France must remain a vibrant and plural democracy

The democratic debate over the proposal to strip citizenship from French nationals convicted of terrorism.

France''s President Francois Hollande, right, talks to an armed police officer as he visits the security measures at the Champs Elysees in Paris [AP]
Hollande talks to an armed police officer as he visits the security measures at the Champs Elysees in Paris [AP]

During his New Year’s address to the French nation, President Francois Hollande confirmed his decision to review the constitution and integrate a series of reforms that would include the controversial decision to strip any dual-national citizen born in France and convicted of terrorist crimes of his French nationality.

Although Marine Le Pen’s extreme right National Front party and the traditional opposition – the Republican party led by former President Nicolas Sarkozy – have regularly pressed for this measure, it caused an uproar from key personalities among Hollande’s own supporters.

Still, Hollande showed authority and stood by the changes he deemed necessary as a result of the extraordinary circumstances following the Paris attacks on November 13, a move than confirms his attempt to portray himself as the protector of French patriotism, and shatter the National Front’s monopoly over that claim.

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In his speech, Hollande reaffirmed his attachment to the French national identity, albeit one that would remain open to the world in contrast to Le Pen’s xenophobic discourse.

New narrative

This new narrative has received a mixed reaction from the presidential majority and might deprive Hollande of much-needed support in the constitutional ballot in which he will need 60 percent of the votes in parliament.

Indeed, several socialist heavyweights quickly pointed out that this change of position – Hollande had strongly opposed a similar proposal made by Sarkozy in 2010 – was breaking with one of France’s essential values, notably the legal rule attributing irrevocable nationality to an individual because of his birth in France, regardless of his blood line.

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Several leading socialist, including Martine Aubry and Arnaud Montebourg, say that this reform is inefficient, as it is unlikely to convince terrorists to renounce their deadly projects. They also posit that Hollande is being “contaminated” by National Front ideas and that threatening binational citizens is in fact targeting a minority of the population, in violation of the republican value of equality.

Several socialist heavyweights were prompt in underlining that this change of position ... was instead breaking with one of France's essential values.


According to these critics, the decision opens a Pandora’s box and creates a dangerous precedent for stripping citizens of their nationality that could be exploited in the future for racial, religious or political motives.

The danger is real, especially at a time when the National Front defends xenophobic ideas such as “remigration”, the mass expulsion of categories of immigrants and recent citizens. What those socialist political leaders argue is that such an evolution further weakens the republican cradle of values instead of reinforcing it.

It creates two levels of citizens: the native and “pure” French and the “ethnic aliens”, something incompatible with the values of the French Republic and left-wing ideals.

Hollande’s decision needs to be studied as a short-term political strategy. Both the French president and his prime minister, Manuel Valls, confirmed that the measure was more a symbolic act than an effective addition to the legal arsenal against terrorism.

Symbols are needed

Nevertheless, at a time when the cohesion of French society has been shattered by terrorism, such symbols are needed. This constitutional change would reinforce the statement that the French nationality is incompatible with participation in terrorist plots. It would also mean that any radicalised individual jeopardised losing the benefits of the protection of the French passport, both in terms of social welfare and economic perspectives.

French President Francois Hollande [Reuters]
French President Francois Hollande [Reuters]

At a time when an ever-growing segment of the French electorate is falling into the trap of the National Front, listening to their populistic and retrograde chimeras, these constitutional changes might answer the calls to break with the perceived inaction from the political establishment. It also further narrows the political space for Nicolas Sarkozy whose momentum entering the Republican Party primaries regularly fades away.

If France were to adopt the possibility of stripping convicted terrorists of their citizenship, it would only be following the example of some of its neighbours.

German law is a mixture of the right of the blood (jus sanguinis) and right of the land (jus soli).

Similarly, in Great Britain, the head of the Home Office, Teresa May, has the power to deprive a citizen of his nationality if she considers it “in the public interest”. For example, in 2011 she withdrew the British citizenship of a man born in the UK, as well as his three sons, because of alleged links to al-Qaeda, based on MI5 evidence yet to be disclosed.

The fact that this debate exists today in France, and that prominent politicians on both sides join the argument, is the sign of a vibrant and plural democracy, one that ISIL terrorists abhor but which remains strong.

Remi Piet is assistant professor of public policy, diplomacy and international political economy at Qatar University.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.