THERE IS something very French about the notion that the right to citizenship should embody a commitment not just to the nation per se, but to embracing its political culture and values, what its constitution defines not-uncontroversially as “an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic”.
While in Ireland acquiring citizenship involves a sworn “declaration of fidelity to the nation and loyalty to the State”, in France the hurdle is significantly higher, the Code Civil providing that a minister may disqualify a candidate, among other reasons, for poor French or, more dubiously, for a “lack of integration” into society.
That has been the fate of an unnamed Algerian-born man married to a Frenchwoman in Alsace. Interior minister Claude Guéant last week overruled his application because of the man’s sexism, what a senior official described as his “degrading” view of women’s place in society, views “incompatible with France’s fundamental values”. Police inquiries, the ministry reported, established that the applicant would not allow his wife to speak without permission, to leave home without his consent or a chaperone, or to seek a job. He has not been accused of violence or any criminal offence.
Guéant is unapologetic. “The assimilation of immigrants in France,” he argues, “is about embracing our culture and participating in French social and communal life.” Whether they want to or not. And the rationale of his ruling is very much part and parcel with the government’s ban on the wearing of the veil in public places which came into force in April – France’s secularism (“laïcité”) is non-negotiable, its marginalised and stigmatised Muslim minority is being told.
The subtext is not quite what it appears. The ruling has less to do with the worthy purpose of championing the rights of women, and more with the somewhat more dubious one of cracking the secularist whip. In France such arguments are also well understood as a proxy for anti-immigrant propaganda – the case emerged a week after far-right leader Marine Le Pen wrote to French MPs asking them to support an end to dual nationality, claiming it “undermines republican values”. She was not talking about French-Americans.
Guéant’s decision, which is being appealed to the courts, is a dangerous precedent opening up all sorts of possibilities. What other conduct may yet be interpreted as failure to integrate? Ultimately the issue also raises the more basic question of whether a political test for citizenship is compatible with an open democratic society.