- France in 2016 will be characterized by President Francois Hollande’s attempts to cope with a country that is shifting politically to the right while leading a leftist administration.
- In pursuit of the right-wing vote, Hollande will take a hard line on the Middle East and restrict civil liberties at home. However, he will also increase government spending in an attempt to reduce unemployment levels before the 2017 election.
- This will ultimately be an uphill struggle, and the 2017 election will most likely come down to the center-right Republicans and the far-right National Front.
Two months after the Paris terrorist attacks, French President Francois Hollande is seeking to expand the emergency powers he invoked in November 2015. France’s state of emergency gave the government the authority to search houses without a warrant and restrict the right to peaceful assembly, all without judicial oversight. Hollande is now looking to change the French Constitution to extend the scope of these emergency powers.
However, his proposed changes also contain a more controversial alteration: They would permit France to strip French nationality from citizens who are found guilty of terrorist offenses. In its earlier forms, this law would have applied only to offenders with dual nationality status, but more recent statements from French ministers imply that it could also apply to French citizens who have just one passport, leaving them stateless. Such a shift would represent a sharp change in direction for France, bringing up painful memories of the denaturalization of Jews in Vichy France during World War II. The proposed change also reflects a major political shift to the right as the country’s 2017 election looms ever closer.
The roots of France’s current relationship with its citizens can be traced back to 1789, when the people rose up en masse to overthrow the French monarchy. The system that emerged from the revolution prized equality and brotherhood above all. These themes have remained important ever since and were enshrined in France’s current constitution, adopted in 1958. Unlike in the United States, where jus soli (right of the soil) grants citizenship to anyone born in the country, the French citizenship rules laid down in 1803 relied upon jus sanguinis (right of the blood). Under this concept, anyone born to a French father (which was ultimately extended to include the mother) is automatically a French citizen. Later in the century, with international tension showing the benefits of a large and conscriptable citizenry, the rule was extended again to include double jus soli, granting citizenship at birth to any child born on French soil with a parent who could claim the same. Citizenship was also open to children born in France to foreign parents, but only upon reaching the age of 18.
France’s relationship with certain segments of its populace took a darker turn in the lead-up to World War II, as hardship caused by the Great Depression led to increasing anti-Semitism and a mistrust of foreigners. The 1940 invasion by Nazi Germany aggravated these sentiments, since the invaders wished to deport to extermination camps any Jews they could find in France. The southern half of the country remained under the nominal control of the French Vichy administration, though it itself was under strict German supervision. The French puppet government was aware that it needed to accede to German wishes if it was ever to attain any kind of autonomy, and it agreed to cooperate in the deportation of foreign Jews in the hope of saving the French Jews. These terms were then pushed further, and the Vichy government agreed to denaturalize Jews who had become French nationals in the years after 1933. In total, over 75,000 of the 340,000 Jews living in France in 1940 were deported during the war, of which 72,500 died in German camps. Partly as a result of these events, France threw itself into the post-war process of setting up the United Nations and helping to solve the problem of the many stateless persons now extant in Europe. France is one of only 64 countries to have signed the 1961 U.N. Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, and it is one of only eight European countries to have a system in place for dealing with the stateless.
After the war, France experienced a boom in immigration. Like much of the West, it embarked upon a 30-year period of growth as its economy was rebuilt. This growth, and the bloody Algerian independence campaign that culminated in that country’s secession in 1962, led to an influx of immigrants from North Africa. These newcomers were not always welcomed, particularly after the 1970s saw the end of the so-called Trente Glorieuses years and jobs became less abundant. Immigration numbers did not drop, but their composition changed. Before the 1980s, new arrivals were predominantly immigrant workers, but the number of their family members coming across the Mediterranean began to increase. Interethnic tensions rose as many of these North African immigrants found themselves in dead-end suburbs with little hope of social improvement.
The National Front, founded in 1972 by military veteran Jean-Marie Le Pen, was a far-right nationalist political party that became increasingly focused on the issue of non-European immigration. On the subject of immigration, mainstream French politics generally broke down along traditional right-left lines. The center-right echoed Le Pen’s views to a somewhat milder degree, looking to clamp down on immigrants when in power, and the center-left Socialists did the opposite, often looking to new bodies as a way to grow the economy. In 1993, it was a center-right administration that introduced the Pasqua laws requiring French residents born of foreign parents to apply for citizenship upon turning 18, whereas previously it was obtained automatically when they came of age. This began to increase the number of stateless people in France. But the changes were short-lived, and a Socialist government repealed them just four years later. As a result, the United Nations estimates that today there are only some 1,200 stateless people in France.
