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The January 2015 Attacks and the Debate on Deprivation of Citizenship in France

0 Comments 🕔10.Aug 2015

This article is part of our feature Je Suis Musulman: European Muslims after Charlie Hebdo.

Photo credit: elPadawan


by Nora El Qadim

In the aftermath of the attacks against Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris between January 7 and January 9, 2015, many voiced their fears of an anti-Islam backlash. Some debated the links between Islam and violence; others warned against equating Muslims with Islamists. It almost looked as if this focus on religion had overtaken the issue of citizenship.  Since both the Kouachi brothers, who attacked Charlie Hebdo, and Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked the Hyper Cacher, were born and raised in France, debating nationality seemed more difficult than debating religion and Muslims. Nonetheless, some called for depriving the culprits of their French citizenship, based on their alleged dual nationality—a position which built on recent debates about young people leaving France in order to fight the jihad in Syria.[1] However, this call to strip the attackers of their citizenship was also the result of long-standing debates about the assimilation or integration of those who are called ‘second’ or ‘third-generation,’ and of discourses linking Islam with a ‘lack of assimilation’ into French society and conformity with the French conception of citizenship.

Although the Front National, the main far-right party in France, has regularly proposed deprivation of nationality since the 1980s, more and more people in recent years have raised this issue and done so more prominently, particularly in relation to Islam, and suggest troubling associations between religion and the rights of citizenship.  For example, in his recent book, Les frontières de l’identité nationale, Abdelalli Hajjat demonstrates that the French government has long had a problematic relationship with Islam when it comes to naturalization in France.[2] Likewise, Patrick Weil’s book on de-naturalization in the United States emphasizes that stripping people of citizenship is deeply revealing of conceptions of national identity and order.[3] So, we must ask, what does the debate on deprivation of citizenship in France tell us about how the links between citizenship and immigration are envisaged in this country?


Conscripts, footballers and jihadis

The debate on dual citizenship in France is not new. After World War I, for example, many wondered whether German Alsatians could keep their German citizenship while adopting the French one (the answer was yes, despite the fresh wounds of war and continuing difficulties in Franco-German relations).[4] In the 1980s, the question was raised whether French-Algerians should be permitted to  choose to do their military service in Algeria (again, the answer was yes, authorized by both a bilateral convention signed in 1983 and a Parliamentary commission on nationality in 1987).[5] Citizenship in both cases was clearly understood as a signal of allegiance to the State, and citizens as military resources in case of conflict.

However, the issue also emerged with regard to footballers and their supporters—for example, after French-Algerian supporters booed the Marseillaise during a France-Algeria football game in 2001, and after a similar incident during a France-Tunisia game in 2008.[6] Indeed in 2010, conversations among senior officials of the French football federation were leaked in which they discussed implementing a quota to limit the number of bi-national recruits in training.  Such players, it was thought, would not be entirely loyal to France and might end up playing in support of the opposing team.[7] Likewise, Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, who has repeatedly voiced her party’s opposition to dual citizenship, brought up the issue again after some incidents marred the celebrations by French-Algerian supporters of Algeria’s qualification for the eighth finals in the 2014 World Cup.[8] In response to Le Pen’s remarks, Le Point, a widely read weekly paper, also published an online poll asking the question: “Should French persons of Algerian origin be deprived of their double nationality?”[9]  Eighty-one percent of respondents said “Yes,” before the poll was taken down due to concerns over its biased formulation.[10] This case illustrates how sports can be interpreted as cathartic expressions of national identity and conflict, and as a substitute for war, rather than as the Olympic ideal of peace-building.

