On Being a Dual-Citizen

The United States is my “birth country”, and I am an American citizen. When I married a French husband back in the early 1970s, I also became French –”automatically”, as they said back then. (You now have to wait five years and apply). Although the Frenchman and I later divorced, I still remained French.

Being what you call a dual citizen, a citizen of two countries. I vote in both the U.S. and France; and I possess two passports. I also have a French identity card, which, by the way, is all I need to travel within the European Union, as well as certain other countries, such as Switzerland, Malta, Turkey, Slovenia, Cyprus, Iceland, etc. With my French passport I can even travel, legally and on my own, to Cuba!

I also pay income taxes in both countries, although, admittedly I pay very few in the U.S. because I have no assets in the country and only do the odd consulting job there.  Being a retired, tenured educator of the French Ministry of Education,  with 35 years of service, I receive a pension from the French government and have French medical coverage for life. I do not receive any American Social Security or Medicare benefits because I have lived all my adult life in France and haven’t accumulated enough quarters.

I feel lucky that the U.S. and France have agreements that allow dual citizenship; some countries do not. I also feel lucky that when I am in the U.S. I am considered an American and when in France, I am considered French, although, admittedly, “of American origin.” This means that I can live and work in either country and come and go as I please without worrying about visas, residency cards or work papers.

Sometimes I have heard people in both countries complain about dual-citizenship. In the U.S., they ask, “How can you be a good U.S.citizen if you live abroad?” In France, where the extreme right-wing proclaims “France for the French” and denounces immigration, certain people complain about the “foreign origins” of some of its electorate.

I do not agree with these complaints. Speaking about my own situation, I believe that having dual citizenship has made me a very conscientious and thoughtful citizen, both in my birth country and in my adopted country. Living outside the U.S. has given be a broad outlook on the political situation there and an appreciation of what I would like to defend or see changed. In addition, contrary to many home-based Americans, I never abstain from voting in presidential and legislative elections! As an American citizen, I feel it is my obligation to vote; I do this by registering in my last place of residence in the U.S. (California) and sending in an absentee ballot. Wishing to be kept up-to-date on my civic rights, I joined AARO ( Association of American Residents Overseas), a Paris-based association defending U.S. citizens living abroad. I also participate in the activities of Democrats Abroad (France).

I believe that because I live permanently in France and am a citizen of this country, I also have an obligation to vote in French elections. As I feel I am doing when I vote in the U.S., I want to exercise my democratic right to share in the decisions that are made and to express my opinion about what should be defended or changed. Living in the Paris area for the past 40 years, I am usually in town when the two rounds of elections occur; when I’m not, I either vote by correspondence or have somebody vote for me by proxy. I have always been impressed at how seriously French voters take the election process. Indeed, the abstention rate is much lower than in the U.S.; and, unlike American elections, which are held on a work day, French elections take place on Sundays so that a maximum number of people can vote. French election campaigns can be as tough or as tedious as in the U.S., but I have always found there is a certain degree of solemnity about the actual voting on election day. For example, it is usually very quiet at the voting place. Going to vote is in event,  and I’ve noticed that many French people actually get all dressed up in their “Sunday best” when they go to cast their ballot!

Although I am a dual-citizen and bilingual in English and French, while they were growing up, I made a big effort to transmit my American culture and “roots” to my three sons, who were born in France but raised bilingual and bi-cultural. As soon as they were born, I registered them right away as American citizens at the U.S. Consulate in Paris and obtained U.S. passports for them. I felt then, as I still do today, that having U.S. citizenship would attach them in many ways to the heritage of their American mother. Being a teacher and later a professor, I was lucky enough to have the summers off and was able to take them on trips to the U.S. to visit family and friends. With their own U.S. passports, I reckoned that should someday they want to live, study or work in the U.S., they could enter the country without any problems. (As it turned out, my youngest son lived with me in the U.S. for several months when he was 11 and then again at age 16; and my eldest son has lived and worked there for the past five years.)

Obtaining U.S. citizenship for the next generation has not been so easy. Because my sons haven’t lived in the U.S. for a total of five years (of which two years must be after reaching age 14) they cannot automatically transmit their U.S. citizenship to their children as I could. When my first grandchild was born, my middle son really wanted dual-citizenship for his daughter, and I was determined to help him.

A fellow member of AAWE (Association of American Wives of Europeans) who happens to be an international lawyer told me about the Child Citizenship Act of 2000.  Under this act, the child of a U.S. citizen can apply for an immigrant visa to the U.S.and obtain U.S. citizenship this way. My son first had to get a French passport for his daughter (who was only a year old at the time) and then apply for the visa at the U.S. consulate in Paris. Several months later, after completing a lot of paperwork, making several trips to the Consulate and taking the baby for a Consulate-accredited medical visit, my son learned that she had been granted the visa. My son and granddaughter then traveled to the U.S., and she became a naturalized U.S. citizen upon arrival on U.S.soil. Although they have since returned to France to live, my granddaughter now has a U.S. passport; and my son intends to bring her up bicultural and bilingual, just as I did with him.

