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Find the Cost of Freedom

October 2015

Stephen Stills wrote the song “Find the Cost of Freedom ” , which is the last song of the live album 4 way Street by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released on April 7, 1971.

My son Eric as a pre-teen played this album for about a year after hearing it once when I was playing it. More than 40 years after its release, the album still has a significant impact on people, and managed to outlive the hippie movement, of which this band and its individual artists were perceived as spokesmen.

The question of how much people are willing to give up to be free – which in this context means unattached to possessions and outside of a system – is a very interesting one, which was critical at the time and still resonates today. Today, for over a decade, the question has also shifted to how much people are willing to give up to be worry-free, which is another form of feeling free.

I find it very interesting that the pursuit of freedom in terms of being detached from society and the desire to be worry-free, which makes people even more entrenched in society, are by nature very often completely incompatible goals.

I have no intention of pursuing this analysis, as it is not my area of expertise, but I find interesting that in recent months there has been legislation in France (originating at the EU level) that increased the right to choose, i.e., the freedom to decide, about more than one topic. The choice of which laws apply to one’s estate, the freedom to travel in and around Paris in public transport and the freedom to marry are some of the examples I chose as topics for this month’s issue.

At the same time, laws lowering the maximum one can pay in cash, and maintaining the monopoly of notaireson several critical aspects of people’s lives such as buying real estate, signing a prenuptial agreement or handling one’s estate, are ways of limiting people’s freedom and the promise of ever gaining or maintaining a worry-free state.

These are tiny illustrations, coming when both France and the USA are pretty much in a presidential electoral campaign, with an ongoing debate on how much right of surveillance the state should have to protect its people.

It is all about finding the cost of freedom.

In the September 2015 issue, I mentioned that as of August 17th 2015, the handling of estates would now be governed, by default, by the laws of the country of residence of the testator, including real estate owned in other countries.

Another aspect of this new regulation is just about as striking, from my point of view, as many of my readers have said in the past that this issue is even more important to them. The fact that one chooses, by writing a will, which law should apply to one’s estate – the law of nationality or that of residence – is indeed a major change. I believe it will be an especially radical change for French notaires, who will have to deal with estates located abroad if a French citizen living in the USA makes this choice. One last comment: it is often assumed that Britons and Americans always resent the Napoleonic rule that children cannot be disinherited and come first as legatees, but many of my clients, including Americans, are fine with this, especially when they realize the surviving spouse can easily get a life interest in the entire estate.

I will continue this topic in future issues, as some illustration is needed to show the consequences of those two changes.

The position of notaire is an odd French institution, which grants a lot of security in, among other things, real estate transactions. The notaire in France has three roles:

Here are some notable examples of the types of leave of absence granted in France:

Official supervisor. This is linked to the special status of real estate in France. Sales must be handled by a person representing France. The duty of the notaire is to guarantee that the sale is in the best interest of all the parties involved, including the state. The buyer should receive all necessary documents, including a guaranteed title, and acquire a property free of financial liability (libéré de toute hypothèque).

Tax collector. The so-called frais de notaire are for the most part taxes that the notaire collects and pays on behalf of the buyer.

  • Private adviser. As a professional, the notaire establishes a personal relationship with his client and can be a normal legal adviser, either paid by a standard fee or according to a fee schedule. This, however, is the least important of the notaire’s roles.

A decision of the French Supreme Court (Cour de Cassation) on February 4th illustrates the extent of the first role: securing the buyer’s rights to a perfect title.

In the case in question, renovations had been done in an apartment, and the notairechecked that all necessary authorizations had been requested and obtained. But a document from the management company or syndic raised questions as to whether the work completely complied with the authorizations. The court decided that the duty of the notaireis to leave no stone unturned, and to guarantee, as much as possible, a perfect title. In this case, the work had affected a common area, damaging it.

More recently, I witnessed another illustration of the extent of this role of the notaire. An American bought a Parisian apartment where the gardienne, a type of concierge for the building, is suing the condominium association over a labor regulation and is seeking a sizable amount of money. The notairecalculated how much it would cost the new owner should the court rule in favor of the gardienne.

The parties agreed at the time of the signing of the initial pre-sale contract (promesse de vente) that the chances of the woman winning the case were very slim. Nevertheless, the notaire’s duty was to inform the buyer of this financial risk before any engagement was made, and obtain the buyer’s approval of this situation that did not affect the decision to buy.

In such situations, I find, French notaires are very reassuring when they do their job at its best. They must dig up whatever information they can regarding any potential liability linked to the property. La Cour de cassation, qui statue le 4 février, 2015.

