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Monday, February 4, 2013

Voting Rights for Foreigners in France

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.


Christophe said...


Another great post! Let me allow to comment on it:
I am in the same position here in the US and am sensitive to the subject.

I can understand both point of views.
On one side, I agree with you that allowing non-citizens to vote promotes integration.

On the other side, I think that most of those against it reside in areas of France where there is a large population of non-citizen immigrants whose religion and values differ from the local ones. The people against allowing non citizen to vote are afraid that they might be outnumbered by those non-citizen immigrants who would elect some official who would adopt policies that favor this class of residents and enact changes that go against the core values of traditional France. I think that's what they're afraid of, and I can understand that. Hence the strong comment from the UMP representative.
His comments were aimed at a specific group of people, and I would even go as far as saying that they were racist.

I share your point of view about protests. I would not participate in one here, but I think it is totally fine to write elected representatives. They represent all residents - not just the ones that voted for them.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Christophe, Thanks so much for sharing your point of view. Our situations are an almost perfect mirror - want to read a joint post about it?

You are dead on about the area Etrosi represents. Isn't it interesting how the immigration debates in the US center around Mexicans and in France around the North Africans. Usually the language is more publicly neutral but underneath we all know who is being talked about here.

Which is why I think it is vitally important that we (the immigrants from other places) stand up for and show solidarity with them. They should not have to shoulder this burden alone. And when laws are passed against them or the atmosphere become poisoned and dangerous, let's not kid ourselves, we will get it too.

Interesting what you say about elected officials. I've never had that sense in France. Why do you think that US elected official represent you as well?

Anonymous said...

There has been some ongoing debate in Canada about allowing voting for non-citizens in local elections (no serious discussion at the national and provincial level).

In countries with relatively straightforward paths to citizenship (e.g., Canada, Australia), no need to provide voting rights to non-citizens.

There can be a debate about whether citizenship means one is 'integrated' or is a further way station to integration. My perspective is, given our complex and layered identities, that is it more of a way station, albeit a significant one, and citizenship policies that encourage citizenship, without having black or white concepts about what that means, further integration.

Christophe said...

Hi Victoria,

You mean write a joint post about it? Sure.

Yes, I wanted to stay neutral in my post to not be negative, but you spelled it out for me :-)

Benefits for immigrants is a touchy issue. A lot of French people think people from North Africa abuse the system, especially when it comes to the allocation familiales, as they usually have very big families.
They also think a lot of them work "au noir", meaning undeclared, and not contributing to social security, taxes etc.
There is a lot of hypocrisy here too. On one hand, these people do the lower level, physically intensive jobs that most people don't want to do (household cleaning, construction etc), and the French who hire them are happy to pay cash for their services. On the other hand, they complain about these people abusing the system.

And you're right, there are big similarities with hispanics here:
they do the same jobs mentioned above that Americans are not necessarilly fond of (and you can add a lot of farm jobs to pick up crops as well). And they're blamed for abusing the health system and going to the ER for care here, and sending a lot of money home instead of using it in the American economy.
Higher tech immigrants are blamed for taking Americans jobs. A lot of people are not fond of the H1-B program and think that the proof that companie have not found a qualified US worker is BS. So yes, we're hit in a different way too.

I think Immigrants are a key component of a society. They complement it. And all these debates would not exist if they all played by the rule. Unfortuntely, a lot of people are generalizing the issues to all of them for the few that break the rules.

I like the diversity and other perspectives that people from other origin bring. It is enrishing. However, this works only if they embrace the values of the community they join. If they outnumber the locals, by choosing to all live together and change too much the original community, then this is not good.
Also, if some of their practices go against the values of country, or make people unconfortable, that's not good either. To name a controversial one: take the burka (full veil worn by muslim women). I happened to see some wearing them in public, and it makes me unconfortable. Even if it might not be what they think, I think it denigrates women and does not have its place in our modern society. I think it poses security issues as well. How can the teaches be sure that they give children to the right person. I support the law against it. But this is touchy again: why wouldn't they be free to wear it in a free society?

As for your last question, regarding elected officials. I have had the chance to talk to several here, either by letter or in person (where candidates held meetings in communities). They alwayss welcome my ideas and comments. And I never hid where I came from. The face to face meetings were great, and most of the ones who responded did not send a form letter, but actually responded to the questions in my letter.

All for now. Feel free to use that for a new post if you wish.

Have a great day.

Berliniquais said...

Hello Victoria! I hope your condition is improving.

I'm back on your blog after a long absence (well, I was absent from mine too for some time...). I haven't forgotten you, I even kept my promise to light a candle and pray for you in a very beautiful church, in St-Jean-de-Luz in the Pays Basque.

This is a very great post of yours here. I find it all the more interesting since all your arguments make sense to me, although, interestingly, I don't entirely agree with you.

The only thing which is unclear in your post is at which level it is proposed to grant foreigners voting rights in France. You don't say anything about it, assuming maybe that all your readers know. I do think I know, but I'm not sure (local level, municipal elections only I think, right?)