Obtaining an immigration visa for the child of my youngest son and his French partner will probably prove to be much more complicated.. The U.S. Consulate in Paris can no longer handle the initial paperwork; all applications now have to go through a Homeland Security office in Chicago. Despite the difficulties, however, my youngest son, like his older brother, intends to go through the procedure. He would really like his child and any other children to come to have U.S. citizenship in addition to their French nationality.

As you can probably tell, my sons and I truly believe that, handled right, you really CAN be a good citizen of two countries!

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Published in: on July 25, 2012 at 2:18 pm  Comments (6)  
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A Cross-Cultural Dilemma

Last week I attended a French ladies’ luncheon at a lovely home in the Oakland hills. The occasion was the annual meeting of the San Francisco Bay Area branch of an international French reading group called “La Bibliotheque Orange.” It also happened to be the birthday of one of their members, Isabelle, who had brought a delicious French apple tart to celebrate.

Instead of a Frenchified version of “Happy Birthday to You”, Isabelle requested that we sing a more traditional birthday song entitled “Bon Anniversaire” by Jacques Larue.  Her eyes filling with tears, she said this was the song her mother used to sing to her when she was a little girl living in the south of France. Coached by the oldest member of the group, Isabelle and several of the other women sang the two stanzas of the song, beginning and ending with the refrain:

Bon anniversaire
Nos voeux les plus sincères
Que ces quelques fleurs
Vous apportent le bonheur
Que l’année entière
Vous soit douce et légère
Et que l’an fini
Nous soyons tous réunis
Pour chanter en choeur
Bon anniversaire !

(rough translation : Happy Birthday/With our most sincere wishes/Let these few flowers/bring you happiness/Let this whole year /Be sweet and light for you/And when the year is over/Let us all reunite/To sing in chorus/Happy Birthday.)

Once Isabelle had blown out the three candles on the tart—representing, I was told, the past, present and future of her life– a lively discussion ensued. Some of the women, who had only vague recollections of the song, requested information about Larue, the songwriter, and the most famous interpreter of it, Andre Claveau. They also wondered how they could get the words to the song. (Their request was granted the next day, when one industrious lady sent them out to everyone by email.)  All the women present agreed how much more this old French tune meant to them than the French version of the American song they usually were required to sing at gatherings in the U.S.

Most of these French women are married to Americans or have lived for many years in America with their French husbands. Many have acquired American citizenship and raised American or dual-national children. These women often get together here in local groups like “La Bibliotheque Orange” or “Les Amis de la Culture Française” to be able to speak their own language, to reminisce about France, and to keep up the old traditions like the song and the three-candled cake.

This luncheon got me thinking. Even though these women return to France for holidays, I wonder how they would feel if they were to return to France to live. Many of them have told me they like living in the U.S. and feel comfortable here. They’re not so sure they could readapt to living in their own country again permanently.

Reflecting on this, I realize that in many ways, my own situation is the mirror image of theirs. Marriage and emigration took me to France, where I have lived for 40 years, working and raising a family. When  I’m at my home in Paris, and even though I speak fluent French and have dual citizenship,  like the French women here,  I, too, enjoy getting together from time-to-time with my native compatriots and keeping up the old traditions.

Now that I’m retired and on my own, I’ve been spending more time out of France over the past three years—either traveling throughout the world or in California, where I grew up as a child. Being back in the Bay Area for the last ten months, I admit it feels good to “melt in,” to be able to speak a language without any trace of a “foreign” accent, to reconnect with the American way of life, to enjoy the wide variety of activities and events offered here, and to see old friends and make new ones, including a new beau.

Nevertheless, I must also admit that is has taken me awhile to acclimate myself to being “American” again. After living in France longer than I have lived in my native country, I realize that I am also, in many ways, very French. Having not had contact with French people over the last months, I found myself enjoying speaking French again and sharing news about events and family back in France. And even though I wasn’t familiar with the French birthday song, I, too, appreciated how much more charming it is than the simplistic American “Happy Birthday to You” ditty. It was also fun to hear the ladies discuss food and to sample the crème fraîche one woman had learned to make from scratch from American milk. And how much more delectable their luncheon was than the usual fare offered at American pot-lucks!

Hence, my dilemma: Where is home? I ask myself.   I wonder how many other retired, middle-aged dual-nationals, or long-term expatriates or refugees share this quandary.  Is home our native land, or is it the country where we have spent the greatest part of our lives?  Undoubtedly, for many of us the answer to this question is “both places.” And if our economic or political situation permits it, many of us might like to spend half of the year in each place. But is it realistic long-term traveling back and forth? And how do you reconcile the need to be close to your immediate family, your old friends, and your home in one place, with your yearning to go back to your roots and to enjoy the life you have recreated in your homeland?

Published in: on November 1, 2010 at 7:56 pm  Comments (5)