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2012 Presidential Election - Nous Aussi!

With US newspapers currently filled with Mitt Romney and his challengers slinging it out in the Republican Primary while Obama waits in the wings, some Americans might be surprised to know that in just a few weeks from now, on April 22nd, France will also will have a presidential election.

Unlike the creaking US Electoral College system1, where nobody understands how each state’s delegates are distributed or where citizens in non-swing states don’t even bother to vote, France’s presidential election is a national poll where everyone’s voice is counted.  Not only that, there are also two rounds, a first round with a plethora of candidates2 from several national parties, and a final runoff containing the two first-round candidates with the most votes.

Something is not right here

20% in the first round and 82.1% in the second... Something is not right here

Runoff Elections - Real Choice!

Although runoff elections seem far more modern and democratic by allowing people to vote for parties that actually represent their viewpoints, if the vote is diluted between too many candidates, sometimes extremist parties can actually make it to the second round.  In 2002 the French were so lukewarm voting for traditional parties that the extreme-right party (Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen) was represented in the runoff, forcing many citizens to perform their civic duty and vote against Le Pen in the second round.  Many opposition voters actually used clothespins to drop “Chirac” into the ballet box.

French voters from all parties were shocked by the 2002 runoff and are now much more careful for whom they vote in the first round, choosing more mainstream parties (called “vote utile” - pragmatic vote) to ensure an electable candidate actually makes it to the second round.  Just imagine being a Democrat and having to choose between George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan!  A pretty scary idea…

Meet the Candidates

From the "Guignols" (Canal+)

Nicolas Sarkozy Fighting Back

The Hyper-Active President

With the French economy heading toward recession, Europe in the throes of a sovereign debt crisis, and popular fatigue with the current government, ~60% of the French have a negative opinion of President Nicolas Sarkozy. However, even with such abysmal numbers, Sarkozy is a political genius and you should never count him out.  In the past he has strapped on his elevator shoes3 and hit the campaign trail,  perfectly timing the peaks of his popularity.  He is also an excellent debater, has unending reserves of energy and is very dangerous when cornered.  Over the next few weeks, I fully expect to see many last minute TV shows about insecurity (always a rallying point for Sarkozy’s UMP party), with cars being torched by unemployed, welfare-mooching immigrants combined with documentaries about how brilliantly he has handled the banking crisis…

The Accidental President (maybe)

The Little Engine that Could

François Hollande - Keeps on Truckin'

Traditionally, presidential candidates in France have been chosen by party insiders through opaque processes, but the Socialist Party, France’s mainstream opposition, tried to modernize their politics by holding an open primary election this year.  This resulted in some lively internal debate, complete with fake smiles and barely suppressed daggers, but in the end the vote actually went off rather well, resulting in the somewhat accidental designation of François Hollande as the presidential candidate.  Originally most people assumed Dominique Strauss-Kahn would be named, until he became a bit too intimate with a New York hotel maid.

François Hollande is not particularly charismatic and has little executive experience, but he is a competent administrator, knows the issues well, and, above all, he has plodded on with his campaign despite public ridicule and personal setbacks.

Family Values - Nobody Cares

François Hollande and Ségolène Royal

Honey, would you mind if I run for President this time?

Unlike puritan US politics, unless a candidate is a convicted criminal, most French voters just don’t care that much about his private life, such as being officially married or hypocritically professing some sort of profound religious belief. François Hollande has never been married, despite having had four children with his ex-partner Ségolène Royal, who was also the 2007 Socialist presidential candidate. Nicolas Sarkozy divorced his second wife while in office and has since remarried to the glamorous model/singer Carla Bruni.  Ex-president François Mitterand even had an apartment in the Elysée Palace (the equivalent of the White House) devoted to housing his live-in mistress. And these examples are just off the top of my head.  To summarize, France is a refreshingly secular society where politicians don’t have to pretend to have a perfect family or belong to some sanitized religious organization to get elected.

French Presidential Campaign Quirks

In the original constitution of the current French Republic, the president could serve unlimited 7-year mandates (le septennat), which resulted in consolidation of power and virtual monarchies.  As a parting gift to Sarkozy from Chirac (not the best of friends), this mandate was reduced and also limited to two 5 year terms (le quinquennat) to allow greater turnover and also help align the presidential term with the general elections to the national assembly.

Concerning the actual presidential campaign, Sarkozy only recently officially declared his candidacy on February 15th.  Try to compare this to American presidential campaigns with candidates throwing their hats into the ring two years ahead of time.  It would be like Obama declaring in early September that he was a candidate for the November election!

