FATCA to Expats: You’ll Never Have Paris or Anywhere Else

A long time ago I met some French tourists on a boat on Lake Titicaca, fellow trekkers headed from the Peruvian town of Puno for an overnight visit to the island of Taquile. They said their trip was about to end. Capital controls set by their Socialist president had limited how much money they could take out of their country.

I remember thinking, as I hiked the paths of that rocky island, looking across that lake toward Bolivia, that I was lucky to be from a country where the government doesn’t tell you what to do with your money, as long as you follow the law.

Lake Tititcaca from its Bolivian shore

Here I am, years later, an American journalist living in France, an expatriate from one of maybe two countries in the world that taxes its citizens wherever they live. It turns out that my own country has policies that make me doubt I’m actually free to live abroad. The Biden administration could fix or at least ease those policies, but so far it seems inclined to make things worse.

But then, President Biden was in the government that helped create the mess that exists today. In 2011, he was vice president and the U.S. needed revenues to pay for the big corporate bailouts of the financial crisis. I was at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, reporting on that thinktank’s work on tax and other policies. One day, I interviewed a Treasury official sent by the Obama administration to sell the organization’s other rich country members on the merits of a new U.S. law, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act of 2010.

The brilliant idea behind FATCA was that by forcing financial institutions around the world to report accounts held by American citizens to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. could collect tax on large amounts of tax revenue on assets those citizens were doubtless hiding.

The Treasury person told her skeptical counterparts at the OECD that the U.S. would work with them to minimize FATCA’s compliance burden and costs on their financial institutions. She said their tax authorities would also get information that would help them fight tax evasion. It turns out that was a bunch of merde.

A Policy That Doesn’t Work

I would like to ask the Treasury geniuses who thought up FATCA, and the Congress members who passed it, if they ever considered the reporting and financial nightmare the law would eventually create for American citizens living and working abroad.

“The problem, really, is that the U.S. has a policy of taxing nonresidents, and that policy doesn’t work,” Paul Atkinson, a retired OECD economist, told me. And “it’s not clear that policy actually raises any tax revenue.”

There are other laws complicating the financial lives of U.S. expats, said Atkinson, who’s now head of the banking committee at the Association of Americans Resident Overseas, a lobby group that has its headquarters in Paris.

The U.S. Bank Secrecy Act of 1970, which recently got an update, also hit them with obligations and restrictions. The Trump tax reform of 2017, which handed out tax breaks to many big companies, also included a measure that was supposed to keep multinationals from avoiding U.S. tax by parking their intellectual property in low- or no-tax jurisdictions. It turned out it also hit some expats who own small businesses abroad.

The European Union specifically restricts EU financial institutions’ dealings with U.S. citizens and tax residents. It’s partly trade protectionism, says Atkinson, but “anything nonresident has been deemed high risk. Banks are under pressure, and when they take you as a customer they have to risk-profile you.”

The EU measures add to the mess, but FATCA is the law fueling rage among expats today. It even hits so called Accidental Americans, people who have U.S. citizenship because of a parent, but have never lived in the United States, lack U.S. Social Security numbers and passports, and owe no U.S. tax.

Of course, the government claims FATCA and the other U.S. policies help fight tax evasion, fraud, and money laundering. But they also treat law-abiding U.S. expatriates like tax frauds on parole.

Every year U.S. expats have to report their foreign bank accounts of over $10,000 and other assets held abroad, the account numbers, and how much is in them, or face penalties of up to $10,000 for every unreported account. You have to report them, not to the IRS, but to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, FinCEN, a U.S. agency that fights financial fraud.

Sorry, U.S. Citizens Not Welcome.

The FinCEN reporting ankle bracelet is not even the worst of this. Many American expatriates find that it’s impossible to maintain normal financial lives, either because these laws directly block us, or the reporting obligations lead financial institutions and services companies to conclude we’re more trouble than we’re worth.

Social media is seething with expat Americans, school teachers, journalists, lawyers, and others complaining that these policies are destroying their financial lives, and those of their dual-national children. They’re blocked from investing, saving for old age, even getting bank accounts, in some countries.

“Every U.S. citizen living outside of the U.S.A. is a victim in some way or another,” Canada-based American lawyer, John Richardson told me. “It’s a massive problem.”

Unfortunately I know too well. Because of my U.S. citizenship and foreign address, I can’t open accounts with the French version of stock trading apps including Robinhood, e-Toro, Webull, and others, even though French citizens can. I can’t get the U.S. versions either.

