19 April 2013


To rent our apartment in France, we were asked to provide details about my spouse's salary, my occupation, and our family's structure to our prospective landlord.

To join a sports club in France, one son had to prove his parents' national identities with copies of their passports, and show evidence of his U.S. player's license.

To get a cell phone and account in France, I had to provide a French electric bill (which was in my spouse's name) and then subsequently prove my marital status, with a copy of my marriage certificate.

To the France tax authorities, we have had to declare all of our bank accounts and earnings, local and overseas, our children's birth dates and birthplaces and our own (U.S. authorities also require information about overseas bank accounts).

Some official information that we have had to provide here in France has felt quite personal, while other seemingly relevant pieces of information haven't seemed that important.  It seems few really care all that much about our names (see my post on Noms and prenoms, Sept. 2012), our medical histories (except the insurance company), or the finer details of our origins (see Département 13, April 2012 ).  And while U.S. census takers ask Americans about their race, the French government does not 'officially' keep tabs on race, and French media frequently blur the images of faces in their news stories, making reading or watching  the news stories a frustrating experience.  This is due to French privacy laws requiring consent for the publication of photographs (see Legal Week "French Privacy Law.... 17 Sept. 2012).  Yet, whose breasts, photographed here, in FRANCE, made it into the international newspapers?  Those of the Duchess of Cambridge.  And, it's not like similar body parts aren't on display all summer long at French public beaches.  So why the big deal about photographic records?  On the other hand, school records here seem hardly private at all, with teachers loudly announcing student grades in front of everyone else and even revealing these to other parents during parent-teacher conferences.  My kids can tell me their classmates' grades on any given assignment.  In the U.S. on the other hand, school privacy is very strict; as a professor, I cannot discuss any details of any of my students' school records with their parents or any other family members, even if the students are minors.

La transparence (transparency) in some matters but not others highlights cultural differences about what is considered public and private information.  Yet, in all societies, some members can get away with being more vague and less transparent about their affairs than others, at least until someone blows the whistle.  A big man in the French government, the now-former French budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, responsible for making sure the French (and current residents like us) pay their taxes appropriately, publicly criticized French actor Gérard Depardieu a few months ago for moving out of France to avoid taxes (here's one English language news account of this, "Actor Gerard Depardieu..." CBC news Jan. 6, 2013).  A media outlet then alleged that Cahuzac himself had his own undeclared personal assets in bank accounts outside of France which he vehemently denied to the French public.  Well, it turns out that Monsieur Cahuzac lied, and now he has not only lost his ministerial post but has also resigned his seat in the national parliament (yes, one can hold multiple French governmental positions at the same time, but that's another blog topic), AND his actions have forced his former colleagues to publicly and transparently declare their assets for the first time.  Just like our landlord knows my spouse's annual salary, we now know which French ministers are millionaires (some of whom admit that their wealth may be difficult for most French to 'understand'), and which ones have low bank account balances.  One French leftist politician joined in the act with such enthusiasm that we also know his height, weight and hair color.  At least he stopped there; after all, there is that fine line between public information, private information, and too much information.

A shop window in Nice celebrating Bridget Bardot, a French icon who has managed to be both revealing and enigmatic at the same time.

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