The Observer

Is the Grass Greener on the Other Side of the Atlantic?

For ideological, financial, or health care reasons, more and more Americans are moving to France – 12,200 first-time residence permits were granted to U.S. citizens in 2022, up 9,214 on 2021. But la vie is not always en rose.
© Mathilde Aubier/France-Amérique

Catching up with the news after a month abroad, I was struck by a headline announcing that Americans are leaving the U.S. in droves to live abroad. And many of them, apparently, are headed to France. Ah, la belle France, you’re an ad-man’s dream: glorious architecture, gorgeous scenery, world-class culture, the smell of fresh-baked croissants, markets brimming with the freshest food, rolling fields ablaze with lavender, etcetera, etcetera. And, of course, romance on the heady, scented air. What’s interesting to this observer is that these clichéd sales pitches do not originate from an official French tourism board but from U.S. social media feeds, die-hard culture vultures, and companies specialized in relocating Americans anxious to quit their native shores. So what’s behind this get-me-outta-here sentiment?

According to the CEO of one relocation specialist, International Living, Americans are starting to wonder if their country is as great as they have always believed. One of the main reasons for their wanderlust seems to be politics on both sides of an ever-widening chasm. International Living reported a 1000% increase in web traffic after Roe v. Wade was overturned in June 2022, for example, and similar spikes in the wake of presidential elections (both Trump and Biden), outbreaks of racial violence, and the January 2021 Capitol attack. Recent polling data show that as many as 15% of Americans want to leave the country permanently, while even more say they would consider doing so under the right circumstances.

Political divisiveness is not the only motivation, however. The American Dream – the belief in equal opportunity and meritocracy – has turned sour for many people, who apparently see it as just that: a dream. Recent research shows that upward income mobility in the U.S. – the fraction of children who grow up to earn more than their parents – has declined substantially over the past 50 years, while relative social mobility is low by comparison with many European countries. Which is why would-be American émigrés cite the cost of living in general, and health care expenses in particular, as their main motivational driver. According to Gallup, a full 50% of Americans fear bankruptcy in the event of an unforeseen medical emergency. Moreover, it is not just the amount spent on health that is alarming but a glaring lack of efficacy. The U.S. ranked 35th out of 169 in the 2019 Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index. Despite being the seventh wealthiest country in the world, it is way behind Europe in terms of health: Spain and Italy hold the top two spots, with France in eleventh place. (One of the principal reasons for America’s poor outcomes is unhealthy diet, an area in which the French, Spanish, and Italians fare much better – though habits are changing, courtesy of le fast food.)

Safety is another oft-cited reason for mulling a move. Fear of mass shootings, especially in schools, and the unlikelihood of significant progress on gun control in the foreseeable future have prompted people to look for a safer environment in another country – “Somewhere you can’t buy guns at the grocery store,” said one Texan woman who now lives in Lyon. Undeniably, legislation on firearm acquisition and ownership is far stricter in France than in the U.S. More significantly, the right to bear arms is not an integral part of the nation’s founding myth.

© Mathilde Aubier/France-Amérique

All these motives, plus the desire for a better work-life balance and longer vacations, not to mention the steady rise in work-from-anywhere jobs, may help to explain why the number of Americans moving to France has tripled since pre-Covid years. Provisional figures from the French interior ministry show a steep rise in the number of first-time residence permits granted to U.S. citizens in 2022. Total issuance reached 12,200, up 9,214 on 2021, making Americans the fourth highest national cohort after citizens of the former French colonies of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Data from the European Union also confirm that France is the most popular European country for American emigrants. Out of 75,000 residence permits granted to Americans for the E.U. and its border-free travel area, France was the top destination.

Of course, not everyone is fleeing an impending Amerigeddon; some of the incomers work for Europe-based American companies, while others come to study (annual tuition fees at a prestigious, internationally focused school like Sciences Po are ten times lower than equivalent U.S. colleges). Still others are retirees who see their income go farther in France than back home. But for those who come to stay, the question nonetheless arises: Are they running towards something or away from something?

The danger, of course, is disappointment or worse. Those expecting a lifestyle revolving around hot croissants, high culture, and haute couture – hey there, Emily in Paris fans – are obviously in for a surprise. When faced with everyday conditions – crowded public transportation, dirty streets, dreary weather, endless strikes, unfathomable bureaucracy – many new arrivals experience severe culture shock or homesickness. In fact, the condition even has a name: Paris Syndrome. This mismatch between expectation and reality, which apparently causes symptoms such as acute anxiety, was originally observed among Japanese tourists visiting the French capital, but it has wider implications. (French psychiatrists unsurprisingly prefer the neutral term syndrome du voyageur, or traveler’s syndrome.)

Those who believe, Pollyanna-like, in the images of France portrayed in movies, books, and on social media, are in for a rude awakening. (The contrary can also be true; when I first visited New York City in the 1970s, I was amazed not to be mugged on every street corner.) If, however, you travel with an open mind, then everything is a discovery – not necessarily pleasant but always intriguing. The smallest things become entrancing, like wooden window-shutters, the sound of church bells, fishing boats bobbing at anchor in a Breton port. Of course, what constitutes a cultural epiphany can be a matter of taste. One Paris-based American blogger recently sparked a transatlantic spat when she posted a video saying it was “weird” that the French used butter in their ham sandwiches instead of mayo and mustard. (Conversely, it’s hard to explain to my compatriots the appeal of peanut butter and jelly as a sandwich filling.)

Once the initial culture shock subsides, another bugbear for emigrants is language. French can be hard to master, particularly for older learners. Despite the ready availability of translation apps, many are frustrated at being unable to express themselves as well in French as they do in English. In my experience, a pragmatic approach is the best solution: Learn enough to get by in the initial stages, then listen and speak as much as possible, without worrying about making mistakes or not speaking like a native. You’ll quickly realize that not everything can be translated, and revel in wonderful words such as flâner (to stroll leisurely with no specific purpose), dépaysement (the positive feeling of discovering new horizons), as well as the quintessentially French verb râler (to express dissatisfaction at nearly everything). With luck, you’ll eventually learn to become a bon vivant.

There are, of course, many other issues to consider before putting up the “For Sale” sign and hopping on a plane to Paris, Lyon, or Marseille. Moving to another country, whatever the reason, always involves compromises and a realistic appraisal of the positives and negatives. For every new arrival who celebrates the slower pace of everyday life, good and affordable health care, child care and tuition, and mostly-free after-school care, his or her counterpart will grumble about endless layers of red tape, the difficulty of renting accommodation, high taxes, and, just possibly, a soupçon of anti-Americanism. But always look on the bright side: At least we don’t use mayo instead of butter on our sandwiches!

Article published in the December 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.