France-based and U.S.-based financial entities decline my investment business. Some make it clear that FATCA is the reason. Others don’t bother to give a reason. I can’t get life insurance, which in France is a key retirement savings vehicle. I can’t get an individual retirement account at my New York bank of over 30 years. An IRA type retirement savings vehicle in the country I live in or any kind of mutual fund? Pas possible, monsieur.

Atkinson told me his U.S. bank of close to 40 years dropped him and so did his French bank.

Why do I stay? Well, my son was born in France. My work is here. The country has an actual health care system, so getting sick or injured doesn’t mean going deep into debt. I also have the best cycling roads in the world, and there are other reasons.

The Paris-Brest-Paris bike tour in 2019

Although France’s capital controls are long gone, this place has its own problems. For one thing, the taxes are among the world’s highest. And every year French tax and social welfare filing obligations pile on top of the American ones that come with my citizenship.

Local tax collection office

Richardson says thousands of American expats have concluded that shedding their U.S. citizenship is the only solution, although it costs thousands of dollars to do that. He co-authored, with two others, a recent article, “Should Overseas Americans Be Required to Buy Their Freedom?” which observes, among other things, that applications by U.S. citizens seeking to renounce their citizenship have soared since FATCA took effect.

“I hate to say it, but the title to the article frames the issue succinctly,” Richardson said.

Richardson and Atkinson said the impact of the Biden budget on all this is not clear. But it proposes to hit financial institutions with more reporting requirements to raise revenue to pay for its big infrastructure spending plans.

“FATCA on Steroids”

“I call it FATCA on steroids. I think they have the potential to push some banks over the edge and make them even harsher in getting rid of Americans,” Atkinson said.

All of this makes me think of those French tourists I met, who had to go home because their president decided how much they could spend abroad.

My grandfather crossed the Atlantic over a century ago to escape poverty in Italy and became an American citizen. I want to keep my U.S. citizenship, but, as a law-abiding citizen of the Land of the Free, shouldn’t I be able to pursue my version of happiness wherever that takes me? Or will U.S. policy keep considering me and other expats tax evaders until proven innocent?

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Halloween ride to Northern France and Flanders

Like many of our vacation rides, we decided our destination the morning we left, as we’re packing bags and pumping tires. This time our starting point depended on where we could get tickets for on short notice. Only some TGVs take bicycles that haven’t been taken apart and put into a bag. And spots are limited to about four bikes per train.

We left Saint Germain-en-Laye Saturday afternoon, the last October day before the switch to winter time. No tickets available to go with bikes to Lille, so we opted to go to Arras and ride north from there. It would be a hotel trip, so no camping gear.

At the St. Germain RER A station we get all our bikes and bags down to the platform, got on the train. It looked like we would make our train with ease. But after a few stops, the train stops at Rueil-Malmaison, “everybody off” because of track work and demolition uptrack. So we got our bikes downstairs, and rode the five or six kilometers to Nanterre Prefecture then hauled the bikes down stairs, escalators, elevators, to take the train the rest of the way to Chatelet station in Paris, and then take the RER B to Gare du Nord.

We made the TGV at Gare du Nord with no more than two minutes to spare. Luckily the conductors let us get on at the first car and put our bikes in their compartment behind the locomotive for the 50-minute trip to Arras.

In Arras,  as we were looking for our hotel, a blonde lady in a Mercedes blasted through a red light as we were about to enter a crosswalk. It looked a lot like she gave us the finger.

Like Lille, Arras was part of the Spanish Netherlands until the early 1700s and has links to Flanders in Belgium.  The town has a system of ancient tunnels that the allies used during the German siege in World War I. It is surrounded by military cemeteries in the countryside, which we visited about 10 years before when we lived in Lille. This time we didn’t visit those, the cathedrals, the bell tower, or museums. Essentially, it was eat, look around the big places, sleep, and start riding.

Our hotel, Les Trois Luppars, was on the Grand Place

Hotel Les Trois Luppars in Arras

What is a “luppar”? I haven’t been able to find out yet. Nice old wooden building, family-place with a closed court yard where we could leave our bikes. Two other touring bikes were in there.

At a restaurant on the Place des Heros, we ate moules a la maroilles–mussels with a stinky cheese soup–cold beer, ice cream. Then we walked around the Place des Heros, got some merveilluex cakes at a boulanger, to power the next day’s ride.

Tourist office on the Place des Heros Arras

Tourist office on the Place des Heros Arras

It was a fairly warm night for late October, people sitting at tables drinking beer and eating plates of fries in front of the bars and friteries.

