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

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

UNDP and World Bank Reports on Human Development

Since 1990 the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has published a yearly report on the state of human development in the world.  Starting from a pre-defined set of indicators the UN gathers information from a variety of sources to determine how individual countries are doing and how the world overall is progressing (or not).  They have a very cool map here where you can call up an indicator like healthcare spending and search their database to see how different countries in the world stack up.  

Their 2011 Human Development Report is out and you can download a copy from their website in a wide variety of languages.  Their emphasis this year is on "Sustainability and Equity" - not just for the living but for the yet to be born:
This year we explore the intersections between environmental sustainability and equity, which are fundamentally similar in their concern for distributive justice. We value sustainability because future generations should have at least the same possibilities as people today. Similarly, all inequitable processes are unjust: people’s chances at better lives should not be constrained by factors outside their control. Inequalities are especially unjust when particular groups, whether because of gender, race or birthplace, are systematically disadvantaged.
Sustainable human development is the expansion of the substantive freedoms of people today while making reasonable efforts to avoid seriously compromising those of future generations.

The World Development Report 2012 from the World Bank is good one to read in conjunction with the UNDP report.  Their focus this year is on "Gender Equality and Development."  As much as we like to cite extraordinary progress in developed countries to reduce gender inequality, women are still "systematically disadvantaged" in many parts of the world.  Here is Ana Revenga explaining why this is not just an issue of basic fairness (equity) but an economic issue:

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

How U.S. Tax Law Impacts Non-U.S. Citizens

I've already talked a little bit about this in this post, The Consequences of Being a U.S. Person but I thought a recap would be useful since there are some new developments.

This is the situation in a nutshell:  people who have a connection to the U.S. but who are not U.S. citizens still have reporting and tax obligations to the American Internal Revenue Service.  A very common example would be a migrant who moves to the U.S. to live and work temporarily or permanently.  Let's say, someone from Germany who is working at an American company in Boston.  That person, once defined as a U.S. person because he resides in the U.S., must report his or her worldwide income to the U.S. government:  interest income from his accounts in Germany, for example, or rent on a property in the home country.  Yes, these must be reported on the American tax forms.  In addition, this person from Berlin who is living in Boston is also required to file an FBAR (Foreign Bank Account information)  with the U.S Treasury department if the sum of the foreign (local to the German but foreign to the U.S.) accounts exceeds a certain amount (10,000 US or 7,500 Euros).  This is not a joke - the U.S. is deadly serious about it and is it not something that migrants in the U.S. or anyone who has a connection to the U.S.can afford to ignore.  The fine for not filing an FBAR and reporting those accounts to the U.S. government is 10,000 USD per year that person did not file that form.  Be warned, the IRS is collecting those penalties.  Failure to file for three years could net that German a 30,000 USD fine even if he owed no taxes.

All this was true even before the U.S. Congress passed a law called FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act).  However, under this law the German bank of the German living in the U.S. must now report that account to the U.S. government if it exceeds a certain amount. Germany is one of five countries that has struck a deal with the U.S. government to implement this law so any hope that the German had of ignoring the whole business is pretty much gone.  In addition the U.S. government is offering these countries some sort of reciprocity which means that the German's U.S. banks may soon be required to report on his or her U.S. accounts to the German government.

If you are in this situation, then you should probably get some professional help to get it sorted out.

If that were not enough, there are two other things to be aware of.  The first is a new form (required under the FATCA law) to be filed with the 2011 U.S. tax declaration.  This form 8938 is a declaration of foreign (foreign to the U.S) assets.  So, the hypothetical German that I'm using will have to file 1.  a U.S. tax declaration on all income earned worldwide, 2. an FBAR listing all his German bank accounts and 3. Form 8938 listing his German bank accounts AND all other assets in Germany including his house or apartment, pension funds and so on.  The fact that these things existed before the German moved to the U.S. is irrelevant.  By spending time on U.S. soil he or she became a U.S. person and must comply.  In some cases, even non-U.S. citizens who are not resident in the United States might have to file this form.  See this excellent post, Form 8938 Can Apply to Non-Resident Aliens, on Phil Hodgen's blog.

The second development that may impact that German is how his German bank is going to react to the news that they are now going to have report his account information to the U.S. government.  What we are seeing right now are European banks closing the home country accounts of their nationals living in the U.S.  This came in from Switzerland, Swiss Expats Caught in Middle of U.S. Tax Conflict.  Some Swiss banks have even decided that banking with anyone with a connection (however remote) to the U.S. is simply too dangerous.  This includes Swiss citizens who have a child studying at a U.S. university.  Will other European banks follow suit?  Hard to know but there is a certain logic to it.  Why keep as a client someone who is going to cost you money even if that person is a national?  It's not as if these people have to live in the U.S., right?  Basically, a U.S. connection has become a problem to be solved (and frankly it really hurts to write that) even for people who are not U.S. citizens.

And that brings me to my final point.  As a member of the American diaspora, I can do something about this.  I may not have very effective representation but I can and do vote in U.S. elections.  My hypothetical German (and any other migrant to the U.S., not to mention the millions of people with U.S. connections) doesn't have that and that makes the situation all the more outrageous.  This is "Taxation without Representation"and it is grossly unfair and completely contrary to U.S. interests in the world.  Do Americans want foreigners to pull their money out of the U.S. or their children out of U.S. universities?  Is the goal to punish migrants who want to live and work in the U.S. by making a grab for their home country assets and bank accounts?  That may not have been the intention of U.S. lawmakers but it is the outcome.  I've said it before and I will keep repeating it:  this is not going to end well for anyone.


Monday, February 27, 2012

Breeder Documents

I first came across this term when I was exploring the different methods at our disposal to prove citizenship.  At first glance, I thought it meant "license to reproduce." Believe me, it's nothing like that. But what they really are is pretty interesting and of concern to all of us.

A very loose definition of Breeder Document would simply be:  a document that allows you to obtain other documents.  A birth certificate is probably the most common one because it establishes all sorts of things:  that you were born (good to know), where and when, and who your parents were.  That document can be matched against existing law in the country where you live to allow you to obtain other documents like a driver's license, an identity card, a voting card, a national health card and even a certificate of nationality.    In a lot of countries, if a person never goes beyond the national borders, it's possible that he or she may never have to have one.  In the first 20 years of my existence living in the U.S., it was completely superfluous (even for travel to Canada).  It only became necessary when I applied for a passport.  For those who do travel and, most importantly, for international migrants, this is often an indispensable document.  Applying for a visa may just require a passport but most countries want a little more information (the documents behind that passport) before granting you residency or citizenship.

Now this seems like an entirely reasonable request on the part of the receiving state but it assumes that the receiving country trusts your home country to have accurately recorded the birth and is now willing to certify that you are that person by issuing the document and putting an official seal on it.  Think about that for a moment - your ability to establish your identity is only as good as the trust that your host country places in your sending country and its documentation.

So do states really trust each other when it comes to breeder documents?  It depends.  There is a cost to not trusting.  Just imagine if every birth certificate presented by a potential migrant from Canada to France was considered suspect and other documents or even an investigation were required before any of these documents were accepted as legitimate.  Think of how much trouble the French authorities would have to go to (not to mention the time and money involved) to be 100% sure.  Think of how annoyed the sending state would be if they were asked to justify every document.  Not a very diplomatic move either since it does kind of imply that the host country thinks the sending country is inefficient or corrupt.   And what would be the benefit?  That the receiving state might catch a very small percentage of identity thieves?  I imagine most states have done a rough cost/benefit analysis and adjust their trust level according to what they know (or assume) about the other state.