I would like to review a few aspects of the history of public transport in the greater Paris metropolitan area to explain why the change that took effect on September 1st 2015 was so radical in the way it affected pricing and the way the public transport is used.

The transport system introduced the Carte Orange (orange card) in 1975 to simplify usage, mainly of suburban trains. The price of the weekly, monthly or yearly pass depended on how many of the five zones existent at that time were traveled through, (from 1991 to 2007, there were 8 zones.) The Paris Métro system is almost completely within zones 1 and 2, which correspond to how far one can go with a normal metro ticket.

Keep in mind that French employees receive a reimbursement from the employer for half the cost of this pass, since it is considered to be the cost of going to work. Many employers pay the full cost of the pass and deduct half of it on the pay slip.

The card stayed pretty much the same until the Navigo pass was introduced in 2005. The new pass was read electronically instead of requiring a ticket to be inserted in a turnstyle.

The prices of both Navigo passes and individual tickets increased regularly, but the logic of the pricing system was not changed until this year. There has been political debate on the issue for a long time. Conservatives want the amount paid by the user to be as close as possible to the actual cost – within limits, since that also increases employers- costs. The left wants to maintain the system or improve it to help users. The idea of uniform pricing had come up regularly. An initial step was taken in September 2012, when holders of monthly and yearly passes got the right to travel to any zone in the system on weekends and during school vacations.

Many reasons have been put forward for the latest modification. In my opinion, making public transport more attractive is one way to fight car traffic in a very densely populated region (the 12 million people of the Ile de France make up 18.2% of the French population). It is also a popular change, as those who travel the farthest are paying less for their commute.

It is now mostly zone 1 and 2 travelers who pay more. The uniform price is currently 70 euros a month for the annual pass.

In my view the true issue is that the infrastructure is badly aging and the volume of people traveling makes it extremely difficult to carry out major repairs and maintenance. It is only recently that I have seen sections of the metro lines inside Paris closed for weeks for repairs. I am astounded by the frequency of failures in the system -problems with individual metro cars, signaling and so on – compared to what I remember from my youth. While in the bigger picture such incidents are small  one loses time, but there are hardly ever any significant accidents  they can make it very difficult to get to work on time if one uses, for example, the RER. And it is expected that the 2016 budget will be reduced by 485 million euros.

I know that this position is not popular but I would have preferred an increase in the budget so more repairs and renovation could be done. For now, though, I admit that I do enjoy the new set-up.

Paying in cash, depositing cash or even cashing a check is between suspicious and illegal in France. This is quite a contrast with the USA, where retail business relies a lot more on cash transactions. In addition, the acquisition of debt is discouraged. It was a political decision in France to push the use of debit cards; France has hardly any credit card companies as defined in the USA. Debit cards in France are issued by banks, and are linked to a bank account. Non-bank lenders such as COFINOGA and CETELEM do issue cards that allow access to a line of credit, but even there the latest regulations limit how much a client can charge on these cards, as well as the amount a client can borrow money when taking out a loan.

Thus it is now a lot more difficult to multiply the use of credit cards and to take out loans. Furthermore, most payments must be made into a bank account: that is the only way to receive one’s salary, subsidies from the Caisse d’Allocations Familiales, health care reimbursements, tax reimbursements and so on. Increasingly, payments out must also be wired directly from a bank account, including notably almost all utilities (electricity, gas, Internet, phone).

The latest development is that since September 1st it has been illegal to pay cash for purchases exceeding 1,000 euros; the previous limit was 3,000 euros. This includes transactions between professionals. For non-residents, notably tourists, the limit went down from 15,000 euros to 10,000 euros. Thus the new regulation promotes paying by check or debit card. Already, half of all transactions in France were with debit cards (49.5%, to be precise). Today the average amount of cash transactions is 24.30 euros, which illustrates how widespread the other means of payments are.

Starting on January 1st 2016, one must show ID to change more than 1,000 euros to a foreign currency. Also from that day, French banks will have to report to Tracfin (the French finance and budget ministries anti-money laundering unit) any account with cash deposits or withdrawals exceeding 10,000 euros. This should trigger an investigation of the client by Tracfin inspectors and most likely after that the tax inspector.

One last thing: foreigners, especially Americans, tend to be surprised at how common paying with a check is in France, including in grocery stores, restaurants and shops, even though the merchants are often lukewarm about accepting them since there is no assurance that they will not bounce. This form of payment is a lot more common in France than in the USA.