Du Fair Play

With many of France’s TV and radio channels subsidized by French taxpayers, France’s audio-visual authority also keeps track of every presidential candidate’s total on-air time to ensure that everyone receives the same amount of media attention during the campaign.  Political TV ads only appear at designated times, with the same time-chunks allocated to each candidate.  Leading up to the election, there are also many state-sponsored live debates and documentaries featuring candidates and political talking heads.

Silence Radio

One week before the election, the TV and media go strangely silent.  This is because it is illegal to conduct political opinion polls the week before the final election.  The purpose of this law is to give people time to make up their minds and limit the influence of polling and advertisements on their final decisions.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a similar law in the US?  Or, better yet, just ban political ads all together…

Finally, French election days always fall on a Sunday because that’s when most people are available to vote (duh!), as opposed to the mandated US election day, the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, instituted over 150 years ago to allow farmers to finish their harvests and not interfere with the weekly Sabbath.  C’est logique!

Bon vote et bon courage!

Links

Interested in becoming the President of France?  Here is a list of all the requirements for running for president.  Basically any French citizen can run if you can get 500 elected officials (mayors, representatives, etc) to sponsor your candidature. If only registering your car in the préfecture could be as easy…

And then there were ten - List and photos of the ten official candidates for president who obtained the 500 signatures before the March 16th deadline (out of 20+ initial hopefuls)

The Tower of Babel, managed by the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel.  Click here to see the cumulative on-air time of all candidates

La Commission des Sondages - Here are the rules governing polling one week before the election

Presidents of France - Wikipedia article listing French presidents and all their powers

21 avril 2002 - Relive the shock of the 2002 first round presidential election results and see what happens when there are too many candidates fighting for the same slice of pie…


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  1. The Electoral College was designed in 1789 when communication was by horseback! []
  2. There are currently ten candidates for president, ranging from far-left communists to anti-immigrant nationalists []
  3. Nicolas Sarkozy is known for being one of the shortest presidents with a height of 165 cm (5′ 5″) []

The Kissing Game

Gros Bisous!

Gros Bisous!

Although the country of the “French Kiss” might have a reputation as a land where daily communication includes lots of gestures involving touching or kissing, it may be surprising to learn that in most situations actual physical contact only occurs when greeting or saying goodbye.

In general, when meeting people in France, a mixture of handshakes and informal kisses are used depending on the context.  It is very important to use the correct protocol, because if you try kissing your boss’ cheeks on the first day of work it can get you into a lot of trouble!  And if you forget to shake someone’s hand, it can be easily taken as a sign of anger or disrespect.

Les Filles - “The Air Kiss”

For those of you living under a rock, a “French Kiss” involves tongue touching and should probably only be used between lovers.  This is very different from what I call the regular French “air kiss” that is used when greeting a woman where you sort of touch each other’s cheeks briefly on each side of the face and smack your lips in thin air at the same time.  In general, it’s just a “smacking” sound and not a real kiss.  However, just like the kind of wet kisses you might get from your great aunt Edna, there can be variations to the “air kiss” where it is sometimes transformed into a slightly moist cheek kiss.  Another variation is also inclining your head upwards, as if you are looking at the ceiling, and kissing sort of up into the air. This “high-air kiss” seems to be mostly confined to high society gatherings, a bit like lifting up your little finger when drinking tea.

Air Kissing in Action

Air Kissing in Action (probably better without the beard)

In France, greeting women using “air kisses” is fairly common practice when in an informal setting (e.g., a café with friends, a dinner, a party, etc.) and when they are around the same age as you (or younger). However, in a more formal environment, a handshake should always be used during the first encounter.  If the woman is your manager in a business environment, you should continue only handshaking until she specifically says otherwise.

Although the standard acceptable number of “air kisses” used in France is two (one on each cheek), this can also vary depending on the area of the country.  Several departments insist on using three and there are many areas around Paris where four is the usual number (see my interactive map link at the end of the article).  Basically, if you don’t know, start with two, but if the person’s body language insists (leaning or alternating cheeks), just go with the flow and add a third or even a fourth, after which you can definitely stop.  If you get to five, then the French are just toying with your mind…

Les Garçons - “The Handshake”

Just Your Daily Morning Handshake...

Just Your Regular Morning Handshake...

Greetings between two men are simpler - just like in most parts of the world you simply shake hands.1  However, in comparison to the US where handshakes occur only the first time you meet someone and basically never again, in the French workplace the whole hand shaking routine is practiced EVERY MORNING.  Extremely French co-workers can sometimes take it as a personal affront if you are concentrated on something else and inadvertently neglect your daily hand shaking or “air kissing” duty!

