy the talk and your weekend.





Friday, November 30, 2012

Versailles and the Sound of Sacred Music

Let's change channels, folks, and move on to more interesting topics.

Starting earlier this week and continuing over the weekend is the annual Versailles au son des orgues.  This is a series of organ concerts at churches and chapels all around Versailles:  Notre Dame, the St. Louis cathedral, the Chapelle Royale at the castle and many others.  Even my parish church, Sainte Elisabeth de Hongrie, is on the program.

If you just happen to be in town tonight you have a choice between a concert in honor of Elisabeth Brasseur at the Eglise Sainte Jeanne d'Arc  or a free conference, "Histoire, architecture et facture d’un orgue" (History and architecture of the organ) at the Atelier Numérique.

To my deep regret I haven't attended any of the concerts this past week because of my appointments at the clinic but I am planning on making either Saturday's concert, "Musique allemande pour chœur et orgue" (German music for choir and organ)  at Saint Symphorien or  Sunday's concert at the St. Louis cathedral with Daniel Roth.  Both are free to the public.

Have a great weekend, everyone, and if you are interested in going to one of the concerts just let me know via email and we can meet over a little sacred music.  And if you haven't darkened the doors of a church in many many years, just relax and I'll walk you through it. :-)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

An American Abroad Pays Her Annual Tribute to the U.S.

Not too long ago this American abroad, with the help of her accountant, finally filed her U.S. taxes for 2011.  It was quite an impressive package that I printed out and sent off to the IRS.  In it were forms I'd never heard of and one that I'd heard way too much about, the 8938 which is basically a duplicate of treasury Form TDF 90-22.1 (FBAR) which I filed earlier this year.  Ah, the U.S. government is such a marvel of efficiency.

I am so thrilled to be done with it.  After many hours of work poring over bank statements, my 2011 French income tax declaration and other stuff from my archives, my accountant sent me the final version and I sent it off registered mail with a deep sigh of relief.  For 2011 I am in that exalted state of full compliance (knock on wood) with the U.S. reporting requirements.  Oh joy.

Especially since my final tax return yielded a rather distressing outcome:  I owed a lot more money than I had thought.  How did that happen?

Phantom gains:  Because we had sold  our last piece of investment property that year, I was aware that I would be paying capital gains on the sale and was prepared to the cough up a couple thousand U.S. dollars.  What I did not know was that I would "make" more money on paper because of the different exchange rates:  from Francs/Euros to U.S. Dollars.  That was something of a shock but even so I'd heard that this is a frequent problem for other Americans abroad - this issue of "phantom gains" on property or mutual funds that come about simply because we (Americans abroad) are doing business in local currency but the U.S. government insists that everything be converted to U.S. dollars using the IRS-approved exchange rate for that filing year.

Unemployment is not Earned Income:  I was unemployed and collecting French unemployment insurance for the year 2011.  To my utter disbelief this income is not excludable under the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion.  So basically it appears that I had to pay American taxes on my French unemployment benefits.  Amazing.

So what was the final damage?  9,000 U.S. Dollars (late filing fees and interest included).

Now that, mesdames et messieurs, is not at all a trivial amount.  All the more because I already paid taxes in France so the money sent to the US is on top of all I paid that year to the French "fisc."
And frankly it is an amount I can ill afford since I am being treated for cancer here in my host country and it will be a few months before I can look for work again.

Now at this point I am sure there is a "donneur de leçon" (know it all) in the audience who is conducting an inner dialogue with him or herself using one of the following rationalizations:

"Surely some of this money came from the U.S. originally or she has assets in the U.S."

No, not one dime of my money came from the U.S. I left America right after university (like 20 years ago) and built my career in Europe.  The investment property that we bought a few years ago was purchased with money earned entirely in France and with a loan from a French bank.  And I don't own anything in the U.S. - no property or stock or stuff like that.  My life is here in France.  End of story.

"I'm a U.S. expat and I've never ever owed anything so I don't understand what is going on with this lady but it sounds fishy to me."

For those Americans abroad who have very simple situations (studying, teaching English or working for a company that manages their U.S. taxes for them) chances are that they will spend their time abroad either never having made enough money to file or doing anything to complicate matters like getting married, purchasing property or investing locally.   That's fine and I make no judgments about how people live their lives.  However,  we all need to be very careful here and understand that situations are different and that one should not take one's personal experience as being globally true.   To someone who tells me, "I don't have to file or pay U.S. taxes," my reply is simply, "Not yet anyway" and "Are you really so sure about that?"   Why?  Because here's the thing we know about migrants (even American ones):   The road from "temporary" to "permanent" residency happens to the best (and the worst) of us.   Live abroad long enough and you will do something that will trigger a reporting requirement.  I guarantee it.

