Living in France For Members

Expat or immigrant - if you're a foreigner living in France, what are you?

Emma Pearson
Emma Pearson - [email protected]
Expat or immigrant - if you're a foreigner living in France, what are you?

You would think it would be a simple matter of checking the dictionary definition, but the debate over whether a foreigner in France is an immigrant or an expat can be surprisingly emotional.


From connotations around race and integration to historical hangovers - what people who live outside the country they were born in call themselves is not quite as simple as you might think.

So what does each word mean?

According to the dictionary an expatriate, or expat, is "a person who lives outside their native country". The term is virtually the same in French - expatrié or expatriée.

An immigrant (immigré/e) is defined as "a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country".

An economic migrant, on the other hand, is "a person who travels from one country or area to another in order to improve their standard of living".

Another option suggested by one Local reader was émigré, which is defined as "a person who has left their own country in order to settle in another, typically for political reasons".

So it seems that all of those could apply to the various reasons people have for moving to France, but is there a difference to how people describe themselves?


It could be that the difference is one of intent - an immigrant intends to settle permanently in a country, whereas an expat might not.

When we asked Local readers how they defined themselves, many people said it came down to their intentions towards their life in France.

Tourism development expert and Local reader Roger Goodacre, who has lived in London, Paris, Geneva and Amsterdam, said: "For me, an expat is a temporary resident, even if long-term, who retains his/her nationality whereas an immigrant is permanent and likely to seek a change of nationality."


Jan Lechford also thinks the difference is down to intention. She tweeted: "I'm not an expat! I hate that word. I moved to France. I live, work, pay taxes, and love being here. My daughter's just passed her Bac. I'm a current immigrant not an ex anything!"

If the difference is about permanence then it's entirely possible that people may change - someone might move to France as an expat expecting to only stay for a few years then fall in love with the place and stay long term - therefore becoming an immigrant.

Jo Citadelle added on Facebook: "I am an immigrant as I have no intention of returning to the UK. An expat is here on a short-medium term stay."

But for Kathleen Quinn, an American who has lived in both France and Italy, the difference is more about your reasons for moving. She said: "I don't call myself an expat because I didn't move to Italy in rejection of the US.

"I feel most of my experiences in Italy are that of an immigrant, although a very privileged one. I have no intent of changing my nationality."

One thing that is sure is that passions are certainly stirred around the topic. 


Colin Millin said: "Why would anyone say expat when all others are referred to as immigrants, are we 'special'. Obviously a lot think we are. We’re not."

But if it's a simple case of dictionary definitions, why is this topic so controversial?

It could be the connotations that have become associated with both words.

When immigrants have been mentioned by politicians across the world in recent years, it has rarely been in a positive way.

Instead politicians of all stripes in all countries seem to assume that their voters are sick of immigration and wish to see tighter controls. It is far more unusual to hear a politician make the positive case for immigration - both economically and socially.

So it could be that people are reluctant to describe themselves as an immigrant simply because the term has become to be seen in a negative light. Possibly, but the word expat has also come to have its own negative connotations.

In 2015 the British newspaper The Guardian published a think piece by South African journalist and activist Mawuna Remarque Koutonin entitled 'Why are white people expats and the rest of us immigrants?' 

The piece contended that although anyone living outside their country could be considered an expat, in practice the term only seems to be used for Europeans and Americans.


The word expat can also have a historic hangover from the days when it was more unusual to move abroad for work, and many of those who did so enjoyed high salaries and a luxury lifestyle - is an expat someone sitting on the veranda sipping a gin and tonic while their household staff do all the work?

Probably not a lifestyle most people in France would recognise.

Local reader Sandra Wegman commented on Facebook: "I always thought that you’re an expat when you are sent abroad by the company you work for? Immigrants make the move by themselves so to speak."

Indeed the term expat was first widely used at the beginning of the twentieth century and was then usually used to describe British civil servants who were sent to work abroad - often not by choice.

The term these days tends to imply the polar opposite - someone who has chosen to leave their country to live abroad, whether for a better job, better quality of life or simply for an adventure.

'Two sides of the same coin?'

Writing in The Conversation, academic Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels of the University of Kent suggests that expat also suggests the power of the country you come from.

She writes: "People are often considered expatriates, a term which is perceived by most as connoting a higher social status, if they come from a country that is 'equal' or 'higher' in terms of GDP or international reputation, than if they come from one that has a 'lesser' status."

There is also a suggestion many people perceive it as an indicator of how you integrate into your new country - an immigrant integrates, learns the language adopts the culture of their new home, while an expat doesn't integrate and often does not make much progress with learning French. 

And it could be this suggestion of the lack of effort in integrating that puts people off describing themselves as expats -although not everyone feels that they have to make a choice.

"I consider myself both. I left my country to live somewhere else, hence expat, and I immigrated to France," said Dominic Daul.

Chris Lyons added: "It is actually two sides of the same coin. To UK residents, I am an expat. To the French, I am an immigrant. I have no issue with either perspective as they are both correct linguistically, but only when used in the correct context."


Comments (2)

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Stephen 2023/04/30 16:57
I think ‘expat’ is fair if you go to a country on, say, a 2 or 4 year contract from an employer. Any other ‘open-ended’ arrangement, you’re an immigrant.
Anonymous 2019/07/12 11:28
The 'citizen of nowhere' categorization comes from The Road to Somewhere, an interesting study of populism by the journalist/commentator David Goodhart that received quite a lot of attention when it was published in 2017

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