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Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Path to French Citizenship: Policy Change?

The 2012 French elections are behind us and with a new administration in office there are new actors and new policies.

Claude Guéant, former Minister of the Interior and author of the infamous  circulaire Guéant, has been replaced by Manuel Valls who has already announced his intention to unravel much of Mr. Guéant's work.  A few days ago Mr. Valls appeared before a commission of the French Senate and said that he would not implement the new requirements for naturalization that were passed under the previous regime:  the language and culture tests and the Charte des droits et devoirs du citoyen among others.  In his words, these requirements were a "course d'obstacles aléatoire et discriminante" (a random and discriminatory obstacle course) and represented a deliberate policy on the part of his predecessor to "exclure de la nationalité des gens méritants et ne posant aucune difficulté." (exclude from citizenship deserving people who pose no problem whatsoever).

Mr. Guéant wasn't having any of it and fired back in this interview with Le Figaro.  He defended his policies saying that they were just common sense:  good for the newly naturalized French citizens in the sense that it is essential that they be "reconnus sans aucune réserve comme des Français à part entière qu'ils sont" (recognized with no reservation for what they are, fully French) and good for France because they preserve "la cohésion de notre pays" (the solidarity of our country).

As an immigrant, a long-term resident of France and one who seeks French citizenship, where do I stand in this debate?  I think they are both right.

Of all of Mr. Guéant's policies the ones pertaining to naturalizations made a great deal of sense to me.  I read the Charte very carefully and had no problem with it.  As for having to demonstrate that I speak decent French and have a passing knowledge of French history, well, that seemed a perfectly rational request.  Why shouldn't I, in exchange for the honor (and I believe it is one) of becoming a French citizen, be required to meet some minimum standards showing that I have indeed integrated?

But Mr. Valls is also correct.  Having long-term residents (in regular or irregular situations) who are not citizens (and who do not seek citizenship because they perceive the process to be an "obstacle course") is not good for France.  Where one can have practically all the benefits of citizenship with a residency card without pledging allegiance to the country itself (and thus taking on the responsibilities or duties of that citizenship) is it not perfectly rational to simply content oneself with a 10-year residency permit?  Valls pointed out, in his testimony to the French Senate, that naturalizations are already falling rapidly: "Si rien n'est fait, ce nombre va chuter de 40% entre 2011 et 2012 après une chute de 30% entre 2010 et 2011" (if nothing is done, this number will fall 40% between 2011 and 2012 after already falling 30% between 2010 and 2011).

It's a chicken and egg problem.  The more obstacles one puts in the way of naturalizations, the fewer naturalizations you will have, and there will be fewer and fewer incentives to integrate in the first place.  Having been in this situation myself, I can attest to the fact that a residency card can and often does translate in one's mind to a kind of de facto permission to only integrate superficially (just enough to get by and not one inch more) or not at all.   Furthermore, where an immigrant perceives that the nation  does not want him or her to become a citizen, this can produce a kind of backlash where this "rejection" becomes a reason to in turn pay no mind to the customs, mores and even the language of the host nation:  You reject me and I will reject you.  What a terrible dance this is and not at all conducive to "la cohésion de notre pays" that Mr. Guéant was seeking.

Is there a middle ground between Valls' and Guéant's positions?  Of course there is but finding it is not easy.  This kind of debate has been going on in France for years with no resolution.  Perhaps part of the problem is that this dialogue seems to be mostly limited to agents of the governments (old and new), local politicians and those who are already citizens.  It might be helpful to ask the immigrants themselves what they think instead of treating them as passive actors who must simply submit to whatever the "aristocracy" decides.

It is fair and reasonable for the French nation to want citizens who are committed and integrated.  It is also fair for immigrants to examine the terms and to reject or accept them - it is simply not possible to force someone to integrate or to become a citizen.  A way out of this endless debate just might be fewer sticks, more carrots, and an open and honest dialogue among all the parties involved.


Christophe said...

Hi Victoria,

I don't really understand how a language and history test would be a obstable for people to obtain citizenship. It seems normal to me. It might be more bureaucracy and procedures, but I wouldn't call it an obstacle.
I am a proponent of people making efforts to speak the language of the country where they live, and know its history and culture.
Here is a little annecdote:
Living in a southern state in the US, our custodians at work are almost all hispanic. I have nothing against that. My company is a multinational and I love the melting pot of all nationalities that we have. It's interesting and enriching to work with people of different cultures. But back to my story regarding the custodians: when I started working at this company, it surprised me (not in the positive sense) that I had to write 'Basura' instead of 'Trash' for my trash boxes to be picked up.
The point is that it is not a good thing to not know enough of the language and culture to the point that it forces the locals to change their habits or be offended by some behavior.
Now I think a language and culture test might help with that.
I hope this post didn't sound racist as it really wasn't my intention.

Have a great weekend and enjoy your garden. I am not surprised it is so green and beautiful: my sister told me you had a pretty wet summer!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi there Christophe,
In principle, I agree with you but then I also remind myself that I am a middle-class woman with a university education who was already highly literate in one language before I tackled my second. When I first heard about Gueant's new requirements, I went straight down to the FNAC with some former colleagues and dropped 50 Euros on a nice set of history books so I could study. Not everybody has that kind of "cultural capital."

I'd say that a language and culture test are OK by me provided that an effort is made to level the playing field: language and history classes should be accessible to all. And there ought to be enough flexibility in the system to allow for exceptions: a 70 year old man or woman on a modest income who has lived in (and genuinely loves) France for 40 years should not be penalized because he or she does not have (and may never have had the chance to acquire) a high degree of literacy in any language. My .02.


Anonymous said...

Hi Victoria & Christophe,
The USA has no official language. One day there may be some interesting consequences. I find Americans to be very tolerant with those who are not fluent in English. France, on the other hand, works very hard to uphold and maintain the French language both at home and abroad. It is an intrinsic part of French culture and so therefore it is my expectation that individuals wishing to become a French citizen should have a basic knowledge of the language. It is an important element in integration.
Citzenship is a complex subject and Victoria has become quite the expert. I remember a soccer game quite a few years ago where some "French" youths booed as the French national anthem was played. I'm not sure that we really know why (and there has been considerable speculation). My feeling is that we, the French, have done far too little to make our first and second generation immigrants part of Team France. Language, history, culture are part of being French. These are the things that unify a nation.
BTW, there are associations in France that provide French language classes, taught by volunteers, to immigrants. In a similar vein, there are volunteers in the USA who provide civics classes for immigrants who wish to become American citizens. I have been told that the "job satisfaction" level for these volunteers is very high. Maybe it is something that the French might consider, it is after all another way to bring the "old" and the "new" together. What do you think?

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Anonymous,

I think you've hit the nail on the head. Integration is a two-way street (Patrick Weil talks about this very eloquently) and everyone has to make an effort and consider it a National Project.

One barrier I've seen is that sometimes (not always) love for the language turns into making it a Citadel and not a Passport. This is not confined to immigrants.

I had a visitor the other day at the Flophouse and as she was leaving she saw a note our concierge put up on the door to the garbage area. It's not very well written and has spelling errors. My visitor, a very nice woman, looked at it, pointed all the errors and had such a look of contempt on her face. Now the concierge here is a very nice lady too, 100% French, and clearly isn't someone who went great schools. I couldn't help but think that here was a situation where one French person was consigning another to a sort of "social death" based on mastery (or lack thereof) of the language which is certainly one part of being French but is not the whole story.

I like your idea about language classes run by volunteers - a way to bring everyone together and not just immigrants but French people from different socio-economic situations. Easy to sneer and point out a problem - better to be part of the solution. My .02.