"She must have had an incompetent accountant because with the foreign tax credits she shouldn't owe anything to the U.S. government."

I'm very fond of my accountant and the service I use to file every year.  God knows I couldn't figure it out all by myself - the tax forms and instructions as applied to someone who lives 100% outside the U.S. are damn near incomprehensible to me.  So I rely on an expert to get me through this and I check what she does to the best of my ability.  But at some point I have to sign and pay up.  It did occur to me when I saw the bill that I might want to get a second opinion but let's think for two seconds what that would entail;.  I would have to 1. find another expert and provide all that information again and 2.  pay that expert his or her fee while racking up even more penalties and interest.  In the end this could  cost me much much more than the 9,000 USD I ended up owing.  So I paid.

If anyone out there is still thinking that I did a dumb thing by sending that payment off to the IRS then I challenge you to help me out.  If you are an accountant then I would be very happy to send everything to you and you can (having waived your usual fee of course) go over it and tell me what my accountant or I did wrong.  If you are not an accountant, then please write me a check for at least 5000 USD which is about what I would need to pay to get an expert second opinion from an international tax lawyer.  In either case I would happy to post the results on this blog.  Perhaps my experience could help someone else out.

So how do I feel about the good old U.S. of A (my home country) after having done what I have been told is my patriotic duty?

Honestly?  I feel like I'm paying tribute to a warlord.  I don't live in the U.S., I don't use any services there and am unlikely to do so anytime soon.  So what is my 9000 USD buying me?  Well, according to some homelanders I've talked it's so the U.S. Marines will come and get me if I get into trouble in my host country.  Interesting hypothesis but somehow I don't think the local government here (the French) would go for that.  No to mention that by offering it up as a reason for me to cough up money every year the homelanders are basically saying that this is "protection money."  Alas, this feels a lot more like "If you don't pay up we'll burn down your house, seize all your assets and put you in jail," as opposed to the more positive "You may live abroad but you're still an American citizen and we are here to help you if you get into trouble or you need us and that's why we need something from you."   Why they insist on the former instead of the latter is beyond me - do these people have any clue what that message sounds like to those of us who live outside the U.S.?

My U.S. citizenship is looking to be more and more of a bad bargain - a little like having sex with a gorilla. As a citizen of a very powerful and very intrusive state, I'm definitely at a disadvantage when the government decides to throw its weight around.  Essentially whatever the gorilla decides is what's going to happen and I just get to sit there and take it as long as that rather aggressive primate decides that I belong to the troop.

For the record I am not OK with paying nearly 10,000 USD a year to the U.S. on top of the substantial taxes I already pay to the French government just to have a pretty blue passport, no services to speak of, lots of stress and anxiety and the very very strong sense that I am being royally screwed over.

If anyone has another take on it, I'd be more than happy to hear it.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Biblio-Mat

From Open Culture (one of my favorite sites).

This device, called a Biblio-Mat (Biblio-Robot), was inspired by Stephen Fowler, owner of a second-hand bookstore in Toronto, Canada and instantiated by Craig Small.

This lovely little device will dispense random books for the very modest price of $2 (that's two Canadian dollars which is about 1.5 Euros).  What a cool concept.

It's been installed in a Toronto used book store called The Monkey's Paw.  I think it would be well worth buying a plane ticket from Paris to Toronto just to be able to walk in there, use the device and get a random book.  Why?  Because it perfectly satisfies my inner geek, my bodice-ripping book lust and the hidden joueuse (gambler) who intends to play the cosmic crapshoot of life as long as she can.

Of course there are other reasons as well to visit the fair city of Toronto so I'm going to put it at the top of the list of future Flophouse destinations once I get well enough to get on an airplane again.

And many thanks to Patrick Moore of Toronto who was passing by the Monkey's Paw and was kind enough to send along this photo.  Merci infiniment, Pat. 

The BIBLIO-MAT from Craig Small on Vimeo.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The TAS: Your Voice at the IRS

A name to know in the Diaspora Tax War of 2012.

TAS stands for Taxpayer Advocate Service and they are the U.S. government agency with a mandate to keep an eye on the American "fisc."

The TAS is run by the NTA, the National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina Olson, who is, in the eyes of many Americans abroad, a queen among women, an ally, and our heroine.  Why?

Because in her 2011 annual report to the US Congress released earlier this year Madame Olson singled out the IRS' treatment of U.S. persons abroad in the amnesty programs (aka OVDP - Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Programs) saying that the way the program was applied to certain categories of non-compliant taxpayers was positively draconian and may even have opened up the U.S. government to legal challenges.