That they probably do this does not mean that they aren't thinking about more cost effective ways to tackle the problem.  The EU issued this statement in 2009 concerning the reliability of breeder documents within the EU.   They implied that they were not even sure that member states should be trusting each other.  If that's indeed true then what about countries outside the EU?

And that brings us straight to a country with serious issues in this area:  the United States.  While Americans are very concerned (for security and immigration reasons) about false documents used to enter or stay on American soil, other countries have reasons to be a bit nervous about  breeder documents coming from entities within the United States.  According to the 2011 MPI report, A New Architecture for Border Management:
In the United States, breeder documents are issued at the state or local level:  there are 16,000 different offices that can issue birth certificates, and over 14,000 different kinds of birth certificates.
There are no common requirements and little consistency among them, and thus such documents are highly susceptible to forgery.  
Please note how carefully worded those two sentences are.  The first is a statement of fact and the second is a statement of fact with mitigating language tacked onto the end.  If we translate, basically what they are saying is the entire U.S. mechanism for producing breeder documents is decentralized to the point of absurdity and these documents cannot necessarily be trusted. They are implying both inefficiency and a strong possibility of outright fraud.  If any of you have another interpretation, I'd be happy to hear it.

This is a situation worth watching.  In all my time abroad I have never had anyone in France, Japan or any other country question my documentation from the U.S.  Up until now American citizens who travelled or lived abroad seem to have been given the benefit of the doubt;  beneficiaries of a "halo effect" conferred because the U.S. was perceived as an efficient, developed country with a certain amount of prestige and status in the world.  To the extent that people become aware of certain idiosyncrasies in the way the U.S. manages its internal affairs, we could see a bit more suspicion of Americans abroad and their documentation.  It could lessen the value of a U.S. passport and diminish the protection U.S. citizens receive when they travel.  It could also make it more difficult for U.S. citizens to get work or residency status in other countries.

Clearly we are not there yet and I should clarify here that there are many countries with worse processes than the U.S.  Nevertheless, the next time you hear Americans complaining about document fraud,  "illegals" and the like in the United States,  just remember that the U.S. is, in fact, the "tallest midget in the room."

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Perceptions of an Overseas Voter



To understand why the United States is trying so hard to chase down overseas Americans for taxes one need only look at this graph prepared by Senator Jeff Sessions' staff and reprinted in the Weekly Standard.

Rather frightening, isn't it?  Yes, America’s per capita government debt is worse than Greece.  This means while all of the countries on the chart are desperate for revenue the U.S. leads the pack.



The political process is the means by which such problems are faced and managed.  Or not, as the case may be.  Living outside the U.S. I'm at a disadvantage here when it comes to homeland politics since I am only getting an echo of the political debates going on right now over what to do about the American national debt.  To those who argue that I could be perfectly well-informed if I would just regularly read the American newspapers, I would counter that it is not nearly enough.  I read these articles in a vacuum.   If I were living in the U.S. I imagine that this topic would be something I would discuss with friends, family and colleagues who would give me their points of view and share resources where we could all get more information.  I'd be reading the daily local paper to know what my Senators and Representatives were up to.  I'd be listening to the radio on the ride into work.  I'd have a much better idea how my fellow Americans feel about what is going on around them and how it impacts them because I'd be swimming in the same waters.   Since I don't have any of that here, I read the articles in the American media almost as if I were a foreigner.  It really does seem that distant.

But here's the thing.  I vote.  The very efficient folks at King County Election will be sending a ballot this year to my address in France.  I even have a voter registration card that I received a few days ago with my French address and U.S. contact information if I have any questions or a problem (partially written in Kanji by the way).  And though King County seems to be in the know, I was a bit surprised to realize that neither of my senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell seem to be aware of their constituents from the Pacific Northwest who are living outside the U.S. (yes, they exist and I've met some of them in both Japan and France).  When I go to the "Contact me" section of their sites, the only overseas constituents they seem to recognize are American military personnel abroad.  I suppose I could pretend I still live in the state of Washington but that seems dishonest.  Quite a conundrum, isn't it?  I did sign up for both their newsletters and was quite amused that Patty Murray's form asked for an address but had no provision (unless I was military) for a foreign address.  I finally just put in my French address and selected "Washington State."  We'll see if her staff notices.

And yet, Washington state is, according to the book Leaving America, an important overseas voter state  (along with Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio) with over 200,000 overseas voters in each of those states registered to vote locally.  In a close election, politicians in these states could quite conceivably win or lose based on how overseas Americans decide to vote in 2012.  And, to be quite frank with you, with the MOVE act which makes it much easier for overseas citizens to vote, the range of issues on the table today that have got us a bit riled up (citizenship-based taxation, FATCA and the like) and the existence of non-profit organizations like the Overseas Vote Foundation which has an on-line platform that makes it very easy for us to register, it's quite likely that more and more of us will choose to exercise our right to vote in the U.S. in 2012.  This means that homeland voters and politicians in some states might just get a nasty surprise in November.

My purpose here is not to threaten people or our elected representatives in the homeland.  Rather what I would like to propose is a deal that would make this situation work a little better to everyone's benefit.  On my side I am painfully aware that I am not as aware of homeland issues as I could be and I promise to make a special effort during the ramp-up to the 2012 election to get as much information as I can to be able to vote responsibly.  On the homeland side what I would like to see are people and politicians meeting us halfway.  A good start would be to stop vilifying overseas Americans in the media.  Every article or comment we read that labels us "disloyal" and "tax evaders," for example, just makes us paranoid and turns us into single-issue voters (just vote against anyone who supports FATCA :-).  A second step would be an acknowledgement that we exist and it might be worth everyone's time to improve the dialogue with the 6 million Americans (civilians) outside the U.S.  We are the "domestic abroad" and maybe we have something to bring to the debates going on inside the U.S. if people would suspend judgement and just listen for a moment or two.

The United States is facing some serious challenges right now.  Going back to the graph at the beginning of this post, this is a very serious situation.  It is not unreasonable, in my view, that all Americans be part of the solution.  To be very clear (and here I diverge from the views of some other overseas Americans) I am not even against the idea of contributing financially to the resolution of homeland problems.

But, if that is what the homeland is asking of me, then I need to feel that I am a part of the nation regardless of where I live - that I have, not just a vote and representation, but effective representation, where my views and my interests are taken into account.  And I will be honest with you, I don't feel that at all.  This really is THE issue for me.  It's not taxes.  Taxes are the price of civilization.  But if you want me to support American civilization (the nation) then I need you to acknowledge that I and 6 million other people are still a part of it.

If this isn't possible, if no one wants to go to the effort, if all homeland Americans want to do is punish all 6 million of us for the "sin" of living abroad by double-taxing us to extinction while making it difficult for us to have a voice, then our U.S. citizenship is worth very little.  If you add to that a certain rejection on the part of the nation then, rationally, this is a citizen/state relationship which does neither of us any good.  You don't need us yelling at you from across the oceans, surprising you when we actually dare vote and tip local elections, and hurting U.S. interests in our host countries.  On our side we don't need you pretending we don't exist and yet passing laws that impact us behind our backs and then ignoring us completely when we protest. 

So what will it be, folks?  Do we try to work this out or do we give up on the basis of "irreconciliable differences" and negotiate an amicable divorce on terms we can all live with?

Friday, February 24, 2012

DEBTOCRACY // ΧΡΕΟΚΡΑΤΙΑ

I stayed up late last night watching Debtocracy, a documentary produced by Greeks about the Greek debt crisis.  It was released in mid-2011 and has been so well received that the producers are preparing another called Catastroika to be released some time this year.

