If I say I'm an immigrant fearful of losing my current visa status due to an increasingly conservative political environment, you'd immediately have a picture in your mind, wouldn't you? You'd likely be wrong.
By dint of birth, I'm what is more commonly referred to as an expatriate, which simply means I am white and from a wealthy, western country. I'm also not an immigrant to the United States but an emigrant from it; for the last six years, I've made my home in Paris, France. And, depending on the outcome of this spring's election cycle, I may not get to stay.
It used to be that opponents of aggressively conservative candidates would publicly threaten to 'move to France' if the Republicans won. However, the lead up to French presidential elections this April 23rd and May 7th are stoking the fire of global populism and anti-immigrant movements. So it's like jumping from the fire into the frying pan — not exactly worse but you're still going to get burned.
French elections are decided in two rounds of popular voting i.e. there is no electoral college to make a final decision after the people vote. Theoretically, if any one candidate gets 50% of the first round, the election is over, though this has never happened. Two weeks after the first round is the runoff, in which the two candidates with the most votes run against one another.
Current front runners to the first round French elections and their party affiliations are:
Emmanuel Macron, En Marche! — Social Liberal
Francois Fillon, Les Républicains — Centre Right
Marine Le Pen, Front National — Far Right
Benoit Hamon, Parti socialiste — Center Left
French politics differ in ideology from American politics, as most EU countries have embedded social services such as universal healthcare and education so, while important, these are not quite the hot-button issues they are in US elections. However, increasing fears regarding terror attacks have made immigration a pivotal topic used to sway voters, much as Donald Trump's 'Build a Wall' campaign influenced American voters. In simultaneous rallies in Lyon this February, Macron warned against following the US and UK in isolationism while Le Pen applauded the exact same measures.
Though Macron appears to be leading over Le Pen in the most recent polling, the race is tight. Hamon has been characterized as the French 'Bernie Sanders' — too far left to win but appealing enough to split the liberal vote, meaning two conservative candidates for the runoff. However, Fillon is struggling to regain his position after news broke regarding a scandal wherein he allegedly hired family members for high-paying fake government jobs. Though Le Pen weathered a similar 'fake job' charge, she displayed the same Teflon skin as Trump after sexual and business misconduct allegations arose during US campaigning.
Le Pen's rise is not that surprising following Brexit and Trump, as they've all utilized the same strategy of firebrand nationalism and xenophobia. Remember 'Make America great again' paired with immigrants as 'killers' and 'rapists'? Per Le Pen, it's 'This is our country' and a promise to reduce annual immigration by 90%.
Le Pen has vowed to immediately deport illegal immigrants and limit even legal immigrants access to French social services while making it harder to become a French citizen, all in the name of protecting French ideals and people. However, one only need look at the perpetrators of the November 13, 2015 Paris terror attacks to see the flaw in this logic — only 2 out of 11 were suspected immigrants (though their Syrian passports were questioned as fakes) while the rest, including their ringleader, were actually born in Belgium or France. The problem is homegrown and further restrictions and aspersions on legal immigrants or their children will likely increase tensions.
But all of the above is difficult for the average person to reconcile with their own, daily experience. So here's my story in a nutshell: if Le Pen wins, there is a good chance that my visa will not be renewed.
My work and residency visa expires June 2nd and I am submitting my renewals in April. Most often, visa decisions are extended beyond their expiration dates with a document know as a récépissé, which is a letter carried with your immigration ID card to show government officials that you are in the renewal process awaiting a decision. Récépissés are usually valid anywhere from 4-6 months while your file is under review. If you recall the speed with which Trump enacted immigration bans, you may start to understand my concern.
The paperwork and requirements for the application process are the same no matter what your country of origin, though I'm not foolish enough to believe the system doesn't have its ingrained biases towards westerners. I often hear, 'You don't have to worry. You're a 'good' immigrant,' the implication being that I'm not African, Middle Eastern or Eastern European, the immigrants most accused of 'taking advantage of benefits' or not 'blending in,' much as Mexicans and Muslims are blamed in the US.
At the core of these arguments is fear of not having enough and of being forced, through lack of resources, into an unfamiliar environment. Which is exactly what causes many immigrants to leave their homes in the first place. Luckily, I'm here by choice, not as a last resort to escape violence, religious oppression, famine or extreme government controls.
However, the nail in my coffin may be simple economics. I came on a Blue Card, a program instituted to entice educated, high earners in specialized fields to the EU. I arrived with a job, but my company closed its global operations. I'm not easily re-employable, as any potential employer would have to cross their fingers along with me that my visa will clear and, with overall unemployment at 10% (read: lots of candidates unencumbered by potential visa issues), it's not worth it. I'm slowly building a consultancy portfolio but that may not be enough to prove the long-term financial stability needed to meet the visa renewal requirement.
But here is the key difference between what happens to an 'expat' and immigrants of lesser means; I have the financial stability and network to start over somewhere else. Immigrants moving due to economic instability had nothing to begin with.
So today, I'm mentally preparing a kiss goodbye for the dear, sweet man who's had my heart the last five years. I'll never find as fine a croissant as my corner bakery or a landmark as inspiring as the Eiffel Tower. I'll sell or give away my homey comforts and bid a tearful farewell to the friends and acquaintances who make my daily routines meaningful. My fingers are crossed that I'm being overly-dramatic, but I'd rather not be taken by surprise. Unless that surprise is a visa renewal.
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