Although I consider myself rather left-wing, I am against voting rights for foreigners, at any level. I don't understand why this makes sense in any way. And I say this as a foreigner in my country of residence, who will be denied the right to cast a ballot for or against Frau Merkel in September. To me, the vote is a right, and also a privilege, which should be exercised by citizens of the country. This way, it is a very very simple principle, and what France needs is simple laws, what the usual cumbersome "usines à gaz" that we're so good at devising.

Granting foreigners the right to vote on the basis that most of them contribute to the economy would make sense to me, but then what do we do about those who don't contribute, even though they are, I believe (probably unlike Mr Estrosi), a minority? I think it is unfair towards the others. And then, you need to start drawing the line at how many years of residence, etc, etc. I don't get it at all what good it is for the nation to go down this path.

Much as I dislike Mr Estrosi, I agree with his much watered-down stance (once you've taken out all the shrill xenophobia and pandering to far-right): Dear Mr or Mrs Foreigner, you're welcome to vote in France after you have been naturalised a French citizen. By the way, I would translate "il suffit de demander la nationalité" rather into "he just needs to ask for French nationality", there's an undertone of "and it's just not that hard to do" in the sentence.

And come to think of it, I just realise that Mr Estrosi said "he [just] needs to ASK / APPLY FOR French citizenship", which, I believe, is not quite the same thing as to finally obtain it. Do you think that is intentional? Or does he really think it is a walk in the park to become a French citizen, so as to equate the application with the naturalisation?

This would show that he is not very much aware of the reality of how hard it is.

And here, I fully agree with you Victoria: it is a shame, a blemish, a total disgrace, that you still cannot become a French citizen, and that the naturalisation process is so fiendishly complicated.

My position on this would be: no to voting rights for foreigners, yes to sensible and straightforward naturalisation laws for legal "alien residents".

Berliniquais said...

Wow, I'm very surprised that I was still below the 4,096-character limit and got the captcha right in my previous comment... :-)

Just a side note on your 1st paragraph. I found it very funny and I liked your reaction and the whole anecdote, possibly just because it amused my greatly to imagine the miffed look on the face of the Versailles gentleman...

But actually, I disagree with you about refraining from making your voice heard in any possible way on French issues. But well, your approach is sensible. I sign lots of petitions in Germany. It's the country I live in, I work here, pay (lots of) taxes, do volunteer work and get involved in the society. I take some issues very much to heart, and most of them affect me directly. So to me it just makes sense to sign petitions or join demonstrations if I happen to disagree with what the Government is up to (which is often). I'm surprised that you don't feel the same, and still have qualms about "meddling" in the politics of the country you spent the last couple of decades and raised a family in... So up to this level, I would rather agree with the Versailles gentleman, but...

I can't believe he had the nerve to try and persuade you to sign a petition against voting rights for foreigners! And to be annoyed with you for not obliging, even after you told him that you were a foreigner too!!! This is truly hilarious.

You should have asked him, Victoria, if he also spends his time trying to get turkeys to vote (or petition) for Christmas.

Love it! :-)

(And I'm trying not to think too much about the fact that if you had looked more "exotic", he probably would not insisted so much, or possibly wouldn't have asked you to sign it in the first place. *sigh*)

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@lymphomajourney, I see what you mean about citizenship being a test of integration. That is not necessarily the case. Being an immigrant I can also say that sometimes there are very good reasons NOT to become a citizen. In countries like US, Canada and much of Western Europe legal residency offers almost all the benefits of citizenship outside of voting. There is even a status in the EU called "long term EU resident" which gives you the right to live in work all over Europe and gives you some protection against deportation.

If you're interested this post has some of the pros and cons of acquiring citizenship from a migrant's perspective:

@Christophe, I once had a fascinating conversation with a lady at the unemployment office. She said she'd been working her job for years and for every immigrant she suspected of milking the system there were 10 French natives. :-)

I was also reading awhile ago a very good argument AGAINST the integration of immigrants. The reasoning was this: immigrants from highly entrepreneurial cultures with a strong work ethic are an asset to their host country. When they start integrating and acting like natives much of their added value disappears. Food for thought there...

JM: Great to see you here. I just love your comments which are always really well thought out. And I saw that you started blogging again. I love your blog and your writing style.

Thank you for the prayers. Knowing that I'm in the hands of a loving God and that people are asking for His help on my behalf is one of the things that sustains me. Good days and bad days but overall right now feeling much better.

Yes, most French have no idea how citizenship acquisition works in France. Most of them don't need to know, right? But they do have a vague idea that it is really easy and that must be a bad thing.

It's not easy though that's relative. It's easier in France than some countries. It's harder in France than in other places. We looked at Canada, for example (my daughter is there). Pretty simple.

Yeah, some days I wished I did look a bit more exotic. Just call me a "stealth migrant." :-)