We live in an age where information is abundant but knowledge and reflection is in short supply.  It's easier to swim in the swallows of a few well-known Internet sites because the blue water just seems too dark and too deep.  Based on that information, gained cheaply and with little effort, we judge and we have the arrogance to think that we judge rightly because we read a few one-page analysis on Der Spiegel, Le Monde or The New York Times.

Some of what I have read on such sites about the Eurozone crisis troubles me because, while the root causes of the situation are complex, they are all too often reduced to a simple morality tale:  the "disciplined" versus the "undisciplined," the "hard-working" versus the "lazy," and "honest taxpayers" versus "tax evaders" with the Greeks cast as the villains (les coupables) of the piece.

If we were a bit more honest and had a better grasp of history we might recall that Greece is hardly the first country on this planet (and certainly not the first in Europe) to have had this problem.  Some of the countries that seem very happy to pass moral judgement on them today (and seem mighty reluctant to help them now) once had their own debt problems.  Correct if I'm wrong but weren't France, Germany and others also members of this club?  Some were even "serial defaulters" who walked away when the situation was simply impossible and there was no other way out.

We are living in difficult times.  No country is immune.  We are all fearful for ourselves and for our families.  It is human to assign blame.  If nothing else it salves our own uneasy consciences because, quite frankly, we and our governments bear a great deal of responsibility for what is.  Greece did not create the present situation all on her own;  she had a great deal of "help" from other European member-states and the U.S.

I don't know of any cure for being human but there is one way we can mitigate some of our least attractive traits:  we can suspend judgement and listen to the other side of the story.    This is what Debtocracy aims to do - present another view- and I think it does it very well, very pursuasively.  I learned a great deal (Iraq and its "odious debt," for example) and I think the only certitude that I had before I watched it that has stayed with me is this:  peace of mind and prosperity cannot be purchased through the punishment and impoverishment of others.  Europe made this mess and either we are "solidaire" in solving it or we are nothing.


Debtocracy International Version par The_Press_Project

(The film is in several languages, mostly Greek but also English, French and Spanish.  If you are fortunate enough to understand all of them you can muddle through without the subtitles.  If not, pass your cursor to the right-hand portion of the screen to find the subtitles in the language of your choice.)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Army of Gabon Recruits

Just posted by a friend and former colleague on Facebook.  This is a recruiting video for the Army of Gabon.  I thought it was excellent.


The King's Stable and the Way of the Squire

Last Sunday the younger Frenchling and I went down to the Grande Ecurie du roi (The Big Stable of the King) for a visit and a show.  This was the first time I'd ever been inside though I've passed by and admired the building many times over the past few years.

The King's Stable was built between 1678 and 1682 for two purposes:  a stable for the king's saddle horses and a training center for young people from the nobility destined to be officers in the royal army.



Today it is a beautifully maintained monument that still has a purpose akin to what it was in the past - it is the present home of the L'Académie du spectacle équestre (The Academy of Equestrian Arts).  I haven't ridden a horse since I was a child and never had any formal training so I can only describe what they do from my very uninformed perspective.  The show we went to was called La Voie de l’écuyer (The Way of the Squire) and it was a bit of everything - theater, ballet, a tournament, a mock battle, a dance - beautifully choreographed and accompanied by very good classical music (Baroque, I think) and words from the past.

The show began with a quotation that I did not recognize, "La tradition est la deformation d'un message du passé." (Tradition is a deformed message from the past.) and the call was to return to the origin of things to learn their real meaning and context.  The first scene was composed of three young women with longbows and they moved slowly enough so that you could see every step, every gesture before they fired at the target.  It was impressive and those bows were almost as tall as the women who were wielding them.  This was followed by the entry of one of the most beautiful horses I'd ever seen with his rider who ran him through his paces around the arena. Such amazing fluidity of movement and gaits that I didn't know horses had in them.  It was very much like watching a ballet - many of the movements seemed unnatural but oh so graceful and precise.  Beautiful to watch.

From the l’Académie du spectacle équestre website
 The most exciting part came in the middle of the show.  Swords.  Long and very thin - the kind you see used in modern fencing (and here I am not sure what you would call them in French - les rapières or les épées?). It started with a mock fight between two people in the middle of the arena and then in came a group of horses and their riders.  What followed was an exciting, heart in your mouth, mock battle on horseback.  They started at one end of the arena with the horses leaping forward and running like hell and the riders slashing at each other and then everyone pulling up just short of the stands.  At the very end they formed a circle around one horse ridden by a lovely young woman who tilted her body back, raised her sword in the air, and had her horse spin under her.  Faster and faster and faster. Extraordinary.

The rest of the show was just as good.  If you have children, you must bring them.  If you don't have children, go anyway. The place was packed so reserve here ahead of time.  You can visit the stables after the show to ask questions and admire the horses.  We learned that the really elegant white ones are Lusitaniens.  There were also Criollos and Quarter Horses.   A last word - both the stables and the arena were really cold.  This doesn't seem to bother the horses one bit but if you're a furless human like me, a warm coat, a hat and gloves would be a good idea.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lifestyle Migration

When I first heard that term I really didn't know what to make of it.  The term "lifestyle" in English seems to imply something rather frivolous and even pretentious.  Something that must be the province of the rich global elite and not within the reach of "regular folks."  What I discovered when I looked into it is that this is actually a very broad category into which researchers have poured very disparate people:  international retirement migrants, sojourners in India, small entrepreneurs running bed and breakfasts in France, and foreign spouses of nationals.

In Global Migration Governance, Caroline Olivier gives this definition:  "The term 'lifestyle migration' is applied to a growing number of migrations that are largely undertaken for lifestyle reasons and which do not fit into the existing policy categories of migration."  This basically means anyone who has migrated for reasons other than opportunity and oppression (essentially labor and humanitarian migration).  In general these are people who have the means to choose where they want to live based on criteria that have very little to do with economics.  It's really not at all about money or landing a better job. Lifestyle migrants are primarily from developed countries and their destinations are either other developed countries or emerging countries.  This people are very hard to count since they are often quasi-legal in their countries of residence and very often they don't live abroad full-time.  The British are well-known for this.  In 2006 it was estimated that one in ten Brits live abroad and 500,000 live part-time outside the UK.

Some of them are even technically "illegal immigrants" and some work under the table teaching their native languages. They seem to be tolerated for the most part because they bring money in at a very low cost to the host countries:  a retired American in France on U.S. Social Security is not doing any harm and may even be doing some good since the money is coming from outside France and is being injected into the local economy.  Similar reasoning applies to French retirees in Morocco.  Some countries have figured this out and offer special programs to draw these migrants in.  The "Malaysia My Second Home" program seems to be very popular and the Japanese government was actively promoting at one time "overseas ikigai towns".

This is called "International Retirement Migration" and the reasons behind it seem obvious.  However, what about all the other migrants being lumped together as "lifestyle migrants?'  In Lifestyle Migration (a book of essays and research on this subject) they offer the following as cases that they think exemplify this phenomenon:

  • Western Lifestyle Migrants in Varanasi, India
  • Romance Tourists, Foreign Wives or Retirement Migrants Cross-cultural Marriage in Florence, Italy
  • A Desire for Difference:  British Lifestyle Migration in Southwest France
  • Taking the Risk:  The British in Didim, Turkey

I finished both books feeling very unsatisfied and a bit unsettled.  The only thing that these migrants have in common is the fact that they mostly come from developed countries (all social classes and income levels by the way) and are seeking intangible things that cannot be expressed in monetary terms.  That does not, in my view, make their motives selfish or suspect - something that I feel is implied in the term "lifestyle."  Is there something illegitimate about wanting to stretch one's retirement pension or to raise children in a country that has less crime or a better education system?  What about a gay couple who moves to a country where the laws permit them to marry?  Can you really reduce this to a lifestyle choice or is it something infinitely more important - the right to be with the person you love and benefit from a legal framework that offers more protection and stability?