Many of the people who went into these amnesty program were not criminals, they were simply folks who finally realized that they had a reporting obligation and wanted to make it right.  For their willingness to come forward, they were "rewarded" with penalties (not necessarily back taxes mind you) that would have wiped them out financially.   Some of these cases have been resolved and the fines and penalties lowered or forgiven entirely but I can assure you that trust for the IRS and the U.S. government right now is at an all time low.  Another amnesty program has been announced by the IRS and I don't know of anyone who is even contemplating joining - they'd rather do a deep dive and never set foot in the U.S. again even if it means not being able to take care of elderly parents back home.

For all of the IRS chest beating over the "success" of these amnesty programs, the casualty has been trust and the willingness of non-compliant Americans abroad to come forward voluntarily.  In fact I would even say that where many of the non-compliant middle-class American expatriates once felt that they had a moral obligation to set things right and file those damn forms, they now feel that they have a good moral case for NOT complying.  This means that IRS will have to work harder and spend more taxpayer money bringing them (kicking and screaming all the way) back into the fold. As Madame Olson warned nearly a year ago in her report:
"The IRS’s miscommunication has consequences. If the government does not appear to treat benign actors fairly when they try to correct honest mistakes, then fewer people (even well-advised people) will try to correct their mistakes, and voluntary compliance will suffer. even if it were inclined to do so, the IRS does not have the resources to rely entirely on enforcement. the IRS needs taxpayers to cooperate and comply voluntarily. While an estimated five to seven million U.S. citizens reside abroad, the IRS received only 218,840 FBAR filings in 2008. By comparison, the government closed only 2,386 FBAR examinations and initiated only 21 criminal investigations in 2010.
While the ovdp attracted 15,364 applications (perhaps less than one percent of those who did not file FBARs), a more effective initiative would have prompted even more taxpayers to come into compliance without leaving those who did come forward feeling terrified, tricked, or cheated. By generating such ill will and mistrust, the IRS is squandering an opportunity to improve voluntary compliance. "
And now The Taxpayer Advocate Service and Nina Olson have come out with their 2013 objectives and how thrilled (and relieved) I was to see that Americans and Green Card holders abroad have not been forgotten.  Click on the Areas of Focus link and scroll down to page 21 where they say:

TAS Will Continue Advocating for American Taxpayers Abroad Who 
Are Expressing Fear and Frustration about FBAR, FATCA and Other 
International Penalties

Yes!  And such efforts deserve positive reinforcement, don't you think?  Madame Olson has a blog here where you can submit comments and I think a "thank you and please keep up the good work" for TAS' efforts would be a darn good idea.  Clearly they have been listening and looking into it and they don't like what they see.

Those of us who are living this nightmare are screaming and kicking at the doors of our lawmakers trying to get some attention to how these issues impact the average mostly middle-class American citizen or Green Card holders abroad.  For our trouble we are often dismissed out of hand because clearly there is no such thing as a middle-class American abroad, right?  My answer to this one is simply to say if we actually had the kind of money we are accused of hiding then we'd be doing the American thing and buying ourselves a couple of politicians to vote on our behalf.  Since that isn't happening and U.S. lawmakers hardly give us the time of day (much less respond to our mail) I think we can safely say that that those billions and billions of ill-gotten gains supposedly hidden in offshore bank accounts exist only in the minds of the American homelanders.  

But we do have one ally within the U.S. government who is taking us seriously and both the TAS and the NTA have my eternal gratitude for their excellent work.  

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Daily Date with a Particle Accelerator

The adventure continues.  This week I began radiotherapy (aka "les Rayons") at the cancer center.  As my primary care physician promised it was a whole different kettle of fish from the chemo.  No nausea and no long lazy afternoons on the drip (and that's a huge relief) but also a lot less "amitié solidaire" which I miss.  A lot.

It all started on Tuesday with an interview with a manipulatrice (operator) who explained to me their system for getting one month's sessions done as efficiently and effectively as possible.  There is a schedule and every day I have a date with the accelerator, a Clinac 600.  The exact time of each treatment varies each day so one morning I'm up and out the door early for a 10:30 AM session and on another day I can "faire la grasse matinée" (sleep in) because I don't have to be at the clinic until 3:30 in the afternoon.

