Why I’m Glad I Left America

Life in France is better, especially now.

Photo of Paris at dusk
Bruno Barbey / Magnum

I am sprung from people who emigrated from the country of their birth to America. The United States was their refuge, their hope, and the dream they passed down to us, their American descendants. I could never have imagined as a child that, one day, I would leave America for a better life in another country. Yet that is what I did when I moved from New York to Paris in 2010, and my decision seems wiser by the year.

There hasn’t been a day since Donald Trump was elected in 2016 that I haven’t been thankful that I live in France, and not in the United States. Gun violence, white-supremacist militias, the shamelessly voiced opinions that all lives don’t matter—and that if you die from COVID-19, well, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles—fill me with dread. So does climate-change denial while the West Coast, where I was born and raised, goes up in smoke.

France isn’t paradise. The country has been hit hard by the pandemic, which has thrown more than 1 million people into poverty. Cases are on the rise again, and the government is trying to find a balance between keeping the economy going and protecting lives. Our president, Emmanuel Macron, is a neoliberal technocrat tacking to the right, but no one in the French leadership has encouraged rebellion against local authorities trying to contain the pandemic, as has happened repeatedly in America. Macron, for all his faults, believes in science and that climate change is real. He is also capable of paying homage to fellow citizens who have been killed by the coronavirus.

The pandemic isn’t the only threat we face in France. The country is wrestling with the legacy of its colonial past; a new generation of French-born descendants of former colonized peoples is staking a claim to the country, which they demand include them without erasing their heritage. The trial of alleged accomplices in the January 2015 attack on the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the recent attack with a meat cleaver in front of its old address are reminders that Islamist terrorism is still with us. Yet the risk of dying in a terrorist attack here pales in comparison with the risk of dying in a mass shooting in the United States. Last year, 417 mass shootings occurred in the U.S., and 15,381 people were killed by guns (including suicides, homicides, and accidents). The same year, out of a population of 67 million, 880 people were murdered in France. We don’t have armed militias patrolling our streets or our polling places. I feel far safer here.

France is also a more humane country: Health care, education, affordable housing, paid parental leave, and five weeks of annual paid vacation are seen as rights, not pipe-dream privileges. I feel less vulnerable in France, knowing that if something happens and I can’t take care of myself, France will take care of me. In 2000, the World Health Organization ranked France’s single-payer national health-care system the best in the world. The pandemic and budget cuts have strained France’s health system, but it still delivers better care to more people at a lower cost than America’s does. Health-care expenditure per person in the United States tops $10,000 a year. France spends less than $5,000 a year per person, yet infant mortality is lower, the French live longer, and fewer require rehospitalization. Preventive care is free. I recently received reminders to get my regular colon-cancer and breast-cancer screenings done. They won’t cost me a cent. The system isn’t perfect: Too many rural areas and poor suburban areas are “medical deserts,” lacking doctors, clinics, and hospitals. Overall, though, access to quality, affordable medical care is not something the French have to worry about the way Americans do.

Patrick Zachmann / Magnum

Paying for college, the nightmare of the American middle class, is also simply not a source of the same angst in France. Higher education is considered a right. Undergraduate tuition at France’s public universities is just $200 a year for members of the European Union and residents of Quebec. For foreign students, tuition is $3,262 a year. Compare that with UC Berkeley, which charges in-state undergraduate students $14,254 for tuition and nonresident students $44,000. Private universities in France, including the prestigious grandes écoles in business and administration, are more expensive, but are still a bargain compared with the United States. Sciences Po, for example, charges students on a sliding scale based on their parents’ income. Maximum undergraduate tuition is $12,601, whereas tuition at the private liberal-arts college my daughter attended in the United States is now $60,000 a year. Granted, many American students receive financial aid, but most colleges and universities expect students to take on debt as part of their total financial-aid package, saddling young adults with loans some will never be able to repay.

A New Yorker born and raised, my daughter, who is pursuing a master’s degree here in Paris, has no desire to move back. Going out with her friends is far cheaper in Paris, where a glass of wine can cost as little as $5. She shares a nice one-bedroom apartment with a large balcony overlooking a garden just east of the Paris city limits, near a Métro line, that rents for $1,300 a month—less than half the average rent for an apartment in Brooklyn. During the national coronavirus lockdown from mid-March to mid-May, when the café where she worked part-time as a barista shut down, emergency government assistance provided her with 84 percent of her salary, and her job was waiting for her as soon as the café reopened. “In New York, I just would have been fired,” she sighed.

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t miss New York. I miss New York too. I miss my son and my friends there. I miss the skyline. I miss California and Oregon, where my parents live and where I grew up. If the pandemic has made it hard for Americans to leave, it’s also made it impossible for Americans abroad to visit family and friends at home. We’re all stranded somewhere at this point. Still, I’m relieved to be confined to a country where time for leisure and family, basic social services, and a commitment to shifting away from a carbon-based economy are considered normal.

My path to France was a long one. I earned degrees in French, on scholarships and while student teaching. I fell in love with France years ago, and I worked hard to stay here as a writer and researcher. I’m so relieved that I did. And although I am aware of how important it is for Americans to fight to save their democracy in this perilous moment, if I hadn’t already left, I’d be sorely tempted to leave now.

Of course, with U.S. passports currently useless for travel to a long list of countries, including France, fleeing the sinking American ship is a lot harder than it used to be. Not everyone has already lived abroad or speaks a foreign language, as I did before I moved to France. Most people simply can’t afford to pull up stakes. Still, the State Department estimates that 9 million Americans live abroad. For those privileged, enough to have a second passport, like my Brooklyn friend Neil Redding, leaving is much easier. He and his wife, Kylin, arrived in Lisbon last week. Convinced that the turmoil unleashed during the Trump administration is not going away anytime soon, they have decided to “diversify our presence.” While they haven’t given up on America, “we want to hedge against the violent upheaval, while we wait for the United States to sort all that out,” Redding explained, adding that they are “curious to learn from the Portuguese how they went from an authoritarian regime to one of the most progressive societies on the planet.”

In November, I became a French citizen. France is America’s oldest ally, and I can keep my U.S. citizenship. Though I hope I can travel to the United States again soon, my life is in France now, and my family supports my decision. My 86-year-old mother told me when I was in Oregon last year: “You sure did the right thing getting out of here.”