The danger of lumping all these people together under a tent that is practically guaranteed to raise the hackles of people in their home countries is the real possibility that these people will be punished:  taxed to extinction, forced to give up their citizenship or permanent residency status, or just vilified in the media.  The perception of people in the homeland is generally negative - this people are often portrayed as disloyal or selfish or lacking in maturity.  In all fairness sometimes this kind of migrant has a discourse that is not terribly kind or understanding of the people back home.  It does not help to describe one's life outside the home country as an "escape" or to treat people in the homeland as boring and unenlightened.  This is unnecessarily provocative and unfair - moving to India to live in an ashram or to France to start a "gite" does not make anyone morally superior or special.  Whenever I fall into this trap I try to remember that I am merely one American among 100,000 other Americans living in France,  and I am just one small U.S. person among the millions in Europe and around the world.

So I am hoping that the term "lifestyle migration" goes out of fashion very fast.  I don't think it's accurate or useful and it might even be dangerous.  The "people who move around" don't need anything that encourages positive or negative stereotypes.  What we need is to be "right-sized."  We are normal people who are doing normal things (raising families, working jobs, going to school).  The only difference is that we just aren't doing those things in our countries of origin.  That's all.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

ILO Global Employment Trends

This is a must read.  The International Labor Organization has published a report on Global Employment Trends 2012:  Preventing a Deeper Jobs Crisis.

So how are we doing?  Well, we are not out of the woods yet.  Not even close.  They think we are in stage two of a three stage crisis.  In stage one we had the shock and then the stimulus which softened the blow.  Now we are in stage two where high deficits and sovereign debt are leading to austerity measures.  A slow recovery is not helping matters.  If there is a second shock there will be second dip in growth and employment with very little money left in government coffers to lift us out.

 
In the worst case scenario there will be a negative shock in the eurozone (bad debt ) followed by the U.S. (slow growth and loan losses on mortgage portfolios) and perhaps emerging Asia (non-performing loans).   Largest impact would be in the EU and the U.S.  Latin America and Asia would be more resilient just as they were in the previous shock.


Before the crisis there were 171 million unemployed workers to which we can now add another 27 million.  And then there are the 40 million new workforce entrants per year (young people). That's just the jobs picture and doesn't even touch the other issue: a "decent work deficit," jobs that can keep food on the table and a roof over the head of a family. They estimate that we need to create 400 million new jobs over the next decade.  For those of you who would prefer not to read pdf's in bed late at night, here is a synopsis by Steven Kapsos, labour economist at the ILO that goes over the figures I've cited above:



 
ILO is predicting a recovery slowdown and flat employment which will drag down wages everywhere.  Less opportunity, low wages, and precarity will drive even more migration. They recommend four courses of action:
  • Global policy coordination
  • Regulation of the world financial system to loosen credit for SMEs which create 70 percent of jobs
  • Stimulus packages targeted to increasing employment
  • Incentives for the private sector to invest but....
  • Without putting fiscal stability at risk.

I'm not an economist nor a reader of tea leaves so I can't judge the merits of their recommendations or the accuracy of their predictions.  What is clear to me as I watch the ramp up to the 2012 elections in both the U.S. and France is that all this talk of contraception, immigration, flag-waving, saber-rattling and the merits of one civilization over another, is really nothing more then a bread and circus show.  If the world economy goes to hell yet again, all this will be pretty irrelevent. 

Looking for Work is Work

And things are looking up.  I've been a little more absent the past week because I did succeed in getting interviews - five, to be precise.  One was via telephone with a company in Bruxelles and the four others were with French companies here in Paris.

I enjoy interviews.  I like the human contact (something you really miss when you are unemployed).  Since I've been around the block a few years in this part of the world,  I find that I almost always have former colleagues and companies in common with my interviewers.  Getting the latest news is always interesting and I come back home with ideas for people and places to contact.  It's never a waste of time even when I'm pretty sure I didn't get the job.

As I said before it takes me about an hour to get into town.  There is the short walk to the train (RER) station but I know the schedule by heart so I always arrive just in time.   From there it's a 20 minute train ride through a very long tunnel and then the train then pops out at Meudon le Fleury and follows the Seine into the heart of the city.  Nice view of the Eiffel Tower.  I usually get off at Invalides and then I take the metro to whatever neighborhood (arrondissement) I need to be in.

First order of business when I arrive at my destination is coffee.  I was really rather startled when I read some people's comments about my having an expresso at a bistro in a previous post.  Just goes to show you that context is everything.  Let me explain what that means here.  Go anywhere in the city, any neighborhood, and there will be small restaurants and bar/tobacco stores.  How nice they are really depends on the prosperity of the area.  When I was in Neuilly I had coffee at a very tony little place, very clean, nicely dressed waiters and (oh miracle) very clean restrooms.  Now that I'm interviewing I am out of those areas and in places like Saint Denis and the Silicon Sentier.  Different world in these neighborhoods but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  Yes, the western side of Paris and her close suburbs is very pretty but it's almost too pretty to the point of feeling sterile.  You can actually find a Starbucks or a McDonalds in that part of town.  Nothing against either of those things but, between you and me, I find both expensive and not much value for money.

The place I went to yesterday, on the other hand, was a lot rougher but that was kind of irrelevant because what it lacked in amenities and tourist traps it more than made up for in sheer vibrancy.  This neighborhood was hopping with lots of people in the streets (many of them immigrants like me), shops, gaming parlors and little restaurants/bars/tobacco stores.  I found a bar next to the metro Château d'Eau in the 10th and sat down to talk to the owner and listen to the conversations going on around me.  At the table next to me was a group of musicians.  Older men, probably in their late 40's or 50's, talking about possible gigs.  Two were African-Americans from the U.S. (sounded East Coast to me), the others were French and African.  The conversation toggled between English and French and one other language I didn't recognize.

The owner of this place was a Frenchman of North African origin and he was the sweetest guy.  The bar itself had seen better days - the door was repaired with some sort of duct tape and the windows were dirty.  The bar itself was impeccably clean. And this is where I had my coffee that morning as I killed 30 minutes before my interview.  A couple of remarks about the context.  First of all I ordered an expresso because that was all they served.  No lattes, no mochas or anything like that.  Just a small cup with very strong, very hot, and very black coffee served with a little stick of sugar on the side.  So when someone describes to me a world where "expresso" is something you purchase in a tony little cafe in a nice part of town, I have a little moment of dissonance.  What?  Here, an "expresso" is just standard coffee and it is the cheapest coffee you can buy wherever you are.  This place was particularly cheap - 1,4 Euros a cup (less than 2 US Dollars).  You can drink it at the bar (something I used to do when we could still smoke inside) or you can sit down.  I sat down because I was wearing my "grown-up lady shoes" and my feet hurt.  Another thing - at no time on the street or in the bar did I feel unsafe and I couldn't even begin to tell you why.

