What’s to be French?

Officially France recognises both birth right and jus soli. It means that one will automatically have the French nationality provided that one of his parents is acknowledged as French by l’Etat Civil (through blood lineage, then) but also anyone born on French soil is given the French nationality.

It is being discussed at the moment because the instauration of both rights in the constitution is dating back after WWII and it has been applied to every child of immigrants who came to France The problem we are having is that, for the first time since WII, we are not only dealing with immigrants but with refugees.

The very important difference between an immigrant and a refugee is that the first has made the decision to move countries in order to find better opportunities, better life or just to find something new, like I did when moving to England.

Immigrants have the will to stay for a long time, to settle, to integrate. They are here to stay, their decision is, for the majority, a life-time decision. They find jobs, pay taxes and it is fair to give the French nationality to their children born in France, who after all, speak French, read, watch and listen to French, go to French schools, abide by French laws. To give people who are born and raised in France within French values a sense of belonging from the very beginning.

A refugee, however, is different. They have no intention to stay. I am saying they don’t contribute, are unwilling to integrate or that they will never (want to) stay but most of them are living with hope that what the plague that forced them to abandon their home will end soon and they will be able to go back home and rebuild their lives. That’s just for the ones who are stationing in France. We also have hundreds of thousands, millions maybe, transiting through the country to reach some family and friends that will help and shelter them in another country, like the UK.

What do we do when one if these refugee women gives birth in France then? Should jus soli apply? Why? Why not? My real question is: Do the parents really care that their child is French? Do they want their children to be French? Will the child ever want to be French? Will there be consequences when they go back to a country that might not acknowledge him/her as one of their own? Will they be forced to give it up to be accepted when they never asked for it?

And what does that mean for the child to be French?

Having the French nationality does not open to automatic economic rights – unlike what Marine Le Pen has been saying. Believe me, I know! Ten years in England meant ten years without a cent given to the French state in taxes so when I came back, no amount of passport, ID card or birth certificate allowed me to receive any money. I want a place to live? A chance to be reimbursed my medical expenses?  Protection if I lose my job? Well, I had to get a job to begin with. My French nationality never gave me any economic rights, no. You earn them.

However, being French automatically gives you certain can-do’s (along with the have-to’s), such as the right to express yourself, i.e: vote and that’s an issue. Although the numbers of refugee babies automatically born French are a far cry from dramatic, there are babies out there who are French because they were born in France and maybe they will never know or actually never care. Some will have never spoken a word or French, lived in France or even cared for France. What do we do about them? Do we give them the right to vote anyway? If anything happens to them later on in life in another country, is France’s responsibility to protect them?

That’s a question I don’t know how to answer. At the moment, the state has inadvertently responded to it by allowing the “striping of nationality” in the constitution under certain circumstances dividing even more the country between those who are sure to remain French and those walking on the plank. Maybe a review of the situation when the child is 18 could be good, like in Germany. I don’t know…

The other major issue with being French is the problem between what the law says and what the people are ready to accept. As usual with a country, the capital is setting the tone and I will mention my cousin to show something about France and its conception of identity.

My cousin was born in Paris more than 30 years ago. His parents moved there when they were late teenagers, he has lived his whole life in Paris, has no intention to move, has always been working in Paris itself, have been paying taxes to the city of Paris yet he’s not “un Parisien”.

Why? Because his father was not born in Paris but in Boulogne. His mother was born in Paris but her parents weren’t. To have the right to call yourself a “true” Parisien and to be acknowledged as such by the “true” people of Paris, you have to be the fourth generation in a row to be born and to have lived in Paris.

So despite his mother and himself being born in Paris, he is not un Parisien. All because his father is form Boulogne and grew up in Versailles, his grand-mother is from Chamberry and grew up in Saint-Cloud, his grand-father is from Tours and grew up in Saint-Cloud as well. As for the rest of the family, we come from Tourraine, Périgord, Jura, Lyon and Savoy.

Well, expend that to the whole of France and you know why people who were born in France, whose parents were born in France are not considered as French but called “Imigrants of Third Generation”, all because their grand-parents are from Algeria. Even when the State officially acknowledges them as French, and Algeria was part of France when their grand-parents were born – but at the time, no jus soli, just birth right so they were still “Arabs”.

That’s the core of the identity problem in France. The State acknowledges you as French but as far as the French are concerned, they will check on your ancestors to find out if your claim to Frenchness withholds the 100 years landmark or 4 generations born and to have lived in France.

This idea of time based on a mix of blood and land doesn’t come out of nowhere. It is actually one of the most archaic way to decide whether someone deserves to be something or not. It started with the Greeks. To have the right to become a citizen in Athens, to have the right to express yourself and vote, you had to prove that your father and grand-father were born and lived in Athens. Then later, as the system got older, you could only be a citizen if your father and grand-father were themselves citizens. Or be an exceptional character. But nothing new is protecting one’s right to be privileged.

In the US, one likes to list their Italian quarter of blood mixed with eighth of Irish blood, sixteenth of Swedish, all in half Cheerokee because they are no real definition of what it is to be American. The nationality doesn’t even match the name of the country for the US know they are a country of immigration.

In France, schizophrenia is the norm. “The Republic is one and indivisible” so everyone is French by either birth right or jus soli or both. By this definition, being French should be fairly open from the Flemish of the Lille to the Basque of the Bayonne yet in real life everyone still has to prove their blood has been purified by 100 of living on the French soil before they can be allowed to call themselves French by the “true French” – whoever we are. Celtic Gaulois by soil? Germanic Franks by blood? Romans by language? Austrians by croissants?

A good integration of immigrants is not just about them making an effort, but also about a rethink of what it takes and means to be French. It means teaching the French and the immigrants that being French has nothing to do with time and blood, rather will, tolerance, open-mindness and contribution from both parts.

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