Skip to content

Living abroad, Jim McDermott finds his liberal utopia

Years into retirement, former lawmaker lives the very policies he once fought for

Former Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., sits outside his cottage in rural France. McDermott moved to France after retiring from Congress in 2017.
Former Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., sits outside his cottage in rural France. McDermott moved to France after retiring from Congress in 2017. (Ariel Cohen/CQ Roll Call)

CIVRAC-EN-MEDOC, France — Former Rep. Jim McDermott is the rare lawmaker who has been able to live out all the policies he worked for during his decades in Washington.

He just had to move to another country to do it.

From a quaint French village about 90 minutes outside of Bordeaux, the longtime liberal lawmaker enjoys free health care and a safe community where he doesn’t need to lock his doors at night. He loves that kids in the neighborhood don’t worry about gun violence and that women have access to reproductive care, specifically abortion. He reads the news every day but says he doesn’t miss America all that much.

“I spent 16 years in the Washington state legislature trying to get single-payer health care. Then I spent nearly 30 years in Congress trying to get single-payer. Then I came to France and in three months I had single-payer. Was that mind-blowing? You bet,” he says.

Leaving the country after nearly half a century of public service wasn’t necessarily the plan. After retiring from Congress in 2017, McDermott, feeling bored with his newfound freedom back in Seattle, decided to enroll in a two-week cooking class in the southwest of France. He liked the area so much he decided to buy a small stone cottage two weeks later and move across the Atlantic.

Today he calls himself an immigrant. He lives alone. He barely speaks French. But he’s a big fan of the French motto “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” and says that communal spirit is evident both in his everyday interactions with his neighbors and how the French government treats its people.

When he arrived in France, he needed to fill a few prescriptions but didn’t have a French primary care doctor. The pharmacist looked at his empty pill bottles and refilled them, no questions asked. When McDermott finally got a French physician, he received a brand-new CPAP machine at no cost. A month later, someone came to make sure it was working properly.

“Coming to France is like a drink of cold water,” he says. “Once you’ve had this experience, it’s easy to see all the ways in the U.S. you’re getting screwed — well, not screwed per se, but definitely overcharged.”

Provincial life

The 87-year-old Democrat and former psychiatrist says his decision to move to the French village of 661 people wasn’t meant as a slight to the country he served. He insists he could have moved to any small town, whether in Washington state or France. He knows the decision is unusual, though, especially for a former congressman.

When McDermott moved to Civrac-en-Medoc, he only had a couple acquaintances. But during the pandemic, the former House Ethics Committee chairman became a part-time goat farmer, and that really changed the game.

Every day, he would trudge over to a neighbor’s yard to bring their three goats water and bread. Some days, when he was particularly bored or lonely, he’d pretend to give them a holy sacrament, like in a Catholic Mass.

Then, one day, one of the goats went into labor. McDermott and the town vet helped the smallest goat deliver a stillborn, and McDermott tried to nurse the mother back to health.

“Everybody in the neighborhood knew I did this, so I was no longer the ugly American. I was accepted,” he says.

Now he’s fully integrated in the community. He goes to the same patisserie every morning for a coffee and croissant before going to the market and grabbing the one copy of The New York Times the shop keeper sets aside for him.

He bought a share of a small winery, and works with a chatty local winemaker named Guy to make rosé. They just bottled their first vintage. It’s not half bad.

McDermott enjoys painting, and has gotten into the Japanese ink painting known as sumi-e. Otherwise, he fills his days with reading and slow walks around the town’s dusty roads, past vineyards and yards full of chickens.

When asked if he’s bored, if he misses the fast-paced, nonstop political life, McDermott hops up and walks over to his overcrowded bookshelf. “I’ve got the whole world right here,” he says.

An America ‘in denial’

Even though he’s physically far from Washington, it’s always present in his mind. On Jan. 6, 2021, McDermott recalls watching CNN and crying alone in the living room of his French cottage.

“Most Americans are in a state of denial,” he says, referring to the possibility of former President Donald Trump winning a second term. “Even if you’re smart, it’s the only way to be sane.”

There’s a difference between having power and having “présence,” he says, mocking a French accent. And he believes the current Congress has lost its ​​présence.

All the workhorses of Congress have left Capitol Hill, he says, and these days lawmakers stick around longer than they should because they don’t want to give up their positions of power.

He still talks to a handful of his friends back in D.C., but says most of his favorite lawmakers have left the nation’s capital. He calls Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat, “one of the best human beings in the Congress.”

There are plenty of lawmakers he talks shade about, mostly off-the-record grumblings about progressives who abandoned incremental progress in the hopes of big wins and ended up with nothing at all. He laments the lack of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill and reminisces about bygone eras when lawmakers from both parties could have a friendly exchange of ideas.

“You can get a lot done if you don’t care who gets credit for it” is a motto he repeats at least five times throughout a day with a reporter.

Once a health policy wonk…

McDermott first ran for elected office in the 1970s, campaigning on abortion access. He grew up an evangelical Christian and changed his conservative views on abortion while he was a medical student, after seeing two women die from sepsis following illicit abortions.

Meanwhile, his newly adopted country voted to enshrine abortion access in its constitution earlier this month.

“The whole country stood up and said, ‘Up your ass, we’re not going your way, America,'” he says. “People have realized America is not the place you want to be on everything.”

During McDermott’s time in the Washington state legislature, he worked on trying to create a single-payer system. When that didn’t work out, he developed the Washington State Basic Health Program, a health coverage system for the unemployed and working poor — the first state program of its kind.

Then, once he got to Washington, D.C., he tried to work with then-first lady Hillary Clinton to hatch a federal single-payer program, “but she was in the arms of insurance companies,” he says, and it never came to be.

The 2022 reconciliation law, which allows Medicare to negotiate drug costs, is a step in the right direction, he says, but he also predicts that it will take “400 years” for the U.S. to ever reach a single-payer system like France has.

Not giving up

Despite his misgivings about the U.S. and newfound love of the French countryside, McDermott still makes a habit to go back to the United States for a couple months every year to visit with his children, grandchildren and friends.

He knows his time in France may be limited, though he’s converted the downstairs level of his small house into a small apartment if one day he can no longer manage the stairs.

“There’s a joke at my age: don’t buy green bananas,” he says.

But even over here, he still tries to represent the U.S. when he can. Old habits die hard.

While exploring Chateau Loudenne one town over, he meets a Ukrainian woman and asks how her family is doing. She begins to cry as she talks of her brother and family on the front. McDermott immediately grabs her hand, admits he’s a former American congressman, and offers his support and the support of his nation. On the way out, he asks for her contact information and promises to return.

“I still vote, I still got my house in Seattle. Just because I don’t live there doesn’t mean I’ve given up on the United States,” McDermott says.

Recent Stories

Capitol Ink | B Movie

States move to label deepfake political ads

Decades of dallying led to current delay on menthol ban

Can a courtroom bring Trump’s larger-than-life personality down to size?

Lee, Fitzpatrick win primaries as fall matchups set in PA

Aid finally set to flow as Senate clears $95.3B emergency bill