Considering the historical roles of France’s political parties, it is not unusual that the idea of depriving convicted terrorists of their French nationality originated with the National Front, which is now under the stewardship of Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s daughter. It is also not surprising that it was advocated by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, or that when he put the idea forward in 2010 it was quickly dismissed by the center-left Socialists, whose secretary-general at the time, Hollande, described the idea as inimical to the Republican tradition, while the Socialist mayor of Evry, Manuel Valls, saw it as ineffective and found the entire debate nauseating. What is more surprising is that now, five years later, a Socialist government led by Hollande and Valls should be enthusiastically advocating this move, since it appears to go against not only the principles of their party but also the principles they have themselves espoused. The reason for their shift likely lies in the sharp turn to the right taking place in French politics.
Two main factors are behind the shift: the economy and terrorism. Since the global financial crisis struck in 2008, Europe’s economy has largely been moribund, and 2011-2012 saw further debt crises strike in peripheral countries such as Spain, Portugal and Ireland. More recently, reforms undertaken by those peripheral countries have enabled them to take advantage of improved economic conditions, with cheap oil and loose European Central Bank monetary policies causing Ireland’s estimated 2015 growth to hit 6 percent and Spain’s to hit 3.1 percent.
Meanwhile, both countries have begun to chip away at their massive unemployment rates. By contrast, France — like neighboring Italy, which also failed to reform — saw growth of just 1.2 percent in 2015, while French unemployment has actually been on the rise. This final factor is particularly harmful politically, since Hollande had tied his presidency — and his chances of running again in 2017 — to making progress in reducing unemployment. As a result, Hollande’s personal ratings have dipped to record lows for much of his term. It is a common historical theme that when unemployment is high and people are afraid for their future, nationalist parties succeed at sending the message that immigrants, mainstream parties and foreign organizations such as the European Union are to blame for the country’s problems. These are the types of forces that Hollande is now battling.
Meanwhile, terrorism has been a growing menace. France has suffered various attacks at the hands of homegrown Islamist terrorists — often the children of North African immigrants who, affected by a lack of social mobility, proved susceptible to radicalization. This plays into the anti-immigrant narrative long propounded by the National Front and has made the French population more open to Le Pen’s way of thinking. Thus, when Islamists attacked first the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine and then Paris as a whole in 2015, Hollande was driven to adopt policies usually associated with the right wing, such as the restriction of civil liberties and his latest denaturalization move, to defend himself from attacks by the political right. The shift is reflected in the popularity of the denaturalization idea, which has received 85 percent approval ratings among the French public.
But Hollande’s problems do not come solely from outside his party. The original version of the denaturalization change that he put forward in November 2015 involved stripping citizenship only from French citizens with dual nationality, meaning that they would not become stateless as a direct result of the law. This idea met with fierce resistance from within the Socialist Party, which saw it as undermining the basic French tenet of equality before the law by discriminating against the 3.5 million French dual nationals, who would suffer a punishment different from the rest of the population.
The solution to this problem was to also revoke the citizenship of French citizens without dual citizenship. This proposal appears to have allayed the inequality objections of many within the party, but it means that France runs the risk of running afoul of international law, which prohibits the purposeful creation of statelessness. There is also the risk that it will amplify the problem Hollande is notionally trying to solve: Withdrawing nationality from North Africans could send a highly divisive message to other Muslims and foreigners living in France, potentially increasing the likelihood of radicalization. The next step for Hollande will be to pass the constitutional change through Parliament in February or March. To ratify the change, Hollande will need to obtain a three-fifths majority, which is possible considering that the right will likely support a plan that it originally proposed.
Moving into 2016, Hollande will have to tackle the problem of controlling a leftist political party that is trying to stay relevant to a populace that is moving to the right — especially with the next election rapidly approaching. The year will be characterized by his attempts to cope with this dichotomy. He will continue to take a strong position on matters relating to terrorism and foreign policy in the Middle East, where he can strike at terrorists without having to deal with complex domestic issues. At home, he will continue to imitate his right-wing opposition, taking a decidedly un-Socialist approach to matters such as civil liberties in keeping with the national mood.
Where he has the most work to do before 2017, however, is the economy. Increasing laxity from the European Commission and favorable external economic conditions will give the French government greater leeway for spending. Consequently, Hollande will pursue a more familiar Socialist strategy in the economic arena, taking full advantage of conditions by increasing public spending in an attempt to create as much growth and as great a reduction in unemployment as possible before the 2017 election. Despite his intentions, though, Hollande will struggle to escape the basic constraints of his position. The shift to the right is a trend that is also happening in neighboring Germany, which is encountering its own immigration issues, and a broad popular wave of this nature is nearly impossible for a national leader to counter effectively. As a result, when the next election comes around in April 2017, it will most likely be the center-right Republicans and the far-right National Front that will be battling it out for control of the country.