France’s citizenship test

Opinion Saturday 12/March/2016 15:42 PM
By: Times News Service
France’s citizenship test

Since last November’s brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, a furious debate has been raging in France over whether to revoke the citizenship of those convicted of terrorist offenses. While that move would have significant symbolic value, it would have a limited practical impact. Yet vehement disagreements over the issue continue to drown out discussion of far more consequential topics, like anemic economic growth and high unemployment – and will likely continue to do so.
The citizenship issue was introduced on November 16th, just three days after the attacks, when President François Hollande announced a variety of measures to protect against terrorist threats, including a three-month extension of the state of emergency that had been imposed on the night of the attacks.
On that occasion, Hollande declared his intention to revoke the French citizenship of any individual with dual nationality – including one who was born in France – who was found guilty of “an attempt to undermine the nation’s fundamental interests or for a terrorist act.” (Previously, only binational individuals who became French citizens through naturalization or marriage could receive such a sentence.)
Early polls indicated that an overwhelming majority of the French favoured Hollande’s proposal. But the bill met fierce opposition from key constituencies of Hollande’s Socialist Party, especially the intelligentsia and human-rights groups, and even party insiders – placing Hollande in an awkward political position.
So are the critics right? Their most impassioned argument – that the bill discriminates against dual nationals vis-à-vis single-passport French citizens – is not particularly strong, as such discrimination exists in France, whether or not this bill is passed. Even the example they give to justify this criticism – the stripping of French Jews’ nationality during World War II, under the Vichy regime – is specious.
To be sure, revocation of citizenship has a long history in France. It was first introduced in an 1848 law that aimed to punish citizens still involved in the slave trade; but that law was never enforced. In 1915, another law was enacted that would revoke the citizenship of Franco-German and Franco-Austrian nationals engaged in acts of treason or rebellion against France; it was applied in about 500 cases, but fell into disuse after the war.
Then came the period of abuse. In 1939, with the arrival of WWII, the punishment was reinstated for use against any French citizen who acted as a citizen of another country. By 1944, the Vichy regime had stripped 15,000 citizens of their nationality, including 7,000 Jews, and excluded from citizenship some 110,000 Jews living in Algeria, then a French territory. (Algerians had been guaranteed French nationality in 1870.) In 1945, the possibility of stripping someone of their French nationality was added to the French Civil Code.
On the international level, however, this punishment has been rejected. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, asserts that “everyone has the right to a nationality,” and that no one should be “arbitrarily deprived” of their nationality. Ten years later, the New York Convention, which France signed but did not ratify, explicitly prohibited stripping an individual of their nationality – a point about which the French government expressed reservations. In 1998, France adjusted its civil code to allow for citizenship to be stripped only from dual nationals, thereby reconciling French law with the UDHR.
This change is at the root of a far more compelling argument against Hollande’s bill: Because the measure could be applied to so few people, it would not serve as much of a deterrent. In short, the bill is relatively meaningless.
Of course, one might argue that, given this, there is little reason to oppose the bill’s passage. The problem was that the Hollande administration proposed embedding enlarged revocation criteria into the constitution. The move – which some legal scholars, including former French Justice Minister Robert Badinter, hold was unnecessary – was intended to ensure that France’s constitutional council or a European jurisdiction could not overturn it. And it has made things much harder for Hollande.
Constitutional reforms require the support of three-fifths of the members of the National Assembly and the Senate, in a joint session. This means that, to be successful, Hollande will need to win the support of both his own party and members of the opposition. And, as it stands, he hardly seems set to get it, with both sides deeply divided on the issue.
On the Socialists’ side, huge cracks have appeared, exemplified in the decision of Christiane Taubira, the justice minister, to resign before having to make a stand for the bill. As for the opposition, which dominates the Senate, some, including former president Nicolas Sarkozy, support the bill; others, such as former prime minister François Fillon, have serious doubts.
Hollande could have pursued another, less conflict-ridden path; indeed, technically, he still can. But he adopted his stance just three days after the terrorist attacks, when he felt that the country needed a strong gesture from its leader that would signal his determination to do whatever it took to fight terrorism – and punish its perpetrators. He was not expecting the turmoil that would arise within an already divisive political environment.
At this point, it would be virtually impossible for Hollande to reverse – or even ease – his position, without appearing weak. Despite his well-known political acumen, Hollande has fallen into a political trap from which, regardless of the bill’s fate, no one will emerge unscathed. - Project Syndicate