I try to imagine going into a place that looked like this in one of Seattle's less prosperous neighborhoods and, to be honest, I probably wouldn't.  Latent racism on my part?  Maybe but when I walked into that bar in Paris yesterday, I was the only female person of European origin there and I didn't get any vibes that I was unusual, unwanted or out of place. Frankly, I've had more hassles in nicer parts of town with the Français de souche trying to pick me up and getting downright pushy about it.   I re-read my CV and the job description, slowly sipped my coffee, exchanged smiles and a few words with the owner, went to the bathroom to comb out my hair, came out, thanked him and went about my business.

It was a good interview.  The only problem with living in Versailles and looking for work in the city is the commute.  One interview means half a day in town  - two hours of transport plus two hours of interviewing.  This means less time to send out CV's and make cold calls.  I'm home today and have to make up for lost time.  I did do some late night reading in bed and I'll post later on the day about the new ILO report on global employment.  Very interesting reading.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Diasporas and United Nations Staffing Policy

There is a neat bit of research over on the Not Learning Cantonese in Hong Kong blog.

The blog author, Eric, saw an ad for a position at the United Nations and was rather startled to find that the ad had a strange pre-requisite:  "candidates had to be willing to renounce permanent residence status in any country except the country of their nationality."  He looked into it a bit further and discovered that this isn't just a quirk that applies to that position in particular, but is actual UN staffing policy.

Read the post, What Diplomats Think of Diasporas:  Tracing the History of an Obscure United Nations Staffing Policy, to learn why this policy was put into place. And, yes, there is a strange twist that has to do with the United States' citizenship-based taxation laws... 

I agree with Eric that it is blatant discrimination against the "people who move around."  Very odd for an international organization.  Very much behind the times.  Talk about de-valuing the diasporas and calling into question their loyalty and fitness to represent their countries.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

H1-B Visas and the Neufeld Memorandum

I don't generally spend much time delving into the intricacies of U.S. immigration law but I thought this issue was interesting because it touches directly on my field, IT.

The H1-B visa is a work permit program that targets that highly sought after group of skilled migrants (called "travailleurs hautement qualifiés" in French) who work in professions like healthcare, IT, engineering and many others (list here).  It is similar to the EU Blue card in the sense that a migrant must first find a position and then it is the future employer who requests the visa from the U.S. government.  Though it is good for 6 years (and allows for Green Card status later on), it does not allow family members to come and work as well (unless of course they qualify for their own H1-B visas).

Nevertheless this visa was both sought after and fought over for many years.  In times past the quota for each year was reached very quickly.  In 2007, for example, the cap of 85,000 for 2008 was reached by April 3, 2007 - a mere 3 days after the program was opened on April 1.  What kind of companies were requesting H1-B visas?  To no one's surprise, a lot of IT companies were taking advantage of this program:  Infosys, Cognizant, Wipro and Microsoft.

Then came the crisis and demand dropped precipitously.  How bad was it?   It took months for the quotas to be filled instead of weeks or days.  As MPI reports in Migration and the Great Recession, legal immigration to the U.S. slowed considerably in those years. (Note to Tea Party and all other anti-immigrant groups in the U.S. - if you want to stop immigration in its tracks, just tank your economy.) 2010 was a bit better but the bloom is off the rose.  This article from Forbes India, "The H1B Visa's Fall From Grace,"  says that there were two other factors that are leading to decreased demand:  a steep rise in application fees - it now costs between 3000 to 5000 USD to apply - and increased scrutiny of applications - the Obama administration has, contrary to what the Right in the U.S. is saying, stepped up enforcement of immigration law to a nearly unprecedented degree.

Into this already troubled picture, has marched the U.S. government, specifically the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, with the the Neufeld Memorandum (something similar to a "circulaire" here in France) which aimed to step up enforcement of H1-B immigration and employment law.  The issue was the mobility of H1B workers and how IT companies can assign them to different client sites.  Something, by the way, that is pretty standard if you are working in an IT service company.

According to this article, in the past it was understood that when an IT worker changed work locations, all the company had to do was file a little form called a Labor Condition Application with the Department of Labor.  The Department of Immigration was not informed and had no way of knowing where the worker was actually working based on his or her original H1-B application.

With the Neufeld Memorandum that sets higher standards for investigation of employer/employee relationships combined with greater enforcement, immigration agents are checking out these workers by going to the original site/employer to investigate.  If they find that the worker is no longer physically present in that location, they report back that the worker and his/her employer are, shall we say, in an "irregular situation."  The seems to be causing everyone to waste a great deal of time and energy.  One article I read even said that "the USCIS’s fraud detection national security division may also pay a “friendly” surprise visit to the client company to ensure that the work location and other terms of employment are consistent with the H-1B petition."  Oh my.  I'm sure that those clients were just THRILLED to get a visit from U.S. immigration.

So what is the impact of all of this?  Forbes reports that companies are using different strategies to get around this.  Some are simply hiring more U.S. citizens and legal residents or trying for L-1 visas instead since "Visas issued in the L-1 category involve transfers within the same company, and employees do not need to be paid the minimum wage levels of the US, which are much higher than what an employee on an L-1 would be paid."  Other IT companies are simply tweaking their off-shoring models and keeping more of their staff at home and doing the work from Bangalore, for example.

Now I am pretty sure that U.S. government did not intend to make the United States less competitive in the global market for worldwide talent.  I'm even more sure that they are or will be mightily annoyed by efforts of foreign migrants and multi-national IT companies to work around their rules.  But the fact remains that both migrants and companies are rational actors and all of their solutions are quite logical and well within the law.  To make matters even worse, I fail to see how anyone is going to benefit from this:  certainly not U.S. IT workers who may see a few more jobs available but who will face increased competition from migrants in the U.S. on L-1 visas who are apparently not subject to minimum wage laws, and IT workers in lower-cost locations outside the U.S.  It will also hurt migrants who come in with good skills needed by U.S. industry and who, frankly, have other options and other countries that are much more inviting.  These people are legal, for heaven's sake, and making them jump through multiple bureaucratic hoops and harassing them in front of their clients is just unbelievably counter-productive and punitive.

In the 2011 MPI report, Shared Challenges and Opportunities for US and EU Immigration Policymakers, they issued this mild warning:
The U.S. has a strong competitive advantage in attracting and integrating the highly skilled... However, analysts argue that the United States is resting on its laurels and that without more active strategies to provide an attractive immigration "package" to the highly skilled, it may lose some of its traditional advantage.
"May lose"? 

Sorry, mes amis, it is time to take that sentence out of the possible future and move it firmly into the present tense.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Journée défense et citoyenneté

In today's mail we received a note from the Defense Ministry addressed to the elder Frenchling reminding her that, as a French citizen who has reached her majority, she is required to attend a  "Journée défense et citoyenneté" (National Defense and Citizenship Day).

The draft is long gone but that does not mean that military service (defense of the nation) has been disconnected from citizenship.  The JDC is part of an overall effort, a "parcours de citoyenneté," on the part of the state and the military to "informer les jeunes Français sur leurs droits et devoirs en tant que citoyens pour les aider à mieux comprendre le fonctionnement des institutions de leur pays.  (Inform young Frenchmen and women of their rights and duties as citizens to help them better understand how their country's institution function.)

The JDC is actually the last step in this process which starts in high school.  Sometime during the third and first year, the professors are required to include as part of the program of civic, legal and social education, discussions about national defense, state security and what dangers and challenges exist in the world today.  The second step is the census.  At the age of 16 all young Frenchmen and women are required to present themselves and be counted at their local mayor's office.  This is a pre-requisite for being able to pass the national exams (CAP, BAC, driver's license).