The first appointment on Tuesday was the longest - about 30 minutes - because in addition to the tattoos I got last time and the orientation, the technician drew arcane designs on my chest in permanent ink.  These are used in order to properly position the device for each session.  I thought about taking a picture and showing it to you but to tell you the truth the way my scarred, tattooed, inked torso looks these days scares the hell out of me.  Something tells me that you would find this to be TMI (too much information).  So let's just say that the area between my neck and my waist looks something like a cross between this:



And this:



So how does it work now that I've been drawn and quartered?  Every day I walk to Versailles-Chantiers, take the train in to Saint Cloud, go to the radiotherapy reception desk where I flash my membership card and pick up my chart.  Then I take the elevator down into the bowels of the clinic (-3), slip my chart through a slot in a door and find a seat in the waiting room.  When they call my name I enter a small dressing room where I store my things, hang up my coat, undress to the waist, slip on a sweater, and walk into the chamber with the accelerator.  The operator then positions me under the device and leaves the room.  A bell chimes and then the machine takes over and starts moving about (reminds me of every Terminator movie I've ever seen).  When the device stops in what I presume is the correct position, I hear clicking noises that I imagine is the device shooting the photons into me.

 What is my job in all of this?  To stay as still as possible and relax.  Not too hard since the entire session lasts for less than 5 minutes.  As of yesterday that was 4 session downs and about 20 more to go. I will be done just before Christmas.

The whole business is quite efficient.  The process is clear and thus far every appointment has been on time and I am literally in and out in a matter of minutes.  And that turns out to be both a good and a bad thing.  The good part is that I have a schedule and I can plan my day around my appointments.  The part I don't like so much is that there isn't really much human interaction in the process. I present a card and get my file.  I slip my file into the door and wait until my name is called.  After being positioned on the table under the machine I am left alone in the room while I'm being radiated.  It's a little like an assembly line and while almost everyone is very kind there really isn't any time to talk and to get to know anyone.

Not that I'm complaining about the staff mind you.  These people are trying to save my life which means they have my eternal gratitude.  But I am missing the solidarity that I experienced in the chemo service where one really feels like it's a team effort and everyone (staff and patients alike) has the time to get to know each other.

That was my impression after my first week.  Perhaps my feelings about it will change over the next few days.  In fact it is far more likely that I will find unexpected treasures in this new experience if I can learn to let go of the old one and stop judging.  In fact there is something really funny about me feeling nostalgic for chemo. No reason to think that radiation therapy will be better or worse than chemo - just different.  And as Pema Chodron said, "Everything in our lives can wake us up or put us to sleep, and basically it's up to us to let it wake us up."

Monday, November 12, 2012

Les Jeudis Musicaux

Last Thursday the younger Frenchling and I made our way to the Versailles castle for what turned out to be an extraordinary evening.

Les Jeudis Musicaux (Musical Thursdays) are concerts organized by the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles at the Versailles Castle. And not just anywhere in the castle mind you but in the Royal Chapel.    

Sacred music in a sacred place.  What an incredible experience to hear the music written for chapels and churches hundreds of years ago.  The music that people listened to when they went to Mass.


And what was on the program last Thursday evening?

Jean-Jean-François Dandrieu
Magnificat en La 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Ave verum

Louis Grénon
Petite Messe en la majeur (A Major)

And for the last they kindly provided both the Latin and the French translations in the program so that we could all follow along as the choir sang the mass.  It was really something at the end when they chanted Domine salvum fac regem (God save the King):

Domine salvum fac regem
& exaudi nos in die
qua invocaverimus te

Seigneur sauvez le Roy
& exaucez-nous au jour
que nous vous invoquerons

God save the King
and answer us the day 
we call on you

These Musical Thursdays are just one of the many cultural events held here in Versailles that are not nearly as well known as they should be.  (Another is the incredible show put on by the  L'Académie du spectacle équestre (The Academy of Equestrian Arts) in the King's Stables).

And would you believe that these musical feasts are completely free to the public?  You don't even have to buy a ticket to get inside the the castle - you just go directly to a door adjacent to the chapel, say you are there for the concert, and they usher you right in.  Amazing.

Don't miss it next time you are in the city.  And if you send me a note ahead of time, I'll go with you.

In fact, I'd go every Thursday if I could.  This is the kind of "stuff" I love and I personally think is well worth paying for.  I am so very grateful that I live in a country that sees nourishment for the soul and the mind as something worth offering to everyone.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Demographics, Immigration, and the U.S. Election

The aftermath of the U.S. election is really something to see.  The Democrats (Obama's party) are jubilant while the Republicans (right-wing) are in a state of shock.  Between you and me, I think both sides need to watch what they say - people in the grip of strong emotion are often not terribly coherent and apt to say things they later regret.  Restraint of pen and tongue should be the order of the day until everyone gets enough distance to be rational and cool-headed.

