Expat or immigrant – if you’re a foreigner living in France, what are you?

Expat or immigrant - if you're a foreigner living in France, what are you?
So enjoying life in France, but are you an expat or an immigrant? Photo: AFP
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 has stirred some strong emotions.

We asked our readers living in France what they would consider themselves to be and we received hundreds of votes and comments, some very impassioned.

In our social media polls the results were even closer than the Brexit referendum – on Twitter 51 percent of readers plumped for immigrant while 49 percent described themselves an an expat.

Over on Facebook, where the poll is still open, the results were reversed, with 49 percent describing themselves as an immigrant and 51 percent preferring the word expat, at the time of writing.


Scores of people also took the time to leave comments on how they defined themselves, and how the different terms made them feel.

So what does each word mean?

According to the dictionary an expatriate, or expat, is “a person who lives outside their native country”.

An immigrant 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 between an immigrant and an expat?

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

Does even going the full hog and getting French citizenship clear up the debate? Photo similaires/<a 105179352="""" href="Depositphotos 

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.”

Twitter user 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 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. 

On our Facebook page 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.

Has the 'immigrant bashing' of populists like Britain's Nigel Farage affected how people see the word? Photo: AFP

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 bySouth 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, the term only seems to be used for Europeans and Americans, as many of our readers noted.

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. But no doubt many readers may contest that.

When The Local was founded in Sweden we had a blanket ban on using the word but we have frequently used it over the years much to the ire of some readers.
Today we try to avoid it but it can be tricky when many relevant studies of foreigners living abroad are described as “expat surveys”. 

But also, as our polls show, many people who move abroad for various reasons still use the term 'expat' to describe themselves.

As many readers pointed out expats are immigrants too. The two terms are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps we are just overthinking it. 

“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.”

Expat, immigrant or Citizen of Nowhere?

For Britons in France, Brexit appears to have also had an influence on how they see themselves and has led to an even greater opposition towards the term 'expat'.

While many of those who have taken nationality say they see themselves as more French than British now, others prefer to describe themselves as 'citizens of Europe'.

One thing is certain, the description of a certain Mrs Theresa May of people who don't see themselves as belonging to one country as “citizens of nowhere” seems unlikely to be adopted any time soon.

Member comments

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  1. 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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