Bonjour and Bonjour Again

Concerning use of the word “bonjour”, it should ONLY be said once per day per person, and ONLY the first time you see them.  Unlike in the US, where you can sometimes say “hi” to a co-worker 20 times a day if you keep running into them, in France if you encounter a colleague in the hallway that you have already said “bonjour” to, DO NOT say “bonjour” again!  You are guaranteed to get a strange look indicating “you moron, don’t you remember you already said bonjour to me today?  Weren’t you paying any attention or do you care about me at all?”.  Instead, if you really need to fill the silence, then just say the word “re-bonjour”, which translates to “hey, I am aware we already saw each other today, but I’m not sure what else to say to you, so I’ll just say hello again”.

The Morning Greeting Merry Go Round

This daily routine of shaking hands and exchanging “air kisses” with every co-worker you have ever randomly bumped into at the coffee machine can be one of the more harrowing rituals of working in France.  You must always be sure to distinguish between regular co-workers (or peers) and higher management whom you would only give a handshake to, and, of course, you should never risk giving an “air kiss” to an upper level woman manager, unless her body language indicates this is what is required.  At times this whirlwind of kissing, handshaking, understanding of organizational hierarchy (to determine if an informal or formal greeting is required) and remembering whether or not you already greeted a person earlier in the day can be quite stressful, especially for those of us lacking facial recognition skills…

Just the regular morning greeting routine…every single day.
embedded by Embedded Video

YouTube DirektThe Song that Never Ends...

The worst part about all of the hand shaking and kissing is probably personal hygiene.  If you have just washed your hands after greeting all your co-workers and then another one drops by your desk, this newcomer is required to shake hands with everyone in your office, including yourself, even if you have never said more than one word to the person in your life.  And then your hands are once again contaminated with whatever he happened to be touching just before the handshake (and we all know the bathroom requirements of drinking coffee in the morning)…

Antiseptic Hand Cleaner Anyone?

Antiseptic Hand Cleaner Anyone?

Fortunately, in compensation for all of the sweaty palms, weak handshakes and wet fingers encountered daily, the morning routine also includes giving “air kisses” to generally attractive French women.  And thankfully, when you leave the office at night, saying a simple “bonne soirée” or “à demain” is all that is required!

The Party’s Over

Outside of the office, there are also other rules to be taken into consideration, especially at social events. Perhaps one of the reasons that French dinners or small parties can sometimes go into the late hours of the night is that the first person to leave has to inevitably disrupt the entire event because they are required, by politeness, to either shake the hands or give “air kisses” to every single person who is present. It’s kind of like a strange staring contest to see who is going to be the first loser to give in to fatigue, disrupt the merriment and go home to bed. Occasionally, if it’s a bigger party with lots of music or noise, you can sometimes slip out the back door by discreetly just saying goodbye to the hosts.

Finally, concerning the older members of the French population, as a sign of respect, NEVER do “air kisses”.  Always shake hands only, unless the person is an older relative or close friend that you know quite well.

No Hugs Allowed

As a last word of advice to the average hug-obsessed American, THE FRENCH DON’T DO HUGS! Although handshakes and kisses are acceptable, for all their talk about being such a touchy-feely culture, hugs clearly violate too much personal space for most of the French and should only be attempted during parties where people have had ample amounts to drink.  Hugging an unsuspecting French person is a very strange experience indeed, kind of like holding a heavy coat where the sleeves don’t quite know how to respond.

Greeting and leaving protocols in France can be very complicated, but if you have good facial recognition skills and are not afraid to stick out your hand or lean towards the occasional cheek, you should be able to manage.  Of course, always remember that if you mess up, acting like a dumb foreigner can come in very handy during any awkward situation, and the occasional badly placed “bise” can sometimes be a great way to break the ice.

And perhaps with a bit of luck, the French kissing may also come earlier than you expected…

Links

Extract from Friends, the one with all the Cheesecakes (unfortunately, I couldn’t find a direct link, but Friends fans will know this scene):

[Scene: Cousin Frannie’s Wedding Reception, Monica and Ross are sitting at the table, alone as a woman approaches.]

The Woman: Ross, sweetheart!

Ross: Oh, hey Aunt Millie.

Aunt Millie: Isn’t it a beautiful wedding?!

Ross: Yes, yes it is. It’s uh… (Aunt Millie uses this opportunity to grab Ross and kiss him on the lips. After she leaves Ross quickly wipes his mouth with a napkin.) Every time on the lips! Why?! Why on lips?!

