Expat Exhaustion: All Grèved Out and All Franced Out

Perhaps you heard that there was a strike this past Tuesday in France against the pension reforms. Perhaps you heard it was the 5th one this year, and another one is already scheduled for next Tuesday. Perhaps you heard that the government has already passed the reforms anyway. Even though most people protesting only took Tuesday off, the transportation strikes continue with limited trains throughout the week, and now high schoolers in many cities, including Chambéry, are blocading their schools and getting into trouble with the police. For the past two days, I have heard nothing but siren after siren as police cars leave the station (only 500 feet from us, oh joy) to head downtown. High schoolers started setting things on fire in front of their schools and throwing stones at the police, who responded by tear gassing the teenagers. This morning the students marched over to the train station and disrupted the traffic by staying on the tracks, where the police tear gassed them again.

I understand why the teenagers are mad and feel the need to protest like everyone else. Young people in this country already had a bleak outlook for their futures before this reform (unemployment is over 20%), and now it keeps getting worse. I don’t necessarily think that setting things on fire in the street is going to change the unemployment problem, however. Yet the reaction by the police seems a bit excessive to me too. Shooting tear gas into a school, chasing students just to hit them with their clubs, and threatening people who film everything make me sick.

In addition to the public transportation strikes, there are also reports of blocades at the rafineries and possible gas shortages. Luckily I don’t have to go anywhere and David can walk to work so we’re not affected by it. I feel really bad for the tourists who are stuck throughout France or at the airports in Paris. Strikes may be a big part of French culture, but I’m sure it’s not the “culture” they were looking forward to experiencing.

Yet it’s not just the strikes that are making me so tired of being in France or being an expat in France. It’s all the little things that add up to one big thing: frustration. Whether simply trying to open a bank account (took 6 weeks!), renew a residency card (took 9 months!), update important personal information on any French website (all of them are just horrible, awful trash), buy groceries on a Saturday, or do anything at all on a Sunday – everything feels like a huge obstacle to overcome in order to accomplish the most mundane tasks. And after four years, the inefficiency and lack of convenience really starts to get to you. But my biggest concerns have more to do with working and immigration, which are obviously the most important aspects to me as a non-tourist foreigner in France.

The cost of living and taxes continue to increase, yet salaries stay the same. We had to pay 1,555€ in income tax in September (it’s not a pay-as-you-earn system so you just have to keep saving money all year long), and then another 736€ in October for the taxe d’habitation (renter’s tax), of which 121€ was for owning a TV. The cost to renew my residency card each year is 110€, and in fact it used to be 70€. It costs more each year to own a TV in France that it does to have the right to work! Granted, I don’t mind paying higher taxes for health insurance, unemployment and retirement benefits, but when too many people start thinking they can slack off and let the government take care of them because of the high taxes they pay, then obviously it becomes a problem. On the other hand, paying lower taxes but having no government help at all is not ideal either.

I find it harder and harder to justify living in a country where 1,500€ per month/18,000€ per year is a normal or even good salary for someone with a Master’s degree. (The average income in the US for someone with an M.A. is about $40,000.) For as educated and experienced as I am, I feel like I’m worth a little bit more than the 1,200€ a month I got as a lectrice, which turned into about 13,500€ for the year after paying taxes. I’ve always been annoyed by the restrictive concept of needing a métier in France and no one caring if you have experience – all that matters is that you have a very specific degree for a very specific job and if you don’t like it, too bad. You’re stuck there for your entire life. No wonder this country’s youth is so pessimistic.

I also find it harder and harder to stay in a country that treats French citizens of foreign backgrounds differently and openly calls immigrants criminals. The new measure adopted by l’Assemblée states that any immigrant who kills a policeman will have his French nationality stripped from him – and it also makes it easier to expel Gypsies from France by allowing the expulsion of any EU citizen found guilty of “repeated acts of theft, aggressive begging and illegally occupying land.” Another part of the law limits access to medical care for foreigners who do not have a valid residency card. All this in the country of les droits de l’homme – or perhaps it should be changed to les droits des français nés en France.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t absolutely hate living in France or else I wouldn’t be here, and France is still winning in my USA vs. France battle (but only by a hair). But everyday it gets harder to stay happy here knowing that life is much better in other countries, where I can have a real career. I didn’t spend six years at university just to earn minimum wage in temporary jobs. I have no desire to return to the US but I also have no desire to stay in France for much longer. I love the French language and all Francophone cultures, but I feel like I need to break up with France before this frustration gets the best of me. Luckily David agrees that things are not good in France right now and wants to live abroad too, so to all of you who are thinking “if she doesn’t like it, why doesn’t she just leave” – don’t worry, I’m working on it.

But I wonder how much of this frustration is due to being an expat in a foreign country (or perhaps just France) and how much of it is just thinking that everything is better where I am not?

Il me semble que je serais toujours bien là où je ne suis pas, et cette question de déménagement en est une que je discute sans cesse avec mon âme.

– Baudelaire