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For French Muslims, citizenship is conditional

Bestowing or revoking citizenship for conduct follows insidious logic

January 22, 2015 2:00AM ET

Two seemingly unrelated events took place in Paris after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store that reveal much about the unhealthy state of France’s social contract. First, Lassana Bathily, the undocumented Muslim man who saved customers in the kosher grocery during the attack was granted French citizenship for his actions. Then on Jan. 19, Marine Le Pen, the president of France’s National Front party, wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times that “stripping jihadists of their French citizenship is an absolute necessity … We, the French, are viscerally attached to our laïcité, our sovereignty, our independence, our values.” Both cases — one in which citizenship is granted, the other in which a politician advocates for it to be taken away — rely on a conduct-based metric for citizenship. Such a conception of citizenship is damaging for multiple reasons, but it is particularly harmful to French Muslims and their continued existence in France.

The conditions for attaining citizenship and keeping it through birth and through naturalization are markedly different. Because those born with citizenship do not earn it, it is impossible to attach a moral value — and thus any condition — to it. Yet for those wishing to become French citizens, the bar is set impractically high, as illustrated by Bathily, who has lived in the country for nine years but became French only after his heroics. It implies that to become a French citizen, one has to perform such acts in order to be considered. That his case was helped by a petition signed by thousands counterintuitively adds to the problem; citizenship should not be contingent on popular support either. (If all the other applications for permanent residency in France were decided by popular vote, those immigrants likely would not be as fortunate as Bathily was.)

As if that weren’t unfair enough, according to Le Pen, it isn’t even enough to be born French to remain French. The gunmen who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo were born and raised in France, but since they are jihadists, they ought to be stripped of their citizenship — posthumously, I imagine. But then what would they be? Algerian? Without ever holding Algerian citizenship or ever having lived there? And how about those who are simply suspected of being jihadists? Under a Le Pen government, which, according to polls, is increasingly possible, French Muslims would rightly be fearful of (and indignant about) citizenship that is bestowed or taken away on the basis of such misguided precepts. 

France’s Muslims bear the expectation of acting French while their citizenship remains questioned.

Such a metric, especially from a person who claims to defend freedom of speech, wrongfully implies that citizenship is a privilege accorded to some rather than a right. Unfortunately, that idea is familiar to France from its days as a colonial power. Despite claiming its colonies as outre-mer — France overseas — colonized populations were granted French citizenship only under special conditions, putting colonized subjects in a similar bind in which they were forcibly “civilized” but largely denied the final aspect of that civilizing mission: French citizenship.

The truth is that conditional citizenship is almost never universally applied. It is, however, applied to France’s Muslims, who continue to bear the expectation of acting French while their citizenship remains questioned. In this framework, “good” Muslims who save lives are deserving of citizenship, while “bad” Muslims, despite carrying French citizenship, are undeserving of being French because of their jihadism. “Good” and “bad” white French citizens are, of course, absent from this debate. But for Muslims, in either case, citizenship is contingent. If Bathily is convicted of a crime, his citizenship is likely to come under question. Alternatively, if Muslims are louder in their condemnation of the attacks, if they declare themselves to be secular or, better yet, if they vote for Le Pen, their citizenship is tentatively secure, but only for as long as they continue doing so — and even then, they might not be doing enough.

In a tweet that was widely condemned (and later deleted), News Corp. executive chairman Rupert Murdoch stated in response to the Paris attacks, “Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.” White French citizens are excluded from such conditions of culpability, because their citizenship — and their loyalty — is taken for granted. Le Pen’s underlying assumption appears to be that belief in French secularism, independence and values is inherent in some but questionable in others. Has she demanded that the white French individuals who have attacked scores of mosques and Muslims across France in recent weeks be stripped of their citizenship? No. Citizenship, then, becomes the instrument through which good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished for the millions of Muslims who live in France.

It is tragic that a nation that virtually reinvented the social contract would do such a disservice to its citizens and to those who want to become French.

Saim Saeed is a journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. He writes for The Express Tribune and The American Interest in Washington, D.C.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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