But there is one theme coming out of the election post-mortem that is worth discussing here.  More than one analyst has pointed to demographics and immigration as key reasons for the Republican's loss.  Their argument is summed up by Juan Williams in the Wall Street Journal:

The critical political message from President Obama's re-election victory Tuesday is that he cemented a new coalition of Democrats, led by the Latino vote, which threatens to reduce Republicans to an afterthought in future national elections.

Who belongs to this new coalition that William's is referring to?  African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, young voters and others.  Who is presumably not part of this coalition according to Mr. Williams?  Something called "white voters" - basically those Americans of Northern European origin whose numbers are declining.  In order for the Republicans to stay relevant, says Mr. Williams, they must broaden their base and appeal to other groups like Hispanics.

Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post concurs and argues that the call for the Republican party to adapt to demographic realities is very very true when it comes to Hispanics who are in his words, "a natural Republican constituency: striving immigrant community, religious, Catholic, family-oriented and socially conservative (on abortion, for example)."  So why then in his view did Hispanics vote for Obama?  Immigration issues, says Mr. Krauthammer.  The Republican party should never have been so strident about enforcement of the immigration laws and should have offered an amnesty or some sort of path to regularization/citizenship for 'illegals' in the U.S.

Versions of this argument were around before the election and have gained a great deal of steam since because the Republicans lost (no hiding that grim reality) and must explain that loss to their supporters.  It may be more palatable for American conservatives to blame forces like demographics instead of focusing on their platform and their message.  But there is truth in it.  This 2011 Pew study showed that Hispanic voters do tend to lean toward the Democrats and feel that they (as opposed to the Republicans) show "more concern for Hispanics."

But does it necessarily follow that Hispanic voters are deeply concerned about immigration issues and voted accordingly?  Not necessarily.  This Gallup poll from June 2012 showed that healthcare, unemployment and the economy were the top issues for registered Hispanic voters, not immigration.  As for U.S. adults overall,  immigration was dead last on the list of their top concerns.

This is a very good example of why immigration is such a deadly topic for politicians.  There were many passionate voices in the Republican party that called for electric fences no amnesty, and punishing the "illegals."  In reaction to that many Republican candidates were genuflecting in the direction of those voices. - falling over themselves to prove how tough they were going to be on the "sans papiers."  Did this help them?  Probably not.

On the other hand there was the Obama administration who over the past four years presided over massive deportations of undocumented migrants and, in some cases, U.S. citizens.  Did this hurt Obama and the Democrats?  Doesn't appear to have had much of an impact.

So what lessons am I taking away from this election?

Race and ethnicity still matter so much in the U.S.  After many years living outside of the U.S. I find it shocking to see how Americans are sliced and diced and poured into racial categories in a way that you don't see in other places. It took me a moment to realize that I fall into the category of "white voter" in the U.S.  Now if I were to become a French citizen, would the French refer to me in that way?    Don't think so and while there are other categories like "Français de souche" these are used primarily by a few and are not invoked systematically as a way of dividing up the French population along racial or ethnic lines.

Race in the U.S. seems to trump almost all other ways of looking at the population.   Some of the categories are pretty dubious and clearly cultural constructs since they seem to have been created solely by Americans for other Americans.  Are there other countries that use race and ethnicity in this way?   Not that I know of but please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.  Forgive me but I don't see much "E pluribus unum" going on in the U.S. these days.  But hasn't that always been true and doesn't that Latin phrase represent more of a wish than a reality?

Immigration may not be that big a deal to most Americans:  For all the passion behind the debate the rhetoric and the reality doesn't seem to have changed people's minds.  Hispanics did not refuse to vote for Obama because of stricter immigration enforcement and it doesn't appear that Americans in general were all that concerned about immigration policy and enforcement when it came down to voting for or against a candidate.   Lot of noise around the issue but in the end it didn't really matter.

Perhaps American politicians would do better to just stop talking about it at all. So much of immigration policy is simply beyond the control of the U.S. authorities.  The U.S. can staple as many Green Cards as it likes to immigrants' diplomas but that won't change the growing attractiveness of other destinations.  The U.S. can put up all kinds of fences along the border with Mexico (good luck with that - it's a long border) but determined migrants will always find a way in.  Nearly 30% of immigration to the U.S. is from Mexico which means that an intelligent approach to U.S. immigration policy would be to treat it as a regional migrant management issue. And that means working with the Mexican government which already asked the U.S. back in 2006 to consider a joint approach.  

And isn't it interesting that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats floated that idea to the American people?  Just a suggestion for U.S. lawmakers whatever party they belong to:  Kick the entire business up to some regional supra-national committee and be done with it.

