French president’s ‘gift to far right’ is a Socialist’s nightmare before Christmas
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President François Hollande’s call to strip dual nationals of their French citizenship for terror offenses has driven a rift through his ruling Socialist Party, where many deplore a symbolic gift to the far right that will make France no safer.
The hardened stance against dual nationals convicted of terrorism was announced by Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Wednesday as part of a proposed constitutional reform designed to uphold the state of emergency imposed after the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks.
It followed days of public debate that saw many prominent Socialists, including the party leader, describe the measure as contrary to Republican and left-wing values.
Remarkably, it came less than 24 hours after Algerian media aired an interview with French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira in which she claimed the controversial article had been purely and simply dropped.
Sitting alongside a stone-faced Taubira on Wednesday, Valls said the scope of the measure would be “strictly limited” and would only apply to dual nationals “who have been sentenced by a judge for committing crimes against the nation, which include terrorist crimes”.
Valls said he was confident lawmakers of all stripes would rally behind the reforms in February when they go before both houses of parliament, where a majority of three-fifths is required. He said he had “no doubt” Socialist MPs would back their government.
Many surely will. But while the latter are keeping a low profile, opponents have made no secret of their disgust at a policy long associated with Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front.
Senator Marie-Noëlle Lienemann spoke of a dangerous “breach in the constitutional principle of equality between citizens”. She warned that “what is applied today to terrorists may one day be applied to anyone who is seen as a threat to French values”.
Pouria Amirshahi, a left-wing member of the National Assembly, described the move as a “gift to the far right”, claiming the government had endorsed one of the National Front’s “most symbolic and violent policies”.
Amirshahi cited Vichy France, the Nazi-allied French regime that stripped Jews of their citizenship during World War II, as an example of how such powers might be misused.
Symbolism over efficacy
Currently only naturalized citizens can be stripped of their French citizenship. The proposed bill will extend that possibility to all dual nationals, including those born on French soil.
Earlier this week it received the lukewarm backing of the Conseil d’État, France’s highest administrative court. As French daily Le Monde put it, the court awkwardly ruled that “the reform is probably not constitutional… but will become so once it is enshrined in the constitution”.
The Conseil d’État added that revoking citizenship would have only a “limited practical impact” in the fight against terror – a fact highlighted by security experts.
Valls appeared to acknowledge as much on Wednesday by suggesting that the measure was first and foremost symbolic, and that “efficacy is not its primary objective”.
But it is precisely the symbolism of the move that is so hard to swallow for many in the prime minister’s own camp, and beyond.
Socialist lawmaker Olivier Faure described it as “an inefficient measure that has a devastating symbolic effect for a segment of the people who will feel like second-class citizens”.
Cécile Duflot, a former Green Party leader and minister in Hollande's first cabinet, lamented a "disastrous message sent to dual nationals", urging "all republican consciences to wake up" to the danger.
Human rights groups have expressed similar misgivings, noting that a large part of France’s estimated 3.3 million dual nationals are of Arab or African descent and that many already feel discriminated against.
MRAP, an anti-racism organization, said the government’s “unfortunate plan […] validates the idea that there are two categories of French, even in crime, [including] some who are a little less French than others before the law”.
It echoed a statement by the government-appointed human rights watchdog, Jacques Toubon, for whom “French citizenship cannot be divided” and “some citizens cannot be less citizen than others”.
Speaking to France Inter radio on Wednesday, Toubon added: "[The government proposal] clearly means that there will be two classes of nationality and two classes of citizenship, that's why I say it raises fundamental questions."
Tactics over principles
Successive opinion polls carried out in the wake of the Paris attacks have pointed to overwhelming public support for revoking citizenship in terror cases.
Hollande first announced the controversial measure during an address to both houses of parliament at a special session in Versailles, just three days after gunmen and suicide bombers – several of them French nationals – massacred 130 people in the country’s worst-ever terrorist attacks.
According to Le Monde, the Socialist government had secretly hoped that the Conseil d’État would come out firmly against the move, thereby enabling the Socialist president to drop it without losing face.
Instead, the court’s indecisive ruling may help explain why the government failed so spectacularly to speak with one voice on the highly sensitive issue.
The confusion appeared to confirm the impression that Hollande’s administration is treading a slippery slope with no clear compass other than the tactical imperative to anticipate its political rivals in the race to placate the French public.
On Thursday, French editorialists portrayed Hollande’s move as the latest ploy aimed at sapping support for the far right and the mainstream conservative opposition ahead of presidential elections in 2017.
Left-leaning Libération wrote that Hollande had “deprived his opponents of a key argument” by endorsing a measure “first proposed by the far right, then reclaimed by the [mainstream] right”.
Regional daily Le Républicain lorrain said the move was part of an electoral strategy aimed at “attracting support from centrist and moderate right-wing voters rather than a shrinking left-wing electorate”.
All noted that former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is seeking a rematch against Hollande in 2017, would have a harder time opposing the Socialist government now that it has adopted one of his main demands.
Sensing the trap, conservatives have been noticeably tepid in their response, preferring to focus their attacks on their traditional target Taubira.
The far right had no such qualms. Minutes after Valls’s announcement on Wednesday, Marine Le Pen gleefully tweeted that revoking citizenship marked “the first consequence of the 6.8 million voters who chose the National Front” last month.
She may still be a long shot for the presidency, as her party’s second-round defeat in regional elections showed earlier this month. But with France caught in an escalating security clampdown, her core beliefs appear to be gaining traction.