The 2012 French elections are behind us and with a new administration in office there are new actors and new policies.
Claude Guéant, former Minister of the Interior and author of the infamous circulaire Guéant, has been replaced by Manuel Valls who has already announced his intention to unravel much of Mr. Guéant's work. A few days ago Mr. Valls appeared before a commission of the French Senate and said that he would not implement the new requirements for naturalization that were passed under the previous regime: the language and culture tests and the Charte des droits et devoirs du citoyen among others. In his words, these requirements were a "course d'obstacles aléatoire et discriminante" (a random and discriminatory obstacle course) and represented a deliberate policy on the part of his predecessor to "exclure de la nationalité des gens méritants et ne posant aucune difficulté." (exclude from citizenship deserving people who pose no problem whatsoever).
Mr. Guéant wasn't having any of it and fired back in this interview with Le Figaro. He defended his policies saying that they were just common sense: good for the newly naturalized French citizens in the sense that it is essential that they be "reconnus sans aucune réserve comme des Français à part entière qu'ils sont" (recognized with no reservation for what they are, fully French) and good for France because they preserve "la cohésion de notre pays" (the solidarity of our country).
As an immigrant, a long-term resident of France and one who seeks French citizenship, where do I stand in this debate? I think they are both right.
Of all of Mr. Guéant's policies the ones pertaining to naturalizations made a great deal of sense to me. I read the Charte very carefully and had no problem with it. As for having to demonstrate that I speak decent French and have a passing knowledge of French history, well, that seemed a perfectly rational request. Why shouldn't I, in exchange for the honor (and I believe it is one) of becoming a French citizen, be required to meet some minimum standards showing that I have indeed integrated?
But Mr. Valls is also correct. Having long-term residents (in regular or irregular situations) who are not citizens (and who do not seek citizenship because they perceive the process to be an "obstacle course") is not good for France. Where one can have practically all the benefits of citizenship with a residency card without pledging allegiance to the country itself (and thus taking on the responsibilities or duties of that citizenship) is it not perfectly rational to simply content oneself with a 10-year residency permit? Valls pointed out, in his testimony to the French Senate, that naturalizations are already falling rapidly: "Si rien n'est fait, ce nombre va chuter de 40% entre 2011 et 2012 après une chute de 30% entre 2010 et 2011" (if nothing is done, this number will fall 40% between 2011 and 2012 after already falling 30% between 2010 and 2011).
It's a chicken and egg problem. The more obstacles one puts in the way of naturalizations, the fewer naturalizations you will have, and there will be fewer and fewer incentives to integrate in the first place. Having been in this situation myself, I can attest to the fact that a residency card can and often does translate in one's mind to a kind of de facto permission to only integrate superficially (just enough to get by and not one inch more) or not at all. Furthermore, where an immigrant perceives that the nation does not want him or her to become a citizen, this can produce a kind of backlash where this "rejection" becomes a reason to in turn pay no mind to the customs, mores and even the language of the host nation: You reject me and I will reject you. What a terrible dance this is and not at all conducive to "la cohésion de notre pays" that Mr. Guéant was seeking.
Is there a middle ground between Valls' and Guéant's positions? Of course there is but finding it is not easy. This kind of debate has been going on in France for years with no resolution. Perhaps part of the problem is that this dialogue seems to be mostly limited to agents of the governments (old and new), local politicians and those who are already citizens. It might be helpful to ask the immigrants themselves what they think instead of treating them as passive actors who must simply submit to whatever the "aristocracy" decides.
It is fair and reasonable for the French nation to want citizens who are committed and integrated. It is also fair for immigrants to examine the terms and to reject or accept them - it is simply not possible to force someone to integrate or to become a citizen. A way out of this endless debate just might be fewer sticks, more carrots, and an open and honest dialogue among all the parties involved.