After all, this does seem to be a viable strategy for some European politicians who are more than happy to have the EU take this contentious issue off their hands. :-)

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Le Quartier de Montreuil

In all my time in Versailles I've never been quite sure what neighborhood I live in.  Our apartment is in a kind of no man's land on the avenue de Paris about halfway between Porchefontaine and Chantiers and right across from the Domaine de Madame Elisabeth.  I had searched in vain for some sort of modern map of Versailles that would clearly show each neighborhood and had found nothing of interest until I stumbled upon this map from 1878 ( that's modern enough for me).


According to this map I live in something called the quartier de Montreuil.  Good to know.  And I was very surprised to learn that the area is, in fact, older than the city of Versailles and has an equally interesting history.

Once upon a time in this area was a small rural village that grew up around a monastery founded in the 6th century by a bishop of Paris.  According to the parish guide I picked up a local church, Montreuil is a contraction of the word "monasteriolum" which means little monastery.  The area did not become part of Versailles proper until very recently - it was only annexed by Louis XVI in 1787 at his sister's (Madame Elisabeth's) request.  

Oh and by the way Madame was not the only noble lady to have property there.  The Comtesse de Provence, the wife of another sibling of Louis XVI (the one who became Louis XVIII) had about 12 hectares to the east of Madame Elisabeth's property but that holding was split up and sold after the Revolution. 

The 1878 map divides Montreuil into two areas.  There is the "Petit Montreuil" on the south side of the avenue de Paris where I live.  Frankly, it's not terribly exciting as neighborhoods go - it's mostly apartment buildings with a few houses here and there.  But it does perk up when you arrive at the Octrois and the very distinct and village-like Porchefontaine district.  

To the north on the other side of the avenue de Paris is the "Grand Montreuil" - the site, I believe, of the original monastery and village which I decided to explore on foot earlier this week.   It's a place with a lot of character and I know it a little bit already because the Frenchlings went to middle school there (College Jean-Philippe Rameau) and the elder Frenchling graduated from the Lycée La Bruyère.    My guide was this fine map I found on the local parish website.  Going west on the avenue de Paris, I took a right onto the rue Champ-la-Garde, walked until I reached the rue des Condamines and saw the church, St. Symphorien which was my first stop.

I spent some time on the Saint-Symphorien website before I started my journey through Montreuil.  This is the third or fourth church to sit on this site since 560 AD.  This one was built in the 18th century and at first glance it doesn't look like a church at all with the four columns decorating the front.  But if you slip inside, the layout is the very familiar shape of the cross.  I did not take any pictures of the inside since it is a place of worship and people (myself included) were praying.  However, the photos on the parish website of the architectural features inside do them justice and I encourage you to have a look.  It's a beautiful church and the altar is just stunning.  A quick peek at the parish's Guide paroissal 2013 reveals a lively parish community with many associations and of course ties to other churches and Catholic schools in the area.  I lit a few candles and left with a twinge of regret that this will not be my parish.


In front of the church is the Place Saint-Symphorien which has some beautiful buildings.  Here's one that I thought was particularly lovely:


The Place Saint-Symphorien is the intersection of at least five streets:  rue Saint-Charles, boulevard de Lesseps, rue d'Artois, rue des Condamines and the rue de Montreuil.   I chose the last one for a stroll and I was so glad I did.  What a marvelous place with all kinds of small shops.  It's practically a world unto itself with everything one might need:  bakeries, bookshops, cobblers, banks, insurance agents, florists, butchers, cheese, wine and vegetables shops and much more.  I suppose the only thing one might miss is the cinema but since I am not a fan of flickering screens that didn't bother me one bit.


And I was not immune to the lure of the shops.  I spent way too much time in the bookstore but I did find several good reads that are not available for my Kindle and can't be had from the library in Paris.

Feeling hungry and tired I decided to head for home.  I walked back past the church and onto the rue des Condamines but decided to turn to the left and went down the rue Pasteur instead.  This is a really old street with many lovely houses - some in very good shape and a few in disrepair.  I'll leave you with a few pictures I took as I strolled leisurely home to a crackling fire and some hot soup.

Really cute house with a lovely garden
This house appears to be vacant and falling down 
Part of the wall surrounding the Domaine de Madame 
Wish I knew more about this mansion which is quite stunning.
It's located at the corner of the rue de Pasteur and the avenue de Paris.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

French Media Articles About the U.S. Election

The Flophouse remained under a media blackout until 8:00 this morning.  Then with coffee in hand I had a look at the headlines in the U.S. and France.  I started with the New York Times and first thing I saw was all that BLUE on the map and the words, Obama's Night.  From this I gathered that the U.S. president was re-elected yesterday.