I was exhausted from carrying bicycles and bags up and down stairs. Gave up trying to arrange my stuff or decide which way to head the next day. Henry wanted to watch the boxing. The TV sound limited to 20 percent.


Grand Place in Arras, photo by Henry

Sunday morning, first day of winter time, easy to get up before 7 but we still didn’t leave before 10. We descended into the vaulted brick-ceiling basement for a big breakfast. We emerged from the hotel into the foggy, chilly morning. The hotel owner warned us not to leave our bikes unattended, or they would “disappear.” Riding out of town, we stopped briefly to look at the facade of the cathedral, the Abbey of St. Vaaste.

Felt that lift of adrenaline for the first day of a ride, heading away. In the fog between towns you could only see a few meters into the fields. The new road, a mystery.

Turned our lights on for the ride through little towns like Sainte Catherine-les-Arras, Vimy, a sign for the Vimy Ridge Canadian War Memorial from WWI, which we visited nine years ago when Henry was on the trailgator.

This is the north. It’s hard up here. War memorials and depressed towns that used to live on coal mining and industry, now have close to 20 percent employment or more.  Near Lens we passed big mounds or hills, made from mine tailings.. stopped at a hypermarket to eat lunch in view of one.

A man finishes his beer, gets on a motor bike with his boy, and rides away.

Passed through suburbs of Lens, Sallaumines, Loisons-sous-Lens, steer clear of Henin-Beaumont, one of the five or so French towns that have elected Front Nationale mayors. Women in head scarves, with dark-haired, grim faced men. And then hard looks from a pair of flaxen-haired women on the sidewalk.

Didn’t see the Louvre-Lens, the second biggest museum in France.. At the Sunday market at Noyelles, a vendor asked me, “how many kilometers,” and I said “100.” I meant that’s how far we planned to go. He grinned but looked dubious.

Riding along the Deule Canal

Riding along the Deule Canal path

North of Lens, at Pont-a-Vendin, we left the road to get onto the Deule Canal path going up towards Lille.

Small town along the Deule

These canals used to be used to haul coal, with horses on the paths pulling the barges by rope. Barges still haul sand, gravel, other commodities, but not coal, and they are self-powered. One long barge that passed looked to be run by only one guy. No one at the wheel as it powered up the straight canal.

On the towpath, in places the asphalt stopped or had collapsed into water leaving a treacherous edge. We held to the right, away from the water.

deule grass track.jpg

We made good progress. Some people fished with giant poles in the canal. The poles are so long, the fisherman rest the ends on rollers, to help move them quickly.

a51 It was the day before Halloween. Cars parked here and there but we didn’t see many people until we started approaching the edge of Lille. Adults with children in Halloween costumes appeared on the path. A line of people to enter on old railroad car converted into a culture center…

Seemed like a small thing at first..Then more and more people on the path and we came out under an interchange and I realized we were very close to Lille and would need to leave the canal path to continue north to Belgium.

We wandered around a packed parking lot looking for a way out. More groups with little children in Halloween costumes heading for an event behind that railroad car we’d seen.

Back on the road, at Santes, a guy on a scruffy mountain bike asked where we were headed, where we’d come from. I stopped to take a picture of this place.

Le tandem restaurant.jpgThen through little towns approaching the Belgian border, Englos, Ennetieres-en-Weppes,  edge of Premésaque, at La Chapelles-d’Armentières we stop for a Haribos infusion. The sun is getting low and it’s not even 4pm. That’s cycling in fall. We ride along the busy national road that runs from Lille to Armentières.


Town hall in “poor but proud” Armentières, a town near the Belgian border.

From Armentières we’d hoped to ride along the path that follows the Lys river, and eventually cross over into Belgium to Kortrijk. Maybe Comines or Ypres.. But the temperature was dropping and it would be dark soon. No hotel room to be had that night in Armentières. So we got on the train for the 15-minute ride to Lille.

We arrived at Lilles Flandres train station and rode in circles a half hour to find our hotel, the same high rise we stayed at the night we left the city about eight years ago…at the city’s edge, across from the entrance to the Lille Europe train station.

Later we took a quick tour of memory lane, looked up at our old apartment on 32 rue Anatole France, the little park where Henry rode his bike in little circles.

We ate moules frites at Brasserie de Foy near the Place Rihour and Place General de Gaulle…Then we walked around Vieux Lille, saw Henry’s old school, St. Paul’s.

In the morning we met two bikepackers from California–Oliver and Brian from San Francisco and Los Angeles–on the outdoor terrace at the Paul’s Boulangerie and café across from the Bourse and Opera. They were on lightweight bikes, headed out for a fast ride to the Ardennes.