The final step is a one day session for all young men and women who have reached their majority (18 years).  The objective of this day is to point out a very important and essential fact:
Les pouvoirs publics et les forces armées agissent chaque jour pour que la liberté puisse exister, sur notre territoire, mais également en Europe et sur d'autres continents.
La JDC est une journée qui permet de rappeler à chacun que cette liberté a un prix. C'est aussi une occasion unique de contact direct avec la communauté militaire, et de découverte des multiples métiers et spécialités, civiles et militaires qu'offre aujourd'hui aux jeunes, la Défense.
The forces of order and the armed forces act every day so that liberty can exist, on our territory, but also in Europe and on other continents.
The JDC is a day to remind everyone that liberty has a price.  It is also a unique occasion for direct contact with the military community and to discover the numerous profession and specialties (civilian and military) available today for young people in the armed forces.
You can read more about the actual program here.  They provide breakfast and lunch, basic first aid training and even a visit to a military installation in addition to talks about the rights and duties of citizenship and national defense matters.  Naturally a bit of recruiting is slipped in there as well.

What do I (US citizen, long-term resident of the French Republic and potential citizen) think of all this? Well, I rather wish that my country had done something similar for me in my formative years.  I do not recall (perhaps this has changed) anything quite so comprehensive and clear concerning citizenship being provided as part of my education.  And though I did come from a part of the U.S. that has quite a few military installations, the first recruiter or veterans I ever encountered, I met in my second or third year of university.  As odd as this may sound the only military personnel I've ever known well have been French:  my father-in law (career French Army officer) and the elder Frenchling's god-father who is an officer in the French Navy (lots of uniforms at my wedding).  Even with that experience, I would not pretend to know or understand very well what they did or do.  

I wish I could participate in one of these National Defense and Citizenship Days.  As an observer certainly, who is genuinely curious and interested in what they have to say, but also as a potential citizen who has read the Charte carefully and the part that says:   "Tout citoyen concourt à la défense et à la cohésion de la nation" (Every citizen contributes to the defense and the cohesion of the nation).

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Valentine's Day - Family Reunification in the EU

And a very Happy Valentine's Day to all of you.   It seems appropriate to use this day and this post to talk once again about family reunification policy in the EU.  

Our Franco-American family exists today because of those policies - the right of EU citizens and legal residents to bring those they love to live with them in an EU member state.  Today these rights are being challenged in some countries and have been diminished in others even though the EU Directive 2003/86/EC firmly lays down the EU's position: "Family reunification is a necessary way of making family life possible. It helps to create sociocultural stability facilitating the integration of third country nationals in the Member State, which also serves to promote economic and social cohesion, a fundamental Community objective stated in the Treaty."

As I wrote in my original post last December, it used to be true that many EU states went above and beyond the minimum requirements to comply with the EU directive but in recent years a few have passed more onerous entry requirements (Denmark, for example).  Other states are taking note and considering similar actions. It is reported that both the U.K. and the Netherlands are looking closely at Danish policy. What kind of changes are being proposed? Education and income requirements, pre-entry tests (designed to measure the capacity of the person to assimilate), long waits for processing, application fees and "proof of attachment" to the host country are all possibilities.

In response to this flagrant disregard for EU policy the EU is holding a consultation.  They say they want to hear from all the stakeholders in this policy before they take action:  migrants and migrant rights organizations, family-members of EU citizens or legal residents wishing to come to the EU, member-states and even other states outside the EU. Yes, the last have an interest in this too. Countries of origin sometimes see other state's liberal family reunification policies as quite dangerous to their interests - it can diminish remittances, help migrants to integrate in the host country (not necessarily a good thing from their point of view), and reduce the likelihood that their people will one day return to the home country.

To get a good idea for the issues around this topic, have a look at the MIPEX blog and Thomas Huddleston's slides from the webinar they held late last year:


I've heard many complaints about the EU being too bureaucratic and not responsive to the wishes and opinions of EU people.  Well, they do seem serious about getting feedback on this so I strongly urge everyone with an interest in this topic (and I think just about everyone is concerned since you never know who you might fall in love with) to use this opportunity well and wisely.  The deadline is March 1, 2012.   Contact details are here.  They accept contributions via both email and regular mail.


Monday, February 13, 2012

Finding a Job in France - Tips, Links, and Resources

Looking for a job is a little like dealing with a dysfunctional dating service.  Companies are looking for the perfect candidate (un mouton à cinq pattes) and you are looking for the perfect company with the job of your dreams.  Matchmaking is tough.  There are so many places to look and make contact even before you actually get together and start the interview dance.  Here are a few suggestions for how to go about it in France.  I work in IT but I'm sure some of what I have to say applies to other sectors.

First step is to get your CV and your lettre de motivation (cover letter) together.

Curriculum vitae:  You must have a CV in French and it must be in good French with no spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. I saw a video recently done by a recruiter and she was very clear - basic mistakes will get that CV tossed in the bin faster then you can say "Camembert."  This site has some good tips and the basic format.  The good news is that putting your marital status, number of children and so on is going out of style.  All the CVs I've seen recently have dropped this information.  Photo is up to you but I wouldn't include one myself.  Having a CV in English or another language is useful too but remember that even if you are targeting French subsidiaries of foreign companies, the HR managers and staff are usually locals.  If you are coming from Germany they will probably not question the fact that you speak German but they will wonder what your level in French is.  I'd prepare the French one first and have it checked by a native speaker not only for errors but also for cultural appropriateness.  My sense is that formality and a certain modesty still prevail here.  An American CV that describes you as the hottest thing since the moon landing tends to strike an off-key note when read by a French HR person or manager. Once the French one is ready, then write up the English or other language one.

Cover letter:  The cover letter should also be formal and exquisitely polite.  Some examples here. Yes, they really do use formal endings like, "je vous prie d’agréer, Madame, Monsieur, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués." which translates to something like "Please accept, Madame/Sir, the expression of my very highest regards." Remember that a "Madame" always goes before a "Monsieur" whether it is about who goes through the door first or who gets to be saluted first in a letter.  Chivalry is alive and well in the Hexagon.

Where to Look:  If you're applying from outside France, I'd start with two resources:  EURES, the EU Job Mobility Portal and the Pôle emploi international.  The latter is a branch of the French (un) employment office and the site is destined for French who want to work in other countries and for foreigners interested in jobs in France or the EU.  It's an excellent site with good links to other job sites for France and other EU states.  Once you've done that you can start looking at  resources in France.  Here are a few ideas if you work in IT:

  • Job boards:  Les Jeudis, Monster (France) and Indeed
  • Professional Networking sites:  If you are in IT I'm sure you're already on LinkedIn but you should definitely also register with the French one which is called Viadeo.  Some jobs appear on one but not the other. My experience is that French HR people often look at Viadeo before they search for your LinkedIn profile.  Start building your French contact list as soon as possible since you will need it later.
  • Recruitment companies:  Michael Page International (good folks), Progressive, Computer Futures.  Neumann International has a page with many IT recruitment companies here in France if you want a more extensive list.
  • Companies:  Almost all the big IT names (Dell, Microsoft, HP) have a presence in France and they all have an on-line service where you can register your CV.  To find out more about companies that might interest you, check out the AFCI (Chamber of Commerce and Industry) and Kompass.  Also think about the Mayor's offices - they often have a section of their websites devoted to helping local businesses find people.  