Once I got that and the results of the local races clear in my head, I went straight to the French papers to get their reactions.

Let's start with Le Monde.  The front-page headline this morning was:   Obama réélu : "Le meilleur est à venir" (Obama re-elected: "The best is yet to come").

Another headline focused on the Republicans and the failure of their strategy:   La stratégie électorale des républicains n'a pas fonctionné which they say was designed to make do without the state of Ohio even though "aucun conservateur n'avait gagné la Maison Blanche sans l'Ohio depuis plus d'un siècle." (no conservative has won the White House without Ohio in over a century.)  Clearly this plan had a few design flaws.

And finally Le Monde had an article about what some members of the American community in Paris  were doing last night:  Une nuit américaine à Paris (An American Night in Paris).  Looks like my fellow Americans abroad here have assimilated the French idea that anything and everything are  good reasons to party, drink and dance.
"Dans plusieurs quartiers, ils ont loué des bars et des restaurants, bien décidés à faire la fête quels que soient les résultats du scrutin. Les jeunes militants de l'association Democrats Abroad, qui représente le parti démocrate à l'étranger, ont privatisé le Palais Maillot pour une soirée dansante."
(In several neighborhoods, they rented bars and resturants, planning to party regardless of the voting results.  The young militants of Democrats Abroad, who represent the Democrat party outside the U.S., even booked the Palais Maillot for an evening of dancing.)
And
Des Américains plus fortunés se sont retrouvés dans les salons luxueux de l'hôtel Pershing Hall, près des Champs Elysées – un lieu très symbolique, qui fut le quartier général du corps expéditionnaire américain pendant la première guerre mondiale, puis le siège parisien de l'American Legion. Le ticket d'entrée était à 80 euros, consommations non comprises. 
Dans un esprit de rassemblement patriotique, l'événement a été organisé conjointement par les sections parisiennes des deux associations Democrats Abroad et Republicans Abroad. 
(Wealthier Americans gathered in the luxurious rooms of the hotel, Pershing Hall near the  Champs Elysées - a symbolic location that was the headquarters of the American expeditionary force during World War I and is now the Paris seat of the American Legion.  Tickets were 80 Euros with food and drink not included. 
In the spirit of a patriotic gathering, the event was sponsored jointly by the Parisian chapters of Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad.)
Moving on the Le Figaro.

Funny but they seem a lot less enthusiastic than Le Monde about an Obama victory.  Their headline was:  L'Amérique offre quatre ans de plus à Barack Obama (America offers four more years of Barack Obama).
In this article  Les républicains gardent la main sur la Chambre des représentants, they point out that the Republicans still have a majority in House of Representatives and in another article they warn that
Obama va être vite confronté au risque de paralysie (Obama will be quickly faced with a risk of [political] paralysis).
La configuration politique promet en effet d'être quasiment la même qu'auparavant au Congrès: les Républicains gardent la Chambre et les démocrates semblent assurés de garder le Sénat. «Cette élection a montré un pays divisé», explique David Gergen, ancien conseiller de Reagan.
(The political landscape promises to be exactly the same as before concerning the Congress:  the Republicans with a majority in the House of Representatives and the Democrats assured of keeping the Senate. 'This election shows a divided country,' explains David Gergen, former advisor to Reagan.)
And finally here are the headlines from three others: 

Le Parisien :  Les «plus chaleureuses félicitations» de Hollande à Obama (Warmest congratulation from Hollande to Obama)

L'Humanité:  Barack Obama président pour 4 ans de plus (Barack Obama will govern for 4 more years)

La Croix: L’Amérique accorde un second mandat à Barack Obama (America gives a second mandate to Barack Obama).

Bonne lecture, everyone!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day U.S.A.

Today is the last day Americans can cast ballots for the 2012 general election.

As I avoid all media reports since they only irritate me right now, I am instead thinking about a conversation that Gore Vidal reported (in Inventing a Nation) having had with John Kennedy one fine day.  Kennedy asked how a "backwards country like this, with only three million people, could have produced the three great geniuses of the 18th century - Franklin, Jefferson and Hamilton.

Excellent question.  Allow me to update it.  How is it that an advanced country like this, with nearly 315 million people, does not seem to have produced even one political genius on the same level as a Franklin, Jefferson or Hamilton in the early 21st century?

And that is all I will say about it.

For those of  you who would like a 20-minute break away from the election madness may I suggest this excellent Ted talk by Michael Sandel who has some suggestions for how to raise the level of discourse in American politics.  Useful regardless of who wins tomorrow. And one of his examples is same-sex marriage which ties in nicely with yesterday's Flophouse post.





