American specificities that baffle the French

Americans are often surprised by some French specificities in laws or institutions and, sometimes, they have a very negative reaction about them but, the French can also be very surprised or shocked when they discover certain American laws or institutions which look very natural to Americans !

In this page, I try to gather some significant examples of what exists in the US and not in France : specific institutions, traditions, etc...

La surprise, by Gustave Courbet
The USA have it.... (and France hasn't)   American laws : common law + extraterritoriality
  • Tittle IX Officer : if the concept of "political correctess" exists in France, some of its American aspects are just unthinkable, like the Tittle IX Officer. It would be in contradiction with the Constitution (excessive power to somebody who is not a judge or a police officer), contradiction with the laws (when the charges are too vague) and with the tradition of the university (control by peers). French academics do not believe it exists when they are told about it !
  • Baseball and football do not exist in France !
    • Baseball (like its British equivalent, the cricket) is just unknown
    • US Football does not exist either but the name is confusing : in France (as in the rest of the world except the US!), "football" is what the US (and the US only!) call "soccer" and the American "football" looks more like rugby than like what the French call football
  • More to come ...
  • The most important one : the USA are a country of common law (like UK and many other countries) and France is a country of Roman law (like many other countries). Simply said, in the first system what is important is what has been decided in similar cases whereas in the latter what is important is what an existing law says about the case. The consequences on the two types of society are huge :

    • the judge has much more power in the common law system and his/her decisions can vary on a much larger span (this is why the level of US fines is often consided crazy outside the US)

    • the job of the lawyers is totally different : they work hard to find similar cases whereas in France, they try to find in an existing law a reason to support their case

    • more to come ....

  • A critical American specificity is the (purely US!) concept of extraterritoriality :

    • All American citizens are subject to US law wherever they. live. This can be particularly important in tax matters (read more about it) : American taxes are based on citizenship when in all other countries (except Erithrea) they are based on residence : there is a double taxation for US citizens residing abroad (above a threshold that can vary up or down to zero...)

    • For the US government and the US Congress, a corporation is subject to US laws if it is : located in the US (of course), if it uses US Dollars for a transaction (scandalous), if it sent an email whiche used a server based on US territory (ridiculous) or if it employs US citizens (absurd). With the withdrawal of the US from the nuclear agreement with Iran in May 2018, the American sanctions constitute a major threat to European interests worldwide : any company in the world can be sued.

    • There are many examples of American fines on foreign companies based on facts outside the US, which are perfectly legal by non-US laws but punished in the name of US laws (for example in 2014 a nearly 9-billion-dollar fine for French bank BNP-Paribas for transactions in Sudan and Iran, then under US embargo :read my editorial about this extremely shocking fine.

    • Extraterritoriality, imperialism and hypocrisy : June 15, 2017, the US Senate voted a text stipulating that any company participating in the North Stream 2 project would be exposed to measures of retorsion decided by the US government. There is no limit to these measures : fines which can be in billions of dollars, interdiction to cooperate with US firms or to work on US territory.
      Explanation : the project is a fourth pipe-line between Russia and Europe to export Russian gas. The US is a gas exporter and wants to sell gas to Europe. Five European firms are involved in the project (one French, one Anglo-Dutch, two German and one Austrian). By threatening foreign firms on foreign markets, the US government just wants to weaken competitors of US firms.

    • The dictatorship of US laws : all over the world, in any contract involving an American lawyer, whether one of the parties is American or not, whether the object of the contract is or not located in the US, it is likely that there will be somewhere a provision like "In case of conflict the case will be taken to the court in New York".

    • More to come ...

  • What is the current issue for expats? For many non-American citizens all over the world, the persistent policy of the US government and of US corporations to impose US laws and US legal practices to their foreign partners is the very definition of imperialism and it feeds anti-Americanism.
  • More to come...
A few examples ....
  • Different cultural values : a typical example of the differences : in France, you cannot desinherit your children ! By law they must receive a certain proportion of your estate (depending on the number of children) and you can dispose of the remaining only. Why ? In the USA, what's important is "liberty and autonomy", in France it's "family and transmission". See an illustration with the will of Johnny Hallyday, a famous singer, in 2018.

  • When in 1981 President Ronald Reagan dismissed more than 11,000 air controllers on strike and replaced them by Army air controllers, he did something that would have been immediately voided as unconstitutional in France (and probably everywhere in Europe).

  • Identifying an American with little details in everyday life: drinking beer from the bottle, putting the bread on the plate and not on the table, etc.

  • More to come ...

Facts and figures  
  • In March 2016, the French National Assembly has created a bipartisan commission to inventory the situations where "the American concept of extraterritoriality might have generated situations of distorsion of fair competition or created prejudice to French corporations". The mission statement of the commission stipulates : "The longstanding and profound friendship between France and the USA does not justify that the USA pretend to exercice their power far beyond their borders".

  • More to come ....


DID YOU KNOW THAT ......... ? You might be surprised by the answer : TAXWISE, do you know who is considered "American" by the US tax administration ? As of today, one is considered "American" and therefore has to file for IRS, fill out the many FATCA forms and declare his/her income wherever he/she lives if : an American citizens (OK), a green card bearer (!),born in the USA whatever his/her nationality (!!), or has spent more than 30 days in the US in the past year (!!!). The US government wants to know, also, the assets and the income of the spouse. Do you understand now that many American expats renounce their citizenship or prefer to get a divorce to protect their spouse ?
See other pages : French specificities, intercultural differences, anti-americanism, etc.

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Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001
  • "French Toast - Heureuse comme une Américaine en France", Ramsay, Paris 2005

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