How to Get Noticed:  I think that it was K that pointed out that just emailing CVs and cover letters doesn't generally do the trick.  He's half right - in the past I have found work by doing just that and only that.  This time around, it's not enough - the job market is simply too tight right now.  So, once you have a presence and your CV is out there circulating, then you need to start doing the real work.  First of all get your pitch in French ready.  If you have a French friend, ask him/her to help you.  It needs to be good and it needs to be short and sweet.  Often you have just a few brief moments to make an impression and they won't have much patience for someone struggling to express him or herself.  Once you've done that here are some suggestions for the next steps:

  • Call recruitment companies:  Don't just send your CV.  Whenever possible, call first.  Yes, some of them will blow you off but some will reply favorably.  If you get a favorable answer and they invite you to send your CV, get a name so you have a real person to send it to and not just a generic mailbox.  After you have sent the CV and cover letter, wait a day and call again to be sure they got it and to initiate contact with a human.  
  • Follow-up:  With the job boards where all you have is a generic email, go ahead and send your CV, then wait a few days (I usually give it a week) and then either send a follow-up email or call them.  
  • Contacts:  Through Linkedin or Viadeo you should have established at least a few contacts in France.  Use them.  Get them to intercede on your behalf if you can or get them to find you someone who can help. 
  • Refresh your CV:  Don't just drop your CV on a site and then wait.  You need to go back every two to three weeks and reload your CV into the system.  That puts you at the top of the pile.  Do this consistently and you stand a much better chance of your CV being read and matched with current job offers.

Interviews:  I've never received a job offer without first going through the interview process.  French companies tend to be very careful who they hire since it is not easy to fire people here. In some cases I've gone through 6 interviews and a hiring process that took three to four months to conclude.  This is not such a big deal if you are already in France but what if you applying from outside France?  Accept that in most cases they will want to see you in the flesh eventually so budget for at least one or two plane or train tickets. The other solution is Skype.  Invest in a good camera and be proactive by suggesting to them that the first contact be via Skype.  Just as you would in your home country,  find out something about the company first and practice interviewing with a French friend or colleague.  Be prepared for the all too common generic interview question, "So, tell me about your parcours (work experience)..."

And finally a cultural tip:  French people like to talk.  A lot.  They love having a captive audience and they appreciate a good listener.   Prepare a few questions of your own and then let them take the lead.  You'd be amazed at the number of interviews I went through here in the very beginning where I just let them do the talking and I actually said very little.  Believe it or not,  I still got the jobs. :-)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Working in France - Some Advice from a Veteran

I said yesterday that I would write about getting a job and working in France.  This is my experience as someone who has worked nearly 15 years in this country, almost all of it in IT, and mostly for French companies (two brief exceptions).  Please do not take what I have to say as the final word.  I would strongly advise you to talk to as many people as you can who already work here in your sector and to talk to other long-term residents from your country or people who come from countries that are culturally similar to yours - the experience of a Canadian here may differ a great deal from that of a Russian or a Japanese.  I will divide this subject up into two posts:  General Advice and Links and Resources.  One last word, I don't pretend to be an expert on anything and I am perfectly OK with being contradicted or corrected.  The purpose here is to share experience - it is not to be right.  Sometimes, believe it or not, you learn more by being wrong.  So here goes:

Learn the Language:  Ok this sounds obvious and you can beat me up later for being condescending but every month I encounter migrants who are frustrated and angry because they have good skills but not a good grasp of the language.  Be honest with yourself -  perhaps you have taken French classes in school but are you capable of making a cold call in French to a recruitment company or making it through an interview and getting your point across without irritating the people you want to work with?  You may even be asked to take a test in written French (I was once asked to do this for a consulting position).  These things are not easy in your home country and language and they are doubly difficult in a different context.    But here's the good news:  the French government invests a great deal of time and money in supporting the French language outside of France.  The Alliance Francaise, for example, is a fine organization with chapters all over the world.  They will be delighted to help you, the prices are usually reasonable, and the classes are a mixture of the academic and practical.  I went to them when I first arrived here and took basic conversation classes.  You can also get a tutor.  My best advice is to get a native speaker who does not speak your language very well - it will force you to express yourself in French.  Above all, don't lose heart or think that you can't do it.  We have all learned at least one language successfully and there is no reason you can't replicate that experience with a second or a third even as an adult.

De-skilling:   I want to talk about this one up front because this can come as a very unexpected and unpleasant surprise.  Be prepared in some cases to be offered something that you do not feel is commensurate with your experience and education.   This is very common and is a combination of misunderstandings about a person's experience, difficulty translating education credentials into a French context (what is the equivalent of a Bac +5 in your country?) and language difficulties.  Some credentials simply don't count for much at all in a different context.  I met a very nice Frenchwoman in Japan who was a French lawyer specializing in family law and could not find anything in Tokyo that was even close to what she had done in France.  Not much demand for someone versed in her specialty and frankly it was impossible for her to practice law in Japan - she needed Japanese credentials for that.  Be prepared for this and adjust accordingly.  You might want to take a fairly low-paying job in the beginning until you find your feet.  However, if you do plan to work long-term in your field in France don't get a job teaching your native language (English, Japanese, German) or working in an environment where French is not the main language.  This is a terrible trap because you risk never learning the local language or culture adequately and your options will be very limited for a long time, if not forever.  My best advice is to go the total immersion route.  The pain you feel today will pay off later.

Discrimination:  Whatever country you come from, you are a foreigner here.  Even if you speak the language, chances are that you speak with an accent and cannot simply seamlessly blend in. Like all countries France has people who do not care for foreigners and probably won't hire them.  Period.  Even those that do may treat you differently. Co-workers are another issue.  Chances are very good that you will hear things or be told things about your country of origin that will hurt and anger you.  Some of it comes from ignorance and some is intentional malice.  Try to assume the former and not the latter.  In my own experience I have encountered people who do not like the U.S., do not like Americans and do not care to know them or work with them.  It can be subtle or direct but in both cases there is not much you can do about this kind of discrimination.  If it gets too bad and you have proof, there is usually a union rep you can talk to.  In my experience the best strategy is to counter truly flagrant expressions of distaste with humour and to wait it out.  Over time, people may not change their minds about Americans (or any other nationality) as a whole but they just might decide that you are OK.  Usually, this is what happens with time.  Also in my experience international or European companies can be better if you are foreign because they just have more experience dealing with people from different cultures which means that you are less exotic and therefore less of a target.  I've been not only the only American in my work environment but also the only woman in upper management and I've taken it on the chin for both for years. Not always and not everywhere but it has happened.   Sure, it happens in the home country too, but you are in a much more vulnerable position in your host country and you have less room to maneuver. Don't let it stop you.  In my case I've consoled myself with the fact that, after listening in my youth to groups in the U.S. talk about their experiences with discrimination, I now understand in my bones exactly what they are talking about and why that has to change.

Work culture:  If you do take my advice and work in a French environment, you will notice immediately that the culture is very different.  Differences in how meetings are conducted, how you greet people in the morning (kiss or handshake?), when it's appropriate to send an email or when you should call and a million other things large and small that you will have to learn.  And, in some cases, it's useful to know when you can break the rules and do things differently. But you have to learn the culture before you can know how to do this.  So, in the beginning, be an amateur anthropologist:  listen more than you talk, observe rather than trying to fully participate immediately, and be aware that everything you have learned up to now about how to behave at work is, in this context, questionable at best and may even be entirely inappropriate.  Saying, "I'm sorry," for example, (a pretty standard Anglo-Saxon reflex) is not always a very good idea.  Once you get to know people (or if you have French family and friends) ask if you are unsure about how to react to a situation.  A native won't necessarily be able to tell you "why" but he or she can give you advice about "what to do."  And, above all, don't complain or call the practice or the culture into question.  Even the most sympathetic of your friends and family will probably react badly to your criticism.  Yes, I know that this seems obvious but in a very stressful situation (changing cultures) almost every foreigner I have met (myself included) has lost his or her temper at least once with serious consequences.  There is a very good LinkedIn group and website that I recommend if you want to know more about French work culture called Gestion des risques interculturels.