We took a bumpy ride over the cobblestones of Vieux Lille to the park that sits like an island across the Deule and smaller canal..

It was fall, so these spring flowers weren’t out…I took this photo when we lived in Lille. At the park’s center is the 400-year-old Vauban Citadel, now used by NATO. The Lille football club used to play at the little stadium at one edge, but they’ve moved to a bigger modern stadium in the suburbs. On Sundays we’d buy roasted chicken and bread at one of the markets, then ride into the park to eat at a picnic table..

We took a twisting bike route bridge that goes over several highways before dumping you on the wrong-way side of La Madeleine… We followed the sidewalk until we found our way back to the Deule bike path, headed toward the Belgian border…

Before Wambrechies we turned off the path to take a bike lane northeast via a busy highway through the towns of Bondues and Roncq. Apart from huge tractor pulling a trailer that brushed very close to us, it seemed safe enough.

We’d been up here years before. But now Henry on his own bike, on his own power.. not pulled by a bar.

It was Oct. 31, we passed through a town named Halluin.  We saw two girls in a motorcycle crash, one girl unconscious, one crying over her as people tried to console her. A few minutes later a middle-aged white guy sees me in the crosswalk and speeds up his SUV.

At Menin we crossed into Belgium then started along a canal bike path again, on our way to Kortrijk.  Belgium has a system of numbered bike routes.


We stopped for lunch, watching the many cyclists and occasional motorcycle go by. The cows came up to watch us eat.

Stopped to take this picture and didn’t realize that we were in Kortrijk and should have crossed the bridge here..Finally figured it out and went back, and got a hotel room at the Ibis in the center of town.

Kortrijk was a wealthy flax and wool producing town in the Middle Ages. It has some nice old towers over the Lys river.

 Picture by Henry M.

I didn’t yet know it when we were there, but Kortrijk is home to Kristof Allegaert, the math professor who won this year’s Transcontinental Race from Geraardsbergen, Belgium, to Istanbul, riding 3,875 km in 8 days and about 15 hours.  That’s more than 400 km a day.

Not sure what kind of pitching they meant. Fatigue setting in. The hotel was a few kilometers away, but we rode around in circles until we found it. Got our bikes inside the luggage room, the bags into the room with a view of the big Schouwburgplein, Theater Place, below. The town has many pedestrian shopping areas but it was a holiday and most things were closed.

Seen in Kortrijk, Belgium

That evening we wandered around looking for a place to eat. There were cafe bars full of young people, and a few very quiet places with white-haired diners. Many restaurants on the Grote Markt , the big place of the town, the menus outside were in Dutch,.. nothing in French or English. Ended up at Louis’s Burger Bar under a big mural photograph of Chicago.

Off one of the side streets near our hotel found a bakery with menu in French to get some bread for morning. Got up before 7am, still end up leaving after 10am, even without getting breakfast.. Back to same bakery for cakes and coffee. A young cyclist in racing gear stopped to ask to borrow my pump. I asked him for directions to Tournais.. the Wallonian city across the border from Lille.

I’d bought tickets for a train from Arras back to Paris that afternoon. We needed to get back to Lille, catch a local train to Arras, then pick up the TGV there..

We end up doing a lot of map checking.. We started out following the highway bike lane through Zwevegem like he told us, but maybe he meant Wevelgem… We turned off on this country lane which looked so promising but that took us in the wrong direction.

The bike lanes were good just about everywhere in Flanders,, but I hadn’t done any route planning and it turned out to be easy to get lost.

Eventually I gave up on getting to Tournai. So we’ve still never seen that Walloon city, although we lived so close to it in Lille for two years.

We wound around the little country roads, through Moen, Sint-Denijs, followed what we thought was a bike route to the edge of farm fields… turned back, and came out in Kooigem on a highway heading toward Tournai.

As soon as we crossed into Wallonia the road surface turned bade. The bike lane was potholed and littered with glass. We crossed over the Espierres canal, looked down and saw a bike path headed west..Two minutes later we’re on it, headed toward France.

Runs from Spiere in Belgium to Roubaix and Lille in France

Stopped a little ways later at a cafe at the lock bridge at St. Leger. Henry wanted fries before we left Belgium, but you had to order a plate to get fries.. The serveuse suggested filet américain, which turned out to a seasoned patty of raw hamburger, with tangy little pickles and salad.

Unfortunately, this path abruptly stopped, fenced off, at Roubaix’s edge.