Finally, another issue of public concern brought attention to the questions surrounding dual citizenship: the legal status of criminals, and in particular, jihadis. In 2010, Nicolas Sarkozy and Eric Besson, then Minister of Immigration,[11] proposed that persons “of foreign origin” guilty of attacking a representative of the State be deprived of their French citizenship. Brice Hortefeux, then Minister of Interior, who had already proposed earlier that year that a man be deprived of his citizenship for polygamy and social benefits fraud,[12] wanted to extend the measures to those proved guilty of female genital mutilation, human trafficking or “severe acts of delinquency.”[13] Jihadis have been the most recent catalysts for claims that France should not allow dual citizenship. In June 2014, Marine Le Pen stated that “any person leaving in order to go on jihad should be deprived of his or her citizenship.”[14] Indeed, in December 2014 the National Assembly examined, and rejected, a proposal by the UMP, the main right-wing party, to create a law that would authorize just such actions.[15]

And, of course, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher in January 2015 provided yet another opportunity to advocate for de-naturalization. A few days after the attacks, Nicolas Bay, secretary general of the Front National, stated that “the Kouachi brothers should have been deprived of their French citizenship” and expelled.[16] In that sense, reactions to the attacks are a direct continuation of a long-term debate on double citizenship.

Moreover, as it so happens, at the same time as the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks, the Constitutional Council was examining the case of Ahmed Sahnouni, a Moroccan who had obtained French citizenship in 2003 before being condemned to seven years in jail in 2013 for “criminal association in relation to a terrorist undertaking.” On January 23, 2015, the Constitutional Council approved the Court’s decision to deprive Sahnouni of his citizenship. This decision, although in principle unrelated to the January attacks, paved the way for the left-wing government’s response to the attacks, especially Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ argument that deprivation of citizenship should be used as a tool in the fight against terrorism.[17]


"Nous sommes Charlie" - Marche républicaine, Paris, January 2015. Photo credit: Maya-Anaïs Yataghène

“Nous sommes Charlie” – Marche républicaine, Paris, January 2015. Photo credit: Maya-Anaïs Yataghène

What the French law says

Despite the many de-naturalization proposals that have been made over time, researchers and legal commentators have often pointed out that depriving someone of their French citizenship is not an easy thing to do. French law greatly limits the scope of cases to which deprivation of citizenship can be applied. First and foremost, according to the Code civil, which contains French nationality law, deprivation can be based on only four different grounds: if a person who is a public authority is found guilty of abusing their authority; if a person is found guilty of not complying with the obligations of military service; if a person has helped “a foreign state in a manner incompatible with their status as French and detrimental to French interests”; and finally, if a person is found guilty of a “crime or offence damaging the fundamental interests of the Nation,” or of a “crime or offence constituting an act of terrorism.”[18]

Secondly, the accused must hold the citizenship of another country.  The 1961 Convention on the reduction of statelessness, to which France is a signatory, prevents states from creating stateless persons—for example, by stripping them of their citizenship. Moreover, only a person who acquired French nationality during their lifetime can be stripped of it. More specifically, the facts which constitute the grounds for deprivation must date back to the period before the acquisition of French citizenship or less than 10 years after the acquisition—15 years in cases damaging the fundamental interests of the Nation or in cases of terrorism.

How would this apply to the cases that were put forward by the various political proposals previously described? In the case of military obligations, bilateral agreements allow citizens of many countries to choose between France and their other country of citizenship for military service. However, this does not prevent France from stripping them of their French citizenship in the event of war, should they decide to fight for another country. As for footballers and their supporters, the law seems to exclude any possibility of depriving them of their citizenship, not only because the facts would not qualify as grounds for such a penalty, but more importantly because most of them are, in fact, born French. Finally, with respect to persons found guilty of terrorist crimes, it can also prove difficult to de-naturalize. In the case of the January 2015 attacks, had the attackers survived, it would not have been possible to deprive them of their citizenship, since they were all born French. Moreover, they were not holders of dual citizenship: the Kouachi brothers were not recognized as Algerians, since they had never attempted to get Algerian identification,[19] and Amedy Coulibaly was not recognized as a citizen by Malian authorities.[20] As for French jihadis who have traveled to for Syria, a fifth of them are recent converts,[21] and few are holders of dual citizenship.

