What a difference a riot can make.
The three nights of armed mayhem in a Muslim quarter of Grenoble in July that saw numerous cars burned, police officers fired upon and their families threatened has ignited an unexpected and energetic response from France’s politicians. In what may be the last chance to halt France’s slide into anarchy as well as an indication of how endangered the French social order is, the country’s center-right ruling party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement (UMP)), is set to introduce two constitutional amendments into the National Assembly next month to deal with the country’s deteriorating social situation. Both concern cancelling French citizenship for convicted criminals.
France’s immigration minister, Eric Besson, the person responsible for drafting the amendments, said revoking French citizenship is not anti-constitutional and therefore will receive clearance from France’s constitutional council. The forfeiture of French nationality, Besson says, currently exists in France, but only for convictions for serious offences like terrorism and espionage. Before 1998, however, it was allowed under common law “for a certain number of crimes.”
“It is relatively simple,” said Besson. “It suffices to return to the law that prevailed until 1998. That is not anti-constitutional.”
The first proposed constitutional amendment concerns stripping criminals of foreign origin who receive more than a five-year prison sentence of their French citizenship. This new measure would only occur if the crime was committed during the first ten years after naturalization.
The second amendment allows the immigration minister to prevent young criminal delinquents, born in France of immigrant parents, from automatically acquiring French citizenship. Besson said he had already prevented people from gaining French nationality many times since becoming immigration minister, but only in cases concerning foreigners who “impose the veil on their wife, refuse to shake the hand of female government officials” and “refuse the principle of laicism.”
“I have forbidden access to French nationality to many foreigners who have no respect for our fundamental republican values,” said Besson.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy signalled the government’s tough, new stance in late July when visiting Grenoble in south-eastern France, the scene of the armed violence. Announcing an “implacable struggle, a war” against crime, Sarkozy said French nationality should be stripped “from anybody who has threatened the life of a police officer or anybody involved in public policing.”
French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux reinforced the government’s determination when he announced this month another “shock measure.” But in doing so, Hortefeux went further than either Sarkozy or Besson, when he said there were also “possibilities to have nationality withdrawn” for “polygamy, genital mutilation and serious wrongdoing”, indicating the new hard-line is as much about preventing further damage to France’s tattered social fabric, primarily by Muslim immigrants, as it is about security.
Hortefeux further jolted listeners when he said the revoking of citizenship in such cases will apply not only to recently arrived immigrants but also to anyone born in France of an immigrant background. With this statement, the French government clearly is drawing a line in the sand concerning French values, warning potential transgressors they will have to adhere to them or leave.
The French political left, as expected, is in an uproar about the recent government pronouncements and is “ferociously” opposed to withdrawing French citizenship from anyone. The opposition Socialist Party sees in these looming legislative measures nothing more than a UMP “smoke screen” to divert the public’s attention from the ruling party’s recent financial scandals as well as an attempt by Sarkozy to win votes from the far-right National Front party for the 2012 presidential election. The socialists’ main argument against the proposed amendments, however, is that they are not constitutional.
“The first article of the constitution guarantees equality before the law of all citizens without distinction of origin,” said a former socialist justice minister.
But what the left fails to realise is that the societal and security situation in France has reached a crisis stage. There are predominantly Muslim areas, called ‘banlieues’, surrounding major French cities, where there has been no permanent police presence for several years; they are effectively war zones, littered with the carcasses of burnt-out cars. Writer Theodore Dalrymple, in his 2002 column The Barbarians at the Gates of Paris, vividly describes these areas, the anti-French mindset of the inhabitants and the danger they posed to France three years before the 2005 riots that rocked the country.
In the banlieues, French society and values no longer exist. If anything, the values of a criminal culture with an Islamic identity, or of outright Muslim fundamentalism, have filled the vacuum. So the amendments the UMF have proposed are not anti-constitutional, as the left maintains, but rather are an attempt to uphold and reassert the constitution’s and French values with the view of preserving French society.
The French government’s constitutional amendments are believed to be part of a strategy that, some observers note, was adopted after the murder of Theo van Gogh in 2004 and the Danish cartoon riots of 2005. After the rioters’ rage had subsided, alarmed European governments got busy legislating against anti-European values, outlawing, for example, the burka, child marriages, polygamy and female genital mutilation. In some European countries, there are also now calls for stopping immigration from non-western countries, while governments have tightened entrance requirements.
Some view France’s proposed constitutional amendments as too little and too late. Scoffing at the existence of a moderate Islam, these Europeans fear their Muslim populations to the point where they believe civil war is a possibility and safety only exists in emigration. They believe their governments will never be able to convince a sufficient number of Muslim immigrants to adopt European attitudes towards democracy and to respect the law, especially since the goal of some is to set up an Islamic state.
While the two proposed constitutional amendments may appear insufficient in relation to the security and social problems besetting France, they nevertheless will constitute the second toughest set of citizenship forfeiture laws in Europe if adopted. Only Malta, which can cancel a citizen’s nationality who receives a jail sentence exceeding one year within seven years of naturalization, has a harsher legal standard.
Some Europeans believe they have been tolerant of intolerance for too long and that Muslim residents in their countries must either integrate or leave. Besides addressing security concerns, the goal of the proposed amendments is to emphasize this belief to wrongdoers and to warn them to abandon unacceptable conduct and adhere to the ethical norms of western secular society. But if the warning is not heeded, then even tougher measures can be expected, perhaps even mass deportations, since soon it may no longer be a question of constitutional niceties but rather of France’s survival.