The French Senate has essentially put to death one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in recent memory: a proposed constitutional amendment that would strip French citizenship from dual nationals convicted of terrorism.
The amendment, known in France as the “déchéance de nationalité” (forfeiture of nationality), was largely devised in response to the Nov. 13, 2015, terrorist attacks in Paris, in which gunmen affiliated with the Islamic State killed 130 people and injured many more in cafes, restaurants and a concert hall across the city. A majority of the known attackers held French citizenship. As the deadliest attacks to occur on French soil since World War II and on European soil since the Madrid train bombings of 2004, they warranted a strong response — at least in the eyes of the French government.
French President François Hollande, of the Socialist Party, faces considerable challenges in the forthcoming 2017 election, especially from the right — notably from Marine Le Pen of the National Front and, perhaps more significantly, from former president Nicolas Sarkozy of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) (who reportedly is considering another run). Proposing this new nationality law was ultimately a means of projecting strength in a moment of crisis.
In the months since it was first proposed, however, the law has scandalized many of Hollande’s fellow leftists. Christiane Taubira, for instance, his own justice minister, resigned in January over the issue of the déchéance, which she critiqued in a short book, “Murmures à la jeunesse,” released in February. Likewise, Anne Hidalgo, Paris’s Socialist mayor, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a fixture of the far-left, have minced no words in their own unsparing critiques.
Most of these critics vehemently oppose the idea of a legally enshrined distinction among French citizens, all of whom, they argue, must remain equal in the eyes of the French state. The issue is ultimately that Hollande chose to enact this new nationality law in terms of a constitutional amendment — a strategy his advisers felt would protect it against legal challenges. But this has proven a much more difficult sell than just the law without the amendment.
By involving the French Constitution, the déchéance de nationalité has ultimately become far more than a simple means of fighting terrorism: For many, it represents an unwelcome attempt to alter the very identity and foundations of French Republic itself, a historic bastion of “liberty, equality and fraternity.”
“He could do this in law — laws can be 200 pages long,” Patrick Weil, France’s preeminent historian of immigration, said of Hollande’s strategy. “But you cannot do this in the Constitution. This proposal cannot be in the Constitution, which is about principle, unity and not division. The Constitution is short, and you can’t have one page on the deprivation of citizenship.”
To pass, Hollande’s amendment would ultimately require that both the National Assembly and the Senate agree on the same text of the legislation and that both chambers of Parliament approve it by a three-fifths majority. The National Assembly approved one version last month, but the Senate on Thursday approved a different version, which means that the cycle will have to begin again or be shelved altogether.
The strategy was probably a convenient means of burying a provision that a majority of French voters still support.