Overall, deprivation of citizenship is not a very common procedure. It has been used 22 times since 1990. Between 1990 and 1999, 13 cases of citizenship deprivation have been recorded, all of them based on grounds that were suppressed from the law in 1998, namely when a person was condemned for a crime to a sentence of 5 years or more in jail.[22] Since 2000, nine persons were deprived of their French citizenship, all on the grounds of their participation in terrorist activities.[23]

Finally, stripping a person of their citizenship does not mean the State can deport them immediately to their country of origin. In several cases, an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights has ensured that the persons who had been deprived of their French citizenship were not deported, since they could face cruel and unusual punishment in their origin countries, which are also engaged in the fight against terrorism. This was the case of French-Algerian Djamel Beghal in 2006 (incidentally the mentor of the Kouachi brothers)[24] and of Kamel Daoudi, also French-Algerian and a member of the same group.[25]


Conceptions of citizenship and integration: A biased debate?

In spite of its limited possibilities and use, the political debate on the deprivation of citizenship was very active in 2014 (largely because of the many individuals who went to fight in Syria) and was reactivated by the January 2015 attacks. The terms of the debate reveal a new conception of the relationship of citizenship to integration that has come to be predominant in France. In his reflections on multiculturalism, Kymlicka underlines that he only takes into account migrants in countries where they can obtain citizenship after a few years of residence; he leaves aside “metics,”—that is, foreigners who have no prospect of acquiring political rights in the country where they live.[26] In this conception, citizenship is a precondition to, rather than a reward for, integration. Yet, deprivation of nationality can be seen as a punishment only insofar as naturalization is seen as a reward. In the case of France, assimilation is considered to be an essential precondition to naturalization, which is often described as a reward.[27] The only remaining question is that of the definition and implementation of criteria for the evaluation of assimilation.[28] How does this play into the debate on deprivation of citizenship?

Since the procedure for depriving someone of their French citizenship can only be applied to people holding dual nationality and who have become French 10 to 15 years prior to the facts that constitute the grounds for the procedure, many have argued that it constitutes a breach in the ‘principle of equality’ among French citizens—in other words, a discrimination. This argument is very powerful in the French context, in particular because of the memory of the policy of de-naturalization implemented by the Vichy government during World War II.[29] It was the basis of the various reforms of nationality law over time, which extended the rights of naturalized citizens by suppressing the various limitations they were subject to.[30] This argument was also the basis of Sahnouni’s lawyer’s question to the Constitutional Council: he argued that stripping Sahnouni of his citizenship, by differentiating between French-born and naturalized citizens, endangered this principle of equality.[31] However, just as it had done in 1996, the Constitutional Council rejected this argument by insisting on the exceptional seriousness of the facts and the limitation of the law to this type of exceptional facts, and by stating the proportionality of the sentence. The Council mentioned the fight against terrorism as justification for the difference in treatment between French-born and naturalized citizens, and determined that it does not constitute a breach in the principle of equality.[32]

However, since the mid-1990s, deprivation of citizenship in France has focused on cases related to terrorism and has affected mostly men from North Africa. In spite of the legal limits of the procedure, the political debate has extended to a broad array of people who are perceived as ‘not French enough’ or ‘not integrated enough’—whether because they are booing the Marseillaise or leaving to fight in Syria. The idea of integration is very present in French debates on immigration, but extends to debates on children, or even grandchildren of immigrants. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the debate on the deprivation of citizenship does not focus so much on the targets of the existing legal possibilities as on the issue of ‘integration,’ which is often defined very broadly to include people who were born French, but are perceived as non-French: the ‘conscripts, footballers and jihadis’ previously described.

