These are French citizens who also have American citizenship – often without even knowing it. They have come together to fight to get themselves exempted from a double taxation the US government is trying to inflict on them.
In the latest round of their campaign they have launched legal action against several big name banks in France who they say have discriminated against them because of their complicated tax status.
'Accidental Americans' protest in front of the other Statue of Liberty. Photo: AFP
Who are the ‘accidental Americans’?
There are more than 780 ‘accidental Americans’ spread around France, all they have in common is the fact that they are entitled to American citizenship. Some of them had left America in the days after being born in an American hospital. Some of them didn’t even know they were technically American. Some of them don’t even speak English.
There are estimates that there may actually be as many as 10,000 ‘accidental Americans’ in France, thousands of whom still do not know that they technically have American citizenship, and up to 300,000 across Europe. While formally giving up US citizenship is an option, it can be long and costly.
What does the ‘accidental Americans’ Association (AAA) do?
AAA began in November 2014 when a Paris-based sales manager Fabien Lehagre received a letter from his bank asking him for his American tax identification number (TIN). Lehagre had been born in the United States in 1984, but he arrived in France at the age of just two with his French father. He has never lived in America since then. Having no idea that he was legally a US taxpayer, Lehagre first thought there had been a mistake. But he then discovered that he had acquired American citizenship at birth and consequently was supposed to declare all his revenues to the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Lehagre then decided to fight the principle of Citizen Based Taxation (CBT), which applies only in the US and Eritrea. And, in August 2015, he set up the ‘accidental Americans Association’.
How did this situation arise?
In 2010, American President Obama signed Fatca, or the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, into law. This was a measure to force banks worldwide to scour client lists and report anyone who could be a US citizen, or face being barred from operating in the US. Fatca was passed in the aftermath of scandals involving Swiss banks helping wealthy Americans avoid taxes, but has ensnared millions of US citizens of modest means. It was intended to target multinationals skimming their tax bills. But some individuals have become collateral damage as they were suddenly revealed to be technically American citizens living abroad. They only realised their involvement when the IRS started sending out bills for overdue taxes.
Applied in France since 2014, Fatca requires French banks to disclose to the US tax authorities personal data, assets exceeding $50,000 (approximately €40,000) and transactions of all their US clients. French banks are threatened with a hefty 30 per cent tax on all their American transfers if they do not give all this financial data.
What is France doing to help its citizens avoid double taxation?
The AAA has sought out political support for their campaign to end double taxation. French President Emmanuel Macron has been vocal in his support of the efforts of these ‘accidental Americans’ to loosen their ties to the United States. Last July, Macron wrote about this situation to Richard Ferrand, the parliamentary leader of the president's La République En Marche party.
“I am well aware of the preoccupations that you wished to inform me of,” Macron wrote. He added that France had sent a delegation to the U.S. in May to address the issue. “The dialogue continues, and believe me, I remain attentive to it,” Macron concluded in the letter, which was passed onto Lehagre. It is unclear, though, if Macron has followed through on his promise to raise the issue with US President Trump.
What is the latest?
The AAA mounted something of a sting operation by getting lots of its members to try to open new bank accounts online. They were shocked by the results, saying that the banks did not want them because they were technically also American citizens.
Last week, they filed a discrimination lawsuit against several banks.
“As a result of their nationality, hundreds of people are being deprived of banking services that are open to everyone else. This constitutes discrimination under criminal law,” said lawyer Antoine Vey, representing the association.
“We have therefore asked the public prosecutors to sue (financial) establishments that do this sort of thing,” he added.
These are typically slow proceedings and so they are waiting for a verdict on this case.