I have always been interested in the dynamic of couples where the spouses are of different nationalities. Sometimes there is an age difference, often exceeding twenty years  in some cases it is an aging husband, in others the wife is older. One spouse may have significant means and the other be a penniless refugee without any legal immigration status. We could list other examples as well, although I know that such things do not just happen with international couples but can characterize couples who live in the same country or even the same city.

What interests me particularly is the sincerity of the love an undocumented alien has for a national when they get married.

The definition of a fake marriage (in French, a mariage blanc) is that both spouses knowingly get married for the sole purpose of obtaining immigration status for one of them, often with a financial payment to the national spouse. This is criminal in France and the USA.

About five years ago, some far right French politicians wanted to criminalize what they call grey marriage(mariage gris) in which one spouse was getting married for the sole purpose of obtaining immigration status while the other was sincerely in love and absolutely certain that this love was shared by the other. This attempt was short lived, as it appeared virtually impossible to prove criminal intent at the time of the wedding in most instances.

My observation, after working so many years with undocumented aliens, is that for many of them, obtaining legal status appears for years to be an unattainable goal. So when someone is kind and attentive to their situation and shows love and care for them, they are often totally overwhelmed with gratitude and have an outburst of love. From that, it does not take much to turn this into a love affair and then a stable romantic relationship, which in turn leads them to get married.

After a few months or a few years, when the couple has settled down and the immigration issue is fully solved, the foreign spouse may start to see the marriage and the other spouse very differently. Or other issues can come up, such as an age difference, difficulty in having children, and so on. As with all couples, when caught in such a dynamic of disillusion, the relationship may end in divorce.

The question I have always wrestled with is where to draw the line between foreigners who genuinely fall in love, even if influenced by the effects of a long quest for legal status, and those who all along are fooling the other person (and sometimes themselves) into showing love and getting married?

I assume that very few of them plan the entire thing and act as predators catching their prey. The article I give the link to clearly describes that. From my position as an outsider, the ones I have met and helped seemed to have genuine feelings for each other (although keep in mind what I describe above).

French law states that if the foreigner obtains immigration status exclusively through marriage and the couple does not stay together at least three years, this foreigner automatically loses the right to stay in France. As the article notes, this law takes care of at least the most blatant cases.

It leaves unanswered this question: what is the chemistry of love made of? This question has existed since the origin of humankind!

Best regards,


The answer to your question is very short. Nobody in France should be immediately informed of your change of marital status or impending fatherhood. However, I can explain what you will need to do once your wife and child move back to France with you.

1. Regarding the prefecture
It is true that the law says you have only a few weeks to inform the prefecture of any life changes, and clearly getting married is one. The problem is that the prefecture will assume she lives in France, and you will have a hard time getting the message across that this is not the case. Since you hold a carte de résident and your European spouse does not live in France, you can wait until she moves here, at which point it will be easy and safe to record the marriage and the birth of the child. You could even wait until it is time to renew your carte de résident; it would be wrong, technically, but would entail no adverse consequences. In any case, it is possible that by then you could all be living in a different country. In that case there would be no need to declare anything to the French authorities.

2. Regarding income tax
France taxes a household rather than an individual; a single person living alone is considered to be a family of one. French law requires married couples to declare both incomes on the same form. But your wife’s income is not taxable in France or anywhere else, as she works for a tax-exempt international organization. So here, too, it makes your life a lot easier if you wait until she moves to France. The twist is that, should the tax office determine for some reason to view all of you as a family, your child would be put in the equation, at which point it is quite possible that you would pay less tax, rather than more. In short, even if you were to be audited, the most probable outcome is that you get a tax refund – hardly something to be afraid of! But to simplify matters you are better off not including your wife and child in your declaration as long as they do not live with you.

3. Regarding health coverage
You are supposed to inform your health care office (CPAM, Caisse Primaire d’Assurance Maladie) right away, the logic being that she would then be in a position to get the benefits related to your marriage. But she does not live in France, so what kind of benefits would she get? Either she is covered by Austrian health care, which is valid in France, or gets worldwide coverage from her employer, depending on her work status. So even for the short periods she will spend in France until she moves here, neither she nor your child will need the French coverage.

This should make clear that it is moving to France that will trigger the major change, as far as the French administration is concerned.

On the other hand, the American Embassy in Paris should know right away that an American child has been born in Austria, as you are the father.

Considering how young your child will be when she and her mother move to France, it will be important to also declare your situation to the Caisses d’Allocations Familiales. I am not sure whether you will receive any subsidies from them, but this is standard policy.