People of North African descent are particularly stigmatized in discourses against double citizenship.  In 2009, for example, Marine Le Pen clearly stated that “dual citizenship with a number of countries from the Maghreb created more difficulties for assimilation than dual citizenship with the United States.” Thus, her party proposes that dual citizenship be possible only with other European countries.[33] Just as in the case of naturalization, the issues of Islam and citizenship have been conflated, and the debate on the deprivation of citizenship has relied more or less implicitly on the question of the ‘integrability’ of Islam in France. The extension of the idea to broader categories of people was also present among right-wing politicians such as Nicolas Sarkozy. In 2010, when arguing in favor of the inclusion of crimes against representatives of the State on the list of possible grounds for deprivation of citizenship, the then President mentioned the category of “people of foreign descent”—rather than the recently naturalized.[34]

Since the legal possibilities for expanding the categories of people who can be deprived of their French citizenship are rather limited, another proposal has more recently won the approval of a number of politicians: the re-establishment of the crime of ‘national indignity’ and its accompanying sentence, ‘national degradation.’ Inspired by measures taken after World War II for purposes of conducting a legal purge, ‘national degradation’ not only separates citizenship from nationality by depriving a person of his or her civil rights, but also includes a number of restrictions in employment, succession rights, and even mobility. Recently, the proposal was made via an amendment to the law on the deprivation of citizenship in 2014,[35] and was rejected at that time. However, the UMP raised the issue again after the January 2015 attacks. The Socialist government even considered it for a while as a possible lead in the fight against terrorism, before distancing itself from the idea,[36] even though the idea seems to be widely popular with the public at large.[37] Although the popularity of this proposal is clearly heightened by its coming in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks, it is also clearly seen as a way to expand the categories of people who could be punished through their citizenship rights. And as a continuation of the debate on deprivation of citizenship, this proposal risks suffering from similar biases and from the same underlying assumptions about the relationship between integration and citizenship.


Nora El Qadim is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Namur (Belgium). Her PhD (Sciences Po Paris, France, 2013) analyzes the relations between Morocco and the EU on migration issues, and will be published in 2015 (Le gouvernement asymétrique des migrations. Maroc/Union européenne, Éditions Dalloz).


This article is part of our feature Je Suis Musulman: European Muslims after Charlie Hebdo.

[1] Nationality and citizenship will be used interchangeably in most of this article, as they are paired in the issue discussed here. However, the French expression is ‘déchéance de nationalité’. ‘Nationalité’ includes political citizenship but also more generally inclusion within the state.

[2] Abdellali Hajjat, Les frontières de l”identité nationale”. L’injonction à l’assimilation en France métropolitaine et coloniale (Paris: La Découverte, 2012).

[3] Patrick Weil, The Sovereign Citizen: Denaturalization and the Origins of the American Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

[4] Patrick Weil, “La France ne peut abandonner la binationalité qui s’impose partout,” Marianne, June 6, 2011, <> (all links last accessed March 13, 2015).

[5] Aziz Zemouri, “Service militaire, le choix des binationaux,” Le Figaro Magazine, July 7, 2006, <>.

[6] Bernard Schmid, “Double nationalité: la tolérance française,” Plein Droit 79, December 2008, <>.

[7] “Quotas dans le foot: le DTN François Blaquart suspendu de ses fonctions,” Le, April 30, 2011, <> and Fabrice Arfi, Michaël Hajdenberg, and Mathilde Mathieu, “Exclusive: French football chiefs’ secret plan to whiten ‘les Bleus,’” Médiapart, April 29, 2011, <>.

[8] “Marine Le Pen veut mettre ‘fin à la double nationalité’: la vieille rengaine du Front national,” Le HuffPost/AFP, June 29, 2014, <>.

[9] «Faut-il retirer aux Français d’origine algérienne leur double nationalité?»

[10] “‘Le Point’ admet avoir retire un sondage ‘consternant’ sur la double nationalité,” Le, June 30, 2014, <>.

[11] The ministry’s full name was the Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Solidarity-Based Development.

[12] “Dans quelles circonstances peut-on être déchu de sa nationalité?,” Le, April 23, 2010, <>.

[13] Samuel Laurent, “Déchéance de nationalité: une impossibilité juridique?,” Le, August 3, 2010, <>.

