Over the weekend I was asked to sign a petition against some "projet de loi" that the Socialists have cooking. I did not sign it. Why? As I explained to the nice Frenchman before me, the petition called on all citizens to fight this project. I am not a citizen, I said, and so I don't feel comfortable putting my name down. That's alright, he replied, if you are a resident it should be fine. I can't vote here, I answered, and the petition is addressed to the representatives of those who can. And don't the French take a dim view of non-citizen foreigners meddling in their internal politics? He wasn't very happy with me and I wasn't too pleased by the exchange either.
When it comes to political action in one's host country the lines are not clear. It's not just petitions, it's also rallies (manifestations), letters to elected officials and contributions for various causes. The citizen seeking support for his cause will suspend his general belief that foreigners should mind their own business (or become citizens) in order to get another name down. The non-citizen on the other hand has to think about the ramifications of doing that sort of thing: Is this going to provoke the natives? Will it offend someone? Someone with the power to make one's life a little more difficult especially when renewing one's residency permit?
Is this paranoia or prudence? A little of both. The Socialists have another project that would give foreigners the right to vote in France. This has elicited some very strong reactions the most extreme coming from Christian Estrosi, a UMP representative and the mayor of Nice.
"Et c'est ce qui me révolte le plus. Pourquoi ? Parce que donner le droit de vote à des personnes qui haïssent la France, qui détestent la laïcité, qui refusent nos lois...
(And that's what disgusts me the most. Why? Because giving the right to vote to the people who hate France, who hate the separation of church and state, who refuse our laws...)
He later clarified on Twitter: "Donner systématiquement le droit de vote aux étrangers et même à ceux qui peuvent haïr la France, c'est une véritable folie." Si un étranger "veut voter dans notre pays, il lui suffit de demander la nationalité française." (To systematically give the right to vote to foreigners and even to those who might hate France, that's pure folly. If a foreigner wants to vote in our country, he needs to ask for French nationality.)
Needless to say as someone who has lived for many years in France and who has probably more love and loyalty to her than to my country of origin at this point, his words were a shot to the heart. It wasn't what he said. In fact I have a certain sympathy for his position - there is real merit to the argument that voting is and should remain a privilege of citizens. The tone, however, was very discouraging. All the more so since (and this may surprise Mr. Etrosi) a quick read of his website reveals that where he sits on the political spectrum in this country is probably where I would end up and vote if I had the right to do so. For those who think that giving foreigners the vote means that we will always vote for the Socialists, I think you gravely underestimate how diverse we are.
I would also like to point out that it's not that easy to become a French citizen these days even if one has been married for 23 years to a French citizen. Last time I tried I was stymied because after months of gathering the necessary paperasse, I wasn't able to get one piece of paper translated in time. Shortly after that I was diagnosed with cancer and that was the end of that until I finished my treatment. Now I understand that the rules and procedures may change once again which means another trip to the Prefecture, perhaps other papers to acquire, and then a wait and maybe an interview or a test. It's a bit daunting. And from the conversations I've had with my friends, folks from church and family members, most are genuinely surprised that it's not easier. We all seem to be in agreement - I want to be French and they want me to be French. Surely it can't be that hard, they say. Well, it is what it is and it is not within my power to change.
In the meantime, terribly conscious of my non-citizen status, doubtful of my moral right to participate, and fearful of the reactions of the natives, I prefer to bow out of the internal political arena. And I would argue that this is not good for anyone. Integration is not just obeying the laws or speaking the language - it's also about having a stake in the society in which one lives and being a full participant on all levels: political, economic, cultural and social. I find it terribly ironic that I can participate in the political life of my home country more easily than I can in the place where I live, work, own a house, and have raised a family.
That is not an argument by the way for giving me or any other foreigner the right to vote. If the French decide to do so it would be a gracious and generous gesture but I wouldn't blame them nor would it hurt my feelings if the collective conscience of this country said "no."
What I am saying is that if you create a world where full participation in society (full integration) is contingent upon acquiring citizenship and then you make laws and procedures and create an atmosphere where such naturalizations are subtly discouraged, then you drive us to despair. And at that point the only place we have to fall back to is where we came from. Think about it.