From wikiHow for any kiss-challenged readers:

How to Air Kiss (I can’t believe there are online instructions for this!)
How to French Kiss (even contains handy photos for beginners…)

Caméra Café - M6 TV comedy that films 3 minute skits of events in front of a French coffee machine. With 700 episodes, this series may help with understanding the morning café ritual in the workplace…

Combien de Bises? - this is an interactive map showing the average number of “bises” per department. There really is no end to ideas for websites on the Internet…


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  1. air kissing between men is allowed in specific circumstances, such as between close family members (father/son/brother/very close friends) and gay men []

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell - US Dual Citizenship

It's still better if you're a citizen...

Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood - But it's still better if you're a citizen...

Anyone who has lived abroad knows that the favorite past time of all expatriates1 is accumulating official paperwork.  The first major document to acquire when living overseas is generally called a “residency permit”.  In the US, this is known as the famous “green card”2 and allows foreigners to legally stay and work in the country for a long term basis.  In France, it’s called ”la carte de séjour” and every expatriate has a hellish story to tell about the lengthy, unwieldy process of obtaining it (and renewing it).  Without this official identification card, which proves your long term residency is legal, you will have great difficulty opening a bank account, signing a lease, finding a job or even subscribing to cellular phone service.

In France, once you acquire “la carte de séjour”, it marks the start of a glorious, never-ending scavenger hunt for other official documents including foreign credit cards, insurance contracts, a driver’s license, a social security card and even library cards just to name a few.  And if you’re a long term expat, the ultimate goal may be to collect the holy grail of all foreign documents by acquiring citizenship in your adopted country and finally obtaining a passport!

C’est Mieux à Deux

Dual Nationality - The Holy Grail!

The Holy Grail!

Before embarking on your quest, be sure to check your native country’s dual nationality laws.  If you are from a country that requires renunciation of your citizenship to acquire another nationality then it’s officially game over.  However, because of rampant globalization, international relationships, children born abroad and the basic fact that foreign governments have a hard time communicating with each other,  many countries turn a blind eye to dual nationals.

The United States has an ambiguous approach towards dual citizenship.  The basic policy is that “U.S. law does not mention dual nationality or require a person to choose one citizenship or another” - US State Department Website.  Loosely translated, this means the US government implicitly acknowledges an individual’s right to dual citizenship but would rather avoid it if possible.

There are a number of Supreme Court cases concerning the rights of US dual nationals.  In the 1967 case of Afroyim v. Rusk it was determined that the 14th amendment, originally intended to guarantee citizenship to freed slaves and their descendants, also forbids Congress from making any law depriving an individual of their US citizenship without consent.

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. - 14th amendment of the US constitution

In fact, the only way to lose US citizenship - barring treason or joining a hostile foreign army - is if you explicitly renounce with intent to give it up.  The key word is intent- if you acquire a foreign nationality but would never dream of relinquishing your US citizenship, this is clearly not an intent to renounce3.  And the only way to legally relinquish US citizenship is to leave the country, sign an “oath of renunciation” in front of a US consular officer or diplomat, and then stick your passport down his throat (the last part is optional, but it probably counts as “intent”).

Death and Taxes - The IRS is Watching You!

Congress has also passed laws to discourage wealthy US citizens from relinquishing their citizenship.  Unlike most civilized countries where only locally generated income is declared to tax authorities, US citizens are required to declare their global income to the IRS and many of the richest ones are actually subject to double taxation (once in the foreign country and once again to the IRS).  In the past, this was incentive enough to renounce their US citizenship to avoid taxes.  However, under current laws, even if the wealthiest expats relinquish their US citizenship,  they are still liable to the IRS for taxes on their global income for the next ten years…

Please Remember to Forget

Ironically, when US green card holders finally become citizens, they are required to say the following oath during their official citizenship “swearing in” ceremony:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform non-combatant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

Despite the fact that new citizens officially renounce all allegiance to another foreign country, constitutionally they cannot be forced to give up their native nationality.  An INS4 official once mentioned that to reduce any complications due to double nationality, new citizens should remember to “forget” to bring their foreign passport to the ceremony, otherwise they may have to hand it in.  As a side note, how many immigrants actually understand what the words “abjure” and “potentate” mean (doesn’t one require Viagra…)? 

Just Say “Oui”

More photocopies...

More photocopies...