[14] Nicolas Six, “Non, on ne peut pas priver de nationalité ‘toute personne qui part faire le djihad,’” Le, September 1, 2014, <>.

[15] Anne-Laure Frémont, “La déchéance de nationalité pour les djihadistes en débat à l’Assemblée,” Le, December 4, 2014, <> and Morgane Masson, “Le débat sur la nationalité pour les djihadistes ne sert à rien,” Le HuffPost, December 4, 2014, <>.

[16] Juliette Deborde, “Non, les Kouachi n’auraient pas pu être déchus de la nationalité française,” Libération, January 22, 2015, <>.

[17] “Le Conseil constitutionnel valide une déchéance de nationalité contestée,” Le, January 23, 2015, <>.

[18] Code civil, Livre I, Titre I-bis, Chapitre 4, section 3, article 25.

[19] Deborde, “Non, les Kouachi n’auraient pas pu être déchus de la nationalité française.”

[20] As was made clear when the time came to find a location for his grave. Roland Gauron, “Amedy Coulibaly a été enterré dans le cimetière parisien de Thiais,” Le, January 23, 2015, <>.

[21] “‘20% des djihadistes sont des convertis’ (Cazeneuve),” Le, December 16, 2014, <>.

[22] Philippe Meunier, Rapport fait au nom de la Commission des lois constitutionnelles, de la legislation et de l’administration générale de la République sur la proposition de loi de M. Philippe Meunier et plusieurs de ses collègues (n°996) visant à déchoir de la nationalité française tout individu portant les armes contre les forces armées françaises et de police, November 26, 2014, <> and Louise Fessard, “La déchéance de nationalité pour terrorisme à nouveau validée,” Médiapart, January 23, 2015, <>.

[23] Fessard, “La déchéance de nationalité pour terrorisme à nouveau validée.”

[24] Deborde, “Non, les Kouachi n’auraient pas pu être déchus de la nationalité française.”

[25] Caroline Venaille, “Qui sont les derniers déchus de la nationalité française?,” L’Obs avec Rue89, August 3, 2010, <>.

[26] In the terminology of Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (New York: Basic Books, 1983). Will Kymlicka, Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism and Citizenship (Oxford University Press, 2001) and Contemporary Political Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[27] Sarah Mazouz, “‘Mériter d’être français’: pensée d’État et expérience de naturalisation,” Agone 40, (2008): 131–45, <>.

[28] Hajjat, Les frontières de l”identité nationale”.

[29] Patrick Weil, “Nationalité: l’originalité française,” Études 3 (2003): 321–31.

[30] For access to certain jobs or offices. In 1984, for example, the waiting period for a naturalized person to become eligible in political elections was suppressed. See Patrick Weil, La France et ses étrangers, l’aventure d’une politique de l’immigration de 1938 à nos jours (Paris: Gallimard, 2005); and “Nationalité: l’originalité française.”.

[31] “Le Conseil constitutionnel valide une déchéance de nationalité contestée.”

[32] Communiqué de presse – 2014–439 QPC: Décision n°2014–439 QPC du 23 janvier 2015 – M. Ahmed S. [Déchéance de nationalité], Conseil Constitutionnel, January 23, 2015, <>.

[33] “Marine Le Pen veut mettre ‘fin à la double nationalité’: la vieille rengaine du Front national.”

[34] Ève Chalmandrier, “La déchéance de nationalité française reste une pratique très marginale,” La Croix, August 2, 2010, <>.

[35] Meunier, Rapport fait au nom de la Commission des lois constitutionnelles.

[36] Grégoire Biseau, “Hollande oppose au retour de la ‘peine d’indignité nationale,’” Libération, January 20, 2015, <>.

[37] Geoffroy Clavel, “Terrorisme: 76% des Français pour l’indignité nationale, les mesures du gouvernement jugées ‘appropriées’ [YOUGOV],” Le HuffPost, February 5, 2015, <>.





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