Monday, November 5, 2012

Gay Marriage In France

One of the weirder stereotypes I've encountered in my Franco-American life is this idea that the French are super progressive and completely cool with everything to do with sex and the Americans are a bunch of homophobic puritans.  The truth is so much more complicated.

A case in point:  gay marriage.    This is a hotly debated topic in both the U.S. and France.  The fundamental issues are very similar but the contexts are different.  In the U.S. it is a state by state battle for the most part with different legislation depending on the region. Some U.S. states outright prohibit same -sex unions while others allow civil unions but not marriage and finally there are a few states that now permit same-sex marriage on the same terms as heterosexual couples.

So what is the situation in France?   Unlike the U.S. marriage law is not the domain of regional government - a département in France simply does not have the same autonomy as a state and does not have the authority to vote the marriage laws it likes.  So the debate over marriage laws is one for the national (not local) government.

Another important difference is who has the authority to preside over a legal and binding marriage.  In the U.S. states permit religious representatives (rabbis, priests and others) to legally marry a couple.  This means that a church wedding is legal and binding in the U.S.  This not true in France.  In France the only marriage that counts is the one in the mayor's office.  This means that legal marriage in France is already divorced from religion.  You can still get married in the church or the temple or the synagogue but that is a purely private matter.

French national law as it stands today recognizes same-sex unions under a regime called the PACS (un pacte civil de solidarité) but does not permit same-sex couples to marry. Does that make a difference?  Well, yes, it does.  The PACS was progress but it does not confer the same rights as marriage and while heterosexual couples have a choice between marriage or the PACS, same-sex couples can only have their union recognized under the latter.  For some very interesting statistics about PACS unions see this INSEE report.  They say that only 6% of PACS unions involve same-sex couples.

Francois Hollande, the new French president, vowed during his campaign to change this and make marriage accessible to same-sex couples.  There is a "projet de loi" to that effect making its way to the Assembly this week.  The law is called "le mariage et l'adoption pour tous" (marriage and adoption for everyone).   The Socialists are essentially killing two controversial birds with one stone here by attempting to make both gay marriage and gay adoption legal.

So how is that playing with the French public?  The polls show that there is a clear majority in favor of gay marriage:  58% in favor and only 41% against.  Support for marriage equality however does not necessarily translate into support for gay adoption - the French are split 50/50 for and against.

I would not pretend that the people I know here are representative of the entire French nation but the polls seem to accurately reflect the views they have shared with me.  The idea of gay marriage does not seem to bother most of my friends all that much - it just seems fair to them that gays should be able to make the same legal unions as straight people.  Where they get reticent is when it comes down to a gay couple creating a family through adoption - a situation where the non-biological parent would have rights and parental authority over a minor child.

And now the Church is getting involved.  The Cardinal/Archbishop of Paris André Vingt-Trois  came out against the law recently and that seems to have been a signal that the Church is mobilizing.  Yesterday I went to Mass and the priest made the Church's position on the matter crystal clear:  against homophobia and against gay marriage.    I found at least one point in his sermon rather intriguing - he said that while many French seem to think that the Protestant Christians are much cooler than the Catholics in matters related to sex (Is that really true?  Do the French really think that?) even French Protestants are against the law.  Turns out that he was right - the president of the Fédération protestante de France, the pastor Claude Baty, came out against the law as well as representatives of the Moslem and Jewish faiths in France.

The appeal from the pulpit this weekend was a call to arms against the law.  The Cardinal is asking Catholics to send letters to, and to put pressure on, lawmakers.  He is also encouraging Christians and other like-minded denominations to hold public demonstrations against the law though he denies that he or the Church is getting directly involved in politics:

"C'est la responsabilité des associations et des mouvements de savoir s'ils doivent agir ainsi, précise l'archevêque de Paris. Je ne suis pas responsable d'un mouvement politique. Je suis responsable d'une Église. Ma fonction n'est pas de mener l'action politique. Elle est d'éveiller les consciences et d'alerter mes concitoyens.»
(It is the responsibility of the associations and movements to discern if they should act in this regard, said the Archbishop of Paris.  I am not responsible for a political movement.  I am responsible for a Church.  My role is not to lead a political action. It is to awaken consciences and to alert my fellow citizens.)

I strongly suspect that there will be demonstrations over the "mariage pour tous."  Will this prevent the law from being passed?  No idea but I do think it's going to be a very bitter fight.   This is one to watch very closely.  The Catholic Church in France usually prefers (as nearly as I can tell) to work behind the scenes but every once in awhile she takes a very public stand and roars.  This may be one of those times.