Acquiring French nationality is not that difficult if you’re used to dealing with the administration.  The procedure is actually nothing more than simply signing a legal document declaring your French nationality in front of a judge.  A completed application can be submitted to the local “tribunal d’instance”5 after fulfilling a minimum residency requirement depending on your current situation.  In fact, the hardest part of the whole process is gathering all of the required paperwork and translations to show you’re an honest, well-integrated immigrant who is preferably already employed.

After signing your “declaration of French nationality”, the local police department will then conduct a small investigation, meet with you in person and sometimes even interview your neighbors, to ensure that everything is in order.  A local immigrations official will also verify that you are culturally assimilated and speak a good level of French (sacrebleu!).  If all goes well, you’re called back to the judge one last time and are then officially handed your signed declaration and also your new “French birth certificate” (this is really what it’s called!).  You are now officially “reborn” into the French state.  With your new birth certificate in hand, you can then complete the final application for a French voting card and passport.

An International Heartache

Dual nationality is not for everyone, but if you have lived abroad long enough to become fully integrated into your adopted country, started a family, purchased property, made many friends, plan on retiring there and can’t imagine ever moving back to your native country, then it is definitely worth considering.  Remember that until you are a citizen, it is still possible to get kicked out of your host country due to a new immigrations statute or some unforseen technicality (such as inadvertently violating a law, not renewing your residency permit on time, divorce, etc).  With the ease of travel and global interdependence, there are so many immigrants who are split between love towards their native homeland and the profound link to their adopted countries, that not allowing the possibility of dual citizenship in modern times seems like a cruel anachronism.

And one last word of advice for all US dual citizens - for the love of common sense, please remember to always use your American passport when going through US immigrations (or you may risk several hours of INS interrogation to prove you really didn’t ”intend” to give it up…)!

Links:

How to Acquire French Nationality - This link gives all of the different scenarios, prerequisites and administrative hoops for acquiring French nationality depending on your own personal situation.  If you can’t understand the French on this site, it’s probably not worth applying!

Official French Position on Dual Nationality - Basically, it’s fine with the French if you have another passport.

Global Citzenship Laws - Click here to see if your native country accepts dual nationality - the list is a bit old, but still very useful.

Long-haired Depardieu!

Long-haired Depardieu!

Official US State Department approach to dual citizenship (details)  - More boring mumbo-jumbo

Official US State Department procedure for renouncing US Citizenship - If you’re really crazy, here’s how to give up US citizenship.  Not to be taken lightly!

Richard Wales.Org - I don’t know who this guy is, but his site has links to just about everything imaginable concerning dual citizenship.  It hasn’t been updated in a while and the bare-bones HTML is painful to look at, but it’s a great start for any dual citizenship legal data mining.

Green Card Movie Trailer - This is the trailer to the cheesy film “Green Card” starring Gérard Depardieu and Andie MacDowell.  I’m not sure if US immigrations officials really ask couples about whether their partner wears briefs or boxers, but the film is not too bad for a chick-flick.

 

 

Links to the two major US Supreme Court decisions concerning dual nationality, fairly well explained on wikipedia.org:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afroyim_v._Rusk - Concerns the right of the US Congress to revoke US citizenship without consent.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vance_v._Terrazas - Concerns the question of defining what is ”proven intent” to relinquish US citizenship


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  1. a term for someone who is currently living outside of his native country []
  2. a “green card” is not actually green - it is basically a high-tech ID card for foreigners []
  3. The 1980 Supreme Court case of Vance v. Terraza attempts to define what is “proved intent” []
  4. immigration and naturalization service []
  5. regional high court []

Bienvenue

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself - Well…How did I get here?

The Talking Heads - Once in a Lifetime

Aside from the large automobile, this is about how I feel after living in France for over ten years.  Believe me, it was pure accident (mixed in with a good dose of subconscious directioning).  However, fate being as it may, I now feel compelled to share with my fellow global citizens some of the unique experiences and lessons I’ve learned during my time over here.

My lips are not yet permanently pursed from pronouncing too many vowel-based words, I’m still nowhere near as stylish as your average Frenchman and I haven’t yet completely given up snacking between meals, but my entire way of looking at the world has changed.  Although there is still some truth to the stereotype of a mustached Frenchman with a baguette strapped horizontally on the back of his bike, the fact is that France is now very much a modern, innovative nation struggling with the same issues as America does:  urban sprawl, reality television series, working people struggling to buy their first home and parents trying to find daycare for their children.

As I christen my blog, I’ll quote the Talking Heads once more to describe how I feel about starting this website:

…Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground.

And I’ll try my best to shed some first-hand, modern light on that frequently misunderstood and oldest ally of the United States:  France.


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