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The ambivalent frame of French naturalization ceremonies

There are two directions to current French immigration policy: simultaneously restricting new arrivals and facilitating access to French nationality. In the recent period, the public authorities have focused closely on naturalization. This has led to a significant increase in number of persons naturalized French, and the development of a solemn ceremony for conferring on them the written certificate formalizing their new status.

By Sarah Mazouz (mazouzsa@hu-berlin.de)
Marie Curie fellow, Institut für europäische Ethnologie, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin

By the beginning of the years 2000, the French state attributed new importance to naturalization as a mode of acquiring French citizenship. First, greater numbers of people have been granted French nationality through naturalization. In the 1970s and 1980s, an average of barely 20,000 foreigners were naturalised annually. That number rose in the late 1990s, reaching 56,000 in 2004 –the highest figure in more than half a century. Second, collective ceremonies have been instituted for conferring naturalization certificates on approved applicants (Mazouz 2008). In compliance with a 1993 interministerial circular, such ceremonies have been held in the préfectures and, after a 2004 application legislation authorizing prefects to delegate the organization of such ceremonies to the municipal level, in several French city halls (77,900 adults partook in such ceremonies in 62 prefectures and a number of city halls between February 2004 and July 2005).

This indicates a shift in French policy for “integrating foreigners” because up until then foreigners were mainly made into Frenchmen through jus soli and double jus soli (Brubaker 1992, Noiriel 1988). However, successive controversies that attempted to undermine jus soli as a way to grant automatically French citizenship gave a newly central role to naturalization from the 1980s onwards (Weil 2004). Moreover, issues on the regulation of migration flows (Bribosia and Rea 2002, Laurens 2009) made naturalization frame immigration policy as well, since the criteria that had previously determined whether nationality was granted or not now became the criteria determining right of residence. Thus, as a consequence of the focus on nation state borders, naturalization was more particularly reinvested at precisely the moment the state was applying tighter immigration controls.

In North America such ceremonies have long been practiced, particularly in the United States, and include swearing an oath of allegiance to the nation one is joining. In Europe they are a much more recent practice, but one that is developing quickly. Some German cities began using them as early as 1999; Great Britain first set up such rituals in 2004; the Netherlands organized one for the first time at the national level in 2006; Belgium and Switzerland hold local celebrations. European immigration policies are being aligned in two ways: first, a concerted policy of controlling migration flows and a converging policy of staging integration through naturalization ceremonies celebrating the newly acquired national identity and, in the same move, instituting a divide line between the different ways of being a member of the national community.

In the French context, this double ambiguity is formulated by means of the slogan “chosen immigration”, while the second aspect appears in the distinction between new and prior citizens, that underlies the whole naturalization process and is made explicit by the naturalization ceremonies.

The ceremonial follows a relatively standardized procedure, particularly at the prefecture[1] level; prefectures have a general protocol that they seldom depart from. The state representative, usually the prefect or a subprefect, delivers a speech that concludes by inviting the public to rise and listen to an instrumental version of the celebrated French national anthem, La Marseillaise. The new French persons are then called up one by one to receive their naturalization certificate. Increasing efforts are being made to present them with their identity card at the same time. In contrast to the United States, Canada and Switzerland, the French ritual does not include swearing an oath. Variants can be introduced into the general outline. In the département, where I carried out my fieldwork, a slide show designed by the prefecture’s communications department is shown before the state representative’s speech. This slide show proudly displays what founds France and, thus, celebrates its grandeur through a selective presentation of its history— where colonial history and history of post-colonial immigration are evaded producing then the exclusion of the most important part of the audience - and the recalling of its values.

Thus, it resembles a sort of ultimate make-up session for a course in civic and moral as well as historical and cultural education that new citizens are supposed to pass. At precisely the moment their assimilation is being attested to in that they have passed all the tests, they are reminded once again of what they are supposed to know. This only looks like a paradox. Through this last “lesson,” the new citizens are reminded once again what France is and what it is to be French and that they are not entirely French yet, as the prefect or sub-prefect will reiterate a few moments later. Such speeches underline the efforts that French naturalized citizens should make in order to entirely espouse the fundamental values of the Republic, especially if they are from Muslim background.

The ambivalent aspect of these ceremonies is also du to the reiterated them of being granted a favour and having been selected on merit. There are several ways of acquiring French citizenship, including through marriage (four years after marrying a French citizen) and by birth, if one is born in France to foreign parents who are legally residing on French territory when one reaches legal age. In these situations, obtaining French citizenship is a right and only exceptionally can this change in status be contested. Naturalization is different since the foreigner expresses his or her wish to be French and the public authority has discretionary power to grant or refuse the French citizenship. Furthermore, naturalization concerns first generation immigrants who have not necessarily been socialized in France. It is like adopting those who, among foreigners, have learnt to behave like nationals and have the most exemplary path (Spire 2005).

Some speeches pronounced during ceremonies giving out naturalization certificates still recall that “naturalization is a favour that the Republic […] has granted [to certain applicants] because it judged that [they] deserved it,” thus making it explicit that, in order to become French, the naturalization candidate must be worthy of the nationality he or she has requested. This theme may make the new French citizens proud of being worthy of French citizenship and having deserved it. Still it also reminds them of the fact they are obliged to the nation that has accepted them among its citizens, and, thus, that they don’t share the same status as those who were born French and didn’t need to make an effort or to deserve to be French. Thus, these ceremonies constitute an ambivalent republican ritual. They make explicit the symbolic weakness of the naturalized in comparison with the citizens who were born French, at the very moment where those are supposed to be welcomed as full citizens of the nation, that has chosen them. These ceremonies can also be analysed as “rite of institution” (Bourdieu 1991) since they legitimate the arbitrary boundary drawn between those among immigrants they who are deemed worthy of joining the national community and the others, but they also differentiate within the nation those who came from elsewhere.

This article has been funded from the project "Integration of Labour Migrants in the Czech Republic: Reinforcing the role of the Czech towns", CZ.1.04/5.1.01/77.00030, supported by the European Social Fund in the Czech Republic via the OP LZZ program. 

This article is based on outputs from a project funded by the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement n° 622400. 


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[1]The Préfecture is the administrative offices that represent the central State in each department (i.e. administrative division in France). Each Préfecture has a naturalization office and organizes its naturalization ceremonies.

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