As you can see, the detailed answer is a lot more complex than the initial one. This illustrates quite well what many professionals in the expat community call the French grey area. The application of the law must sometimes be subject to interpretation to find the best solution in the spirit of the law.



I am an American living in the USA and I would like to teach English at a French university. I currently teach English at the university level for foreign students who study business. I have been told that it is close to impossible to do this, but can you please help me?


In my experience, it can be very easy for Americans to obtain an immigration visa for France. Your first step should be to find out which type or types of immigration status best suit your plans. The status you choose grants you certain rights, and is important because you will have to keep that status for a while, since the prefecture generally does not allow foreigners to change status after just one year. In your case, you need to choose the status that will help you enter a French university as an English teacher.

There are eight types of immigration visas, each leading to a related carte de séjour. Let’s review some of them to show the diversity of choices you have.

Miscellaneous/visitor visa (in French, mention visiteur)

A. The first type of mention visiteur visa is essentially an extended tourist visa, for someone who wants to live in France without a job, such as a retiree. To obtain this visa and later the carte de séjour you must have:

  • – Sufficient funds: You need to show a bank account, IRA or other retirement plan with a balance exceeding $22,000.
  • – An address in France: This is a must. A hotel reservation might work for the visa but is much less likely to suffice for the carte de séjour.
  • – Health coverage valid in France: The insurance policy you choose must meet the French consulate requirement of comprehensive coverage. The private sector offers a wide range of coverage and services. The cheapest policy I know costs about $660 for a year.

This type of visa only permits you to enter France. I mention it just to show how easy it is to obtain an immigration visa for France.

B. The second type of mention visiteur visa is for the immigrant seeking for the right to live in France and be self-employed. The requirements to obtain this visa and later the carte de séjour are all of those listed above plus the following documents presenting your business plan:

  • – A cover letter describing your experience and your plan to teach English in France. It needs to be fairly detailed, telling who your targeted customers are, how much you will charge per lesson or per group, and so on.
  • – Your résumé, in French and written in the style of a French curriculum vitae, showing your experience and education.
  • – Your diploma(s), which must be translated into French by a certified translator; you submit photocopies of your originals and the authorized tranlations.
  • – Proof of experience in the field. Reference letters may not be enough. Think what best shows and details your expertise. Show the originals and then submit photocopies.
  • – Proof that students or clients are waiting for you in France. These statements should be in the form of a letter stating that they are willing to pay your fees and that they need your services. You submit photocopies.

This immigration status does not allow one to teach at university level but does cover teaching in many other situations.

Student visa (mention étudiant)

This might seem like the last status you would choose, since you want to be in front of the class, not in it. However, being a student in one class does not stop you from being a teacher in another. A foreign student in France has the right to be an employee, including as a teacher at a school or university. There is no stigma against applying for a teaching job with this immigration status. It might feel weird but it is totally legal. But bear in mind that you need to keep your student immigration status valid, which can be easier said than done.

To obtain this visa, you need:

  • – Sufficient funds. The minimum the law requires is 615 euros per month/7,380 euros per year. To be on the safe side and avoid problems with the exchange rate fluctuation, count on $10,000.
  • – Proof that you have paid the tuition for the school where you will be studying, which could be the Alliance Francaise or a similar school.
  • – An address in France. This is a must. A hotel reservation might work for the visa but is much less likely to suffice for the carte de séjour.

Also recommended, although not mandatory, is health coverage valid in France.

Employee visa (mention salarié)
In your situation, obtaining this visa would be very hard. Finding employment in France is difficult because French law protects employees. However, a special status, that of lecteur/lectrice, allows people to work as language teachers in France for up to two years, mainly at public schools and universities. If you are not seeking permanent residence in France but merely want the experience of teaching for a while, this is the ideal status for you. There is no need for me to describe the procedure and documents needed as the employer takes care of just about everything; all you have to do is apply for such a job and be accepted.

Scientific exchange visa (mention scientifique)
This is a promising option, much better than it might appear, as it is exactly the status for university teachers, as the position of adjunct professor (vacataire) is open to non-French people. Be aware, though, that you may have to hold multiple adjunct jobs to have enough hours to secure the visa.

Expertise and talent (mention compétences et talents)
This type of visa was not meant for the kind of job you want, yet you might very well succeed in obtaining one. I know of several people with a French dream who have obtained this status as teachers. The requirements are a complex mix of those for the second type of mention visiteur and either the artistique or scientifique visas.

There you have the diversity of visa types that you could ask for. Some ” extended tourist, lecteur/lectrice,self-employment ” are easier to get than others, but also come with far fewer rights. In any case, a move to another country is not something to be undertaken lightly.


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