What’s Wrong With Stripping Terrorists of Citizenship?

France’s justice minister quits over a controversial new law.

Christiane Taubira leaves the Justice Ministry by bike after resigning. (Christian Hartmann / Reuters)

It’s one thing to lose your justice minister over a big, career-defining piece of legislation. It’s another to lose her, as François Hollande did this week, over a weedy, technical law almost everyone agrees is purely symbolic.

Christiane Taubira—a strong, passionate leftist voice in French society (think a French Elizabeth Warren, if Warren were in the cabinet rather than the Senate)—along with much of Hollande’s left flank have grown dissatisfied with the president’s rightward drift since ISIS’s attacks in Paris in November. But Taubira’s resignation, just as a parliamentary commission was taking up discussion of the bill, came as a surprise. “Sometimes resisting means staying, sometimes resisting means leaving,” Taubira tweeted shortly after Hollande announced her departure, adding that the move was about staying true to herself and others—and defending ethics and the law.

The bill that prompted this moral outrage is maddeningly difficult to summarize. Essentially, Hollande wants the power to strip dual citizens of their French citizenship should they engage in acts of terrorism. Right now, it’s possible to revoke someone’s French citizenship if they are convicted of terrorism charges and acquired citizenship within the past 15 years. But supporters of this proposed law are interested in removing French citizenship from someone who was born with it.

So far, so simple. Except you can’t just revoke the citizenship of anyone who engages in terrorism, because creating stateless persons is legally problematic. The clearest of a string of post-World War II international agreements dealing with the subject was a 1961 convention France signed but did not ratify, which forbade states from withdrawing nationality if doing so would create a stateless person. As the French paper Le Monde’s dedicated fact-checker and contextualizer Samuel Laurent explained on Thursday, this produces a tricky situation. Critics on the left say restricting the government’s plan to dual citizens creates two categories of citizens. It means dual citizens—often second-generation immigrants—wouldn’t have the same protection under the law that single-citizens have. So some leftists want to lean on the fact that France never ratified the 1961 convention, and instead pass a law stripping citizenship from anyone who engages in terrorist activities. But Hollande has said he’s committed to not creating stateless people. He’s further irritated his allies on the left by caving to pressure from the right, so that the bill now proposes stripping citizenship not just for committing terrorist attacks, but also for lesser crimes like incitement.

It’s not hard to understand why some on the left, including anti-racism activists, are so angry: Why should someone of North African descent, who’s been a French citizen all his life, have a less durable claim to citizenship than his white multi-generational French neighbor if they both get involved in terrorist activities?

What’s a bit harder to understand is why Hollande, the leader of the Socialist Party, is pushing this law so hard. After all, it’s unlikely to have much of an effect on national security. While citizenship in an EU state may have helped some of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks get into Europe, several were Belgian, and two entered Europe without citizenship in any European nation. Only one of the nine attackers would have been affected by the new bill. As Laurent pointed out, even if you’re looking at terrorist attacks in France since 2011, only two of some 15 perpetrators have been dual citizens.

There are several hypotheses for why the French president is backing such a bizarre horse. One, as articulated by The Guardian’s Angelique Chrisafis in November, is that the Paris attacks were “personal” for Hollande—like 9/11 for George W. Bush, only more so: Hollande was inside the Stade de France when the bombs, suspected to have been intended for inside the stadium, went off. This particular legislative proposal is only part of an aggressive response to the attacks that includes an extended state of emergency and escalated military action against ISIS in Syria.

Another theory is more cynical. Hollande is in deep political trouble. You think Angela Merkel’s approval ratings in Germany are bad? They’re nothing compared to Hollande’s: Only 25 percent of respondents in a poll this month said they had a “good opinion” of the French president. And forecasts for the 2017 election look grim for him. The Socialist Party and other leftist parties are polling very poorly relative to groups further to the right. Meanwhile, the bill to strip terrorists of French