France’s Citizenship Test

PARIS – 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 favored 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. Whereas the Jews endured horrific persecution simply for being Jews, Hollande’s proposal would punish a specific group of convicted criminals.