“French on Paper” or “Native French”?

Being born on French soil automatically confers French nationality: This is known as le droit du sol, literally “the right to the ground.” Yet in its anti-immigration campaign, the far right has made the abolition of this right one of its main policy promises.
An anti-immigration protest in Mayotte, April 27, 2023. © Grégoire Mérot/AP/Sipa

Don’t they say that the end justifies the means? Last year, the French government concocted a series of legislative measures aimed at controlling and curbing immigration, in a bid to take the wind out of the far right’s sails. The measures considered included a restriction on access to French nationality.

As a reminder, this can currently be acquired in two main ways. Firstly, through parentage, known in French law as le droit du sang or jus sanguinis. A child is French if at least one of his or her parents is French at the time of birth. Secondly, by being born on French territory, by le droit du sol or jus soli. Children born in France, even to foreign parents, become French automatically upon reaching the age of majority, or earlier if they have resided in the country for at least five years starting from age 11. A few thousands of people (35,000 in 2021) become French each year in this way. Not many, in fact!

The law passed by the French National Assembly on December 19, 2023, put an end to the automatic nature of the droit du sol. Had it come into force, a person born in France to foreign parents would have had to apply for French nationality between the ages of 16 and 18. However, the measure was rejected less than a month later by the Constitutional Council, not for substantive reasons but because, just like the 31 other articles to be invalidated, it was un cavalier législatif, a “legislative rider,” an expression meaning that the measure had no place in the law as it concerned a subject other than immigration.

The distinction is often drawn between countries where jus soli prevails and those where citizenship is based exclusively on blood. In this second category, we usually place Germany, for which the nation is traditionally an ethnic community. However, this system prevails almost everywhere in the world, throughout Africa, almost all of Asia, and in many European countries including Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Austria.

Along with France, jus soli is recognized alongside jus sanguinis in a minority of countries, mainly on the American continent, from Canada to Chile. And with good reason: These lands of immigration are the most open to integrating newcomers. In the United States, this unconditional right is enshrined in the Constitution. The 14th Amendment stipulates that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States […] are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Donald Trump’s plans include an adjustment to this right, which would deprive children born to illegal immigrants of this right. But we’re not there yet!

A Push for Stricter Rules?

When it comes to the law, nothing is set in stone. Germany, a country where parentage was the exclusive criterion for the transmission of nationality, introduced jus soli into its legislation in 2000. A child born to foreign parents can now acquire German nationality if one of its parents has lived in Germany for at least eight years. Is this an ideological U-turn? Not really. In Germany, where the birth rate is low, pragmatism has led to the recognition that an influx of immigrant labor is an absolute economic necessity. On the other hand, in the U.K., Australia, and Ireland, the rules governing the acquisition of nationality through jus soli, while once unconditional, have been tightened in recent years.

It seems that the French have short memories. Considered today as a central element of the republican and social pact, le droit du sol has not always been a progressive marker. Quite the opposite, in fact. It was a law upheld during the Ancien Régime, and it was the 1789 Revolution that abolished it in favor of a law based on blood and descent, considered at the time to be more emancipating than the old laws linking peasants to the land. It was only at the end of the 19th century that France, which was then short of manpower for its factories and seeking to swell the ranks of its army in anticipation of a new war with Germany, reintroduced the right.

The current debate is clearly proving to be a boon for the Rassemblement National and the far right in general, for whom “French nationality is inherited or deserved.” Supporters and colleagues of Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour are constantly condemning what they call les Français de papier, or “French on paper.” These are young people with immigrant backgrounds who, while French by birth, sometimes display a certain hostility towards the country where they live and where they can struggle to find their place. The far right traditionally compares this group to les Français de souche (“native French” and literally “root-stock French”), an expression that is becoming increasingly common in the rhetoric of various parties.

As you can see, the French Republic and its jus soli is anything but a rose-tinted affair. It was in Mayotte, a French département in the Indian Ocean, that this extremely touchy subject came up again in early February of this year. To counter the influx of illegal immigrants, Paris promised the Mahorans a constitutional revision that would put an end to the right on the island. However, the government will need to find a majority in Parliament to push this through. As former president Jacques Chirac used to say, politicians’ promises are only binding for those who receive them.