Marilyn Wiles-Mooij doesn’t even know why her parents were in the U.S. when she was born 67 years ago near Atlanta. Her British military pilot father and French mother went back to Europe when she was a month old. She has lived in France ever since.
She stopped renewing her U.S. passport when she was in her early 20s, and thought that meant she was no longer American. Until 2010. That’s when the retired hotel marketing consultant got a letter from her bank telling her that because she was born in the U.S., she had to fill out forms for the Internal Revenue Service. She ignored it.
A year later, a more insistent letter and another bank closing her accounts drove her to the U.S. consulate, which had no record of her renouncing her citizenship. Doing that would mean paying thousands of dollars in fees and settling outstanding taxes, she was told. So she spent a year getting a U.S. social security number, filled out forms and was stunned when the IRS told her in 2016 that she owed $3,000 for a year when she paid no income tax in France because she was taking care of her handicapped husband. She’s contesting.
“I never asked to be American,” Wiles-Mooij said. “All we’re asking for is a simple and free way to renounce our citizenship.”
The plight of the “accidental Americans” in France like Wiles-Mooij — there are an estimated 10,000 of them — may be discussed by President Emmanuel Macron with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump during an end-of-April state visit to Washington.
They’ve been swept up in FATCA, or the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, a 2010 U.S. measure forcing banks worldwide to scour client lists and report anyone who could be a U.S. citizen, or face being barred from operating in the U.S. FATCA was passed in the aftermath of scandals involving Swiss banks helping wealthy Americans avoid taxes, but has ensnared millions of U.S. citizens of modest means.
Nearly 100 countries have signed treaties with the U.S. to turn over tax information of potential American citizens, even though the U.S. doesn’t reciprocate. The U.S. is the only advanced nation that taxes citizens on worldwide income even when they live abroad.
Marc Le Fur, a French member of parliament who has taken up the accidental Americans’ case, is pushing for relief. “French banks are terrified about their relations with the U.S., that they’ll do anything” Le Fur said in an interview. “We shouldn’t be acting as an auxiliary of the U.S. tax authorities.” France’s banking association says a “diplomatic way” is the best way to address the issue. Some are nevertheless fighting FATCA in French courts.
France’s administrative Supreme Court is due to rule around the end of the year on a case that claims the application of FATCA is unconstitutional. The two main arguments presented last October by Patrice Spinosi, the lawyer handing the case: the French constitution requires treaties to be reciprocal and FATCA violates French and European laws protecting personal data.
“We have a strong case on both points, but only have to win on one of them and FATCA become unenforceable in France,” Spinosi said. “This a major affront to our constitutional system.”
Meanwhile, the lower house of parliament has formed a bi-partisan committee to look into the steps the government can take to defend the “Accidental Americans.” MPs from Macron’s party are writing him to ask that he raise it with Trump during his April 23-25 visit.
The flurry of activity stems from lobbying by the Association of Accidental Americans, founded in 2015 by Fabien Lehagre, a 33-year-old French salesman at a gas company in Brittany. Lehagre, born near San Francisco — where his French father worked as a waiter — moved to France when he was 18 months old, never learned English and never renewed the U.S. passport he acquired at birth. That didn’t stop his bank from identifying him as American.
Lehagre received a letter from his bank in 2014 asking him to provide his social security number, which he’d never heard of, and fill out a series of IRS forms. After learning that on average it costs between 10,000 and 20,000 euros to renounce U.S. citizenship, Lehagre formed the association and started lobbying French government officials.
The association now has 440 members, with about 15 joining each week, Lehagre said. Members say their French banks have arbitrarily closed accounts or withheld U.S. taxes. Some have spent thousands on legal advice to try to settle their U.S. taxes.
Laurent Saint-Martin, an MP from Macron’s party who is joint chair with Le Fur of the parliamentary committee looking into the issue, said he expects to present their report before the summer recess. While powerless to affect U.S. legislation, they’ll propose measures preventing French banks from discriminating against clients for being dual nationals, he said.
In the meantime, Marilyn Miles-Wooij’s bank won’t let her buy certain savings instruments because they have different tax treatments in the U.S. and France.
“I am a second class citizen in France because of a citizenship I don’t want,” she said.
—With assistance from Lynnley Browning