I'm going to stop there because this post is getting quite long.  Feel free to ask questions or correct me if you have a different view in the comments section.  The main point I'm trying to get across here is simply that working in France is a challenge but for every barrier there is a solution or a way to get around it.  Be prepared, go in with an attitude of humility (ready to absorb and learn) and don't be afraid to ask for help.  Trust me, this is doable.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

European Blue Card - Update on France (February 2012)

Time for an update on one of our (and your) favorite subjects - the implementation of the Blue Card.

Late January, the official French government site, Pour La Promotion de l'Immigration Professionelle, was updated with an entire page devoted to the EU Blue Card:
Ce dispositif vise à faciliter l’entrée, le séjour et le travail en France des ressortissants de pays tiers aux fins d’emploi hautement qualifié.
La France est le premier Etat membre de l’Union Européenne à transposer par la loi du 16 juin 2011 relative à l'immigration, à l'intégration et à la nationalité, la directive européenne 2009/50/CE du 25 mai 2009. 
(This new option is meant to facilitate the entry, the residence and work in France of non-EU country nationals who are highly-qualified workers.
With the law of June 16, 2011 concerning immigration, integration and nationality, France is the first Member state of the EU to act into law the EU Directive 2009/50/CE of May 25, 2009.)
On this new page you will find links to the text of the law, a list of the papers you and the employer will need to provide and the procedure for the company to follow.   Remember that this site is really destined for employers (not migrants) however I think it is useful for everyone concerned. The information here is quite clear and straightforward but there are a few surprising twists:

Nationals not concerned by this law:  I knew that nationals of other EU states were not concerned but apparently people from Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and Algeria are also exempt.  In the last case, entry of Algerians is covered by a 1968 treaty between France and Algeria.

Definition of a THQ:  There is a new acronym to learn, THQ, which means Travailleur hautement qualifié (Highly qualified worker).  Basically someone with three years of higher education or five years of experience.

Salary requirements:  Here they actually give a number to the rather vague "1.5 times the average salary of reference."  In 2012 this translates to 51,444 Euros per year before taxes.

Family reunification:  A Blue Card holder in France can bring his/her family and there is a simplified procedure for this.  And they seem to be saying that family members of a Blue Card holder can work too.  Check this one out carefully, folks, but this is what I read:  "Carte de séjour temporaire mention "vie privée et familiale" qui autorise à travailler. Cette carte est délivrée pour la même durée de la validité que la carte bleue européenne. Renouvelable de plein droit durant la période de validité de la CBE du conjoint."  (Temporary residency permit with the note "private and family life" which gives authorization to work.  This card is delivered for the same duration as the Blue Card of the spouse.  Renewable for the same period as the Blue Card of the spouse.)

There is much more:  no medical visit required, for example, for a highly qualified worker.  There is also another service concerned in the process which is the SMOE (Service de Main d'Œuvre Etrangère) and they have an explanation of how an application for a Blue Card is transferred from one service to another.

These are very generous terms.  The salary they cite is well within what I would expect for someone with a good degree and/or experience.  If spouses can work (and it appears that they can) that is another  bonus.  After 5 years of continuous residence Blue Card holders qualify for a long-term EU residency permit (10 years) and then possibly citizenship in an EU country.  Of course, there is one issue to solve before any of this is possible and that is getting that contract.  I am looking for work at the moment and what I will do is try to give you some idea of how to find a job in France in IT in a future post.  I've got some good links and sites that might be useful to you and I'll be more than happy to share those with you.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

French Blogosphere - 2012 Elections

A few days ago the blog, French Politics, had a link to this interactive map,  La blogosphère politique en 2012,  showing the "galaxie" of  the French blogosphere in this election year.  The map is very well done.  1491 sites and blogs talking about French politics in 2012 and where they sit in the rather wide spectrum of political affiliation in France ranging from the Far Left to the Far Right.  There are three separate maps: 

The French Political Blogosphere:  This appears to be all the sites.  Their affiliation is color-coded.  I was very amused to see the Left is pink.  The Far Right is brown.

Blogosphere of Militants and Their Sympathizers:  Blogs and sites connected to those with rather extreme views on the Left, Far Left and the Greens.

The Party Blogosphere:  Over 1000 sites connected to the official parties and those who support them.  I see that the folks from the Lutte Ouvrière are there.

A really amazing diversity of views, movements, parties.  Have a look.  There are links at the bottom of each map which will take you to an analysis of each map. Not a bad way to become more familiar with the French political landscape.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Avis de Contravention

The French state is truly a marvel of efficiency.  Yesterday we received an Avis de Contravention (notice of violation of the speed limit) in the mail which states that on January 31, 2012 at 9:21 in the evening my spouse was driving 58 km/hour (8 km/hour over the authorized speed limit) on the Quai du 4 Septembre in Paris.  Yes, folks, my spouse's vehicle was flashed on the quay as he headed home from an alumni meeting in Paris.

Flashed?  Yes.  Isn't technology grand?  Human intervention was not required in the detection of this infraction.  Instead, a small device (probably a Mesta 210C automatic speed detector with camera) the technical characteristics of which you can read more about here, determined the speed of his vehicle, calculated that he was over the limit, and took a picture of the license plate.  A mere 7 days later the speeding ticket arrived at the apartment on pretty green and white stationery complete with the logo of the French Republic.

The description of the infraction was succinct:
Excès de vitesse inferieur a 20 km/h par conducteur de véhicule à moteur - vitesse maximale autorisée inférieure ou égale a 50 km/h.  Prévue par Art. R. 413-14 du Code de la route....
(Excess of speed of less than 20 km/h by the driver of a motor vehicle - speed limit authorized being less or equal to 50 km/h.  Provided for by Article R. 413-14 of the Road Code...)
Which has two consequences:

  • Permis de conduire (driver's license):  Since 1992 French driver's licenses have a certain number of points (the famous "permis de conduire à points").   These points can be deducted for bad driving behaviour or won back in the case of good behaviour.  For speeding on the quay my spouse lost 1 point off his license (he has 6 points total).  
  • Amende forfaitaire (fine):  a whopping 135 Euros (90 Euros if paid within 15 days) for being 8 km/h over the speed limit. Ouch.

Now in the good old days when you received a speeding or parking ticket during an election year you just sat tight and waited because incoming French presidents would often proclaim an amnesty and erase all that unpleasantness - a gesture of good will to all bad (or unlucky) drivers and other offenders against public order.  A fine way for a new president to help the country celebrate his election to high office and to thank the voters for their collective wisdom in conferring this honor upon him.

So when faced with a speeding ticket in 2012, the question is:  pay or don't pay?   Tough question because Sarkozy, in principle, is against such practices.  On the other hand, Sarko is not polling well these days and it is entirely possible that Hollande will win and we will be ushering in a new president this year.

My spouse and I are not ready to call this election just yet and we paid up last night via internet.  But like many people here, we will be watching the polls closely.  To those of you who might be visiting France this year, consider yourself warned.  It might be prudent to take the public transportation during your stay.  French drivers are, in normal times, rather aggressive.  With the possibility of an amnesty, some of them just might tempt fate (theirs and yours) by putting the "pedal to the metal" in that ancient Renault 5.