France has cool bike lane signs, too. But they don’t always go keep their promises..

Back on the road, in France, we passed through Roubaix, where we picked up the bike path that follows the tram to Lille.

Past Parc Barbieux, Marcq-en-Baroeul,..at the edge of Lille, a guy on a recliner wanted to show us the way to Lille Flandres..

The newspaper Voix du Nord building on the Place de General-de-Gaulle in Lille.

On Place du General-de-Gaulle. People dump dishwashing soap and into this fountain and jump in to celebrate their weddings, graduations.

Back in Lille, ride over.On Place du General-de-Gaulle. People dump dishwashing soap and into this fountain and jump in to celebrate their weddings, graduations.

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Ride to Kortrijk, Belgium, in 2007

One Sunday in October 2007 we left our apartment in Lille to ride north to Belgium.


Putting on the trailgator


Along the way from Lille to Kortrijk

A windmill on the main highway.

He’s bigger now.

Across the border at Menen, I detached the trailgator once we got on the bike path heading east along the canal to Kortrijk, Brussels.


He was ready to go.

The towers haven’t changed.

The path took us to Kortrijk.. a Flemish town very close to Lille. I liked being able to ride a short distance from our apartment in Lille to cross a national border into a very different place, in this case the Belgian region of Flanders.

At Kortrijk we took a train back Lille Flanders station in Lille. This is the lady who sold us our tickets.

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Paris-Roubaix country


On a cold April 13, 2008, when we lived in Lille, I rode out past the town of Hem to see the Paris-Roubaix come by on the 260km race’s penultimate section of pavés. Those are the brutal cobblestones that the Hell of the North is famous for.

The racers had started in Compeigne near Paris that morning, but my ride was just 30 km or so round-trip to see them pass. I stopped to shed my jacket and tie it around my waist.  I passed through La Madeleine, a big cemetery, a playground, residential apartments, then the leafy suburbs of Lille, Mons-en Baroeul and Villeneuve D’Asq.

Up there in the far north of France, the shopping centers, warehouses, business parks and neighborhoods were recently farmland. It’s American-style development, but that Sunday afternoon there wasn’t much traffic, so it was nice to pedal through.

Down a narrow. well-paved farm lane, to the entrance of Heron Lake Park, I was suddenly in farm fields. There were a few people out on bikes, walking unpaved paths to another road, another town. It still feels like the countryside but the city is coming.


Pavé section No. 2, started at the hamlet of Robigeux, in the community of Willems, passed through  Sailly-lez-Lannoy, and ended at the edge of the bigger town of Hem, before heading for the 1.4 km last pavé section in Roubaix and the finish in the velodrome.

I had arrived in this little village about two hours before the race. Some amateur riders had passed. ” Were not from around here,” a cop at the barrier told me. He said I could go no further on my bike. There were giants dancing to march music, sausages sizzling, beer  flowing. People cheered at every passing vehicle.

I walked my bike down the edge of the pavé section.  The race was still far away, but I could updates on my phone. There was a steady wind. I had worn barely enough. The sky went from brilliant blue to menacing black.


I stood at a sharp curve. First, came the cars. People gathered. A big group of Belgians, with those big flag hats, and Jupilers in both hands. People cheered when on old man came by on his old bicycle. They’d mock cheered me, too.

Finally, the race arrived, the leaders, Belgian Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, and Alessandro Ballan of Italy. The first chase group about two minutes later.  The riders stayed on the band of asphalt on the side, mostly avoiding the cobbles. Five minutes later another, a bigger group.

Then the peleton came by, looking exhausted but clearly soaking up the applause, sensing they were almost at the end of the 260km race.


A few drops fell on my way home. Boonen won the second of his four Paris-Roubaixs that day, beating Cancellara and Ballan.

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Fourth of July Barbecue at the Beast near La République

republique4july15-1024x768Weiss Beers sitting outside at the bottom of the Passage du Pont aux Biches in the third. Waiting for the Beast to open on Rue Meslay. Real barbecue brisket, pulled pork, ribs and cole slaw, on July 4, pecan pie, Beast beer in a jar. Talked to a couple from Dallas, Texas. His family emigrated from the Azores to New Bedford, a whaling town in Massachusetts.

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St. Germain-en-Laye

castle-sgSt. Germain-en-Laye, Yvelines, rue de la Big Fountain, near the hospital, across from a school, in the room that I work in.

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Chateau Maisons-Laffitte


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Now Entering Hell


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A long time ago


CM took this from his convertible, thunderbird, at the base of Linda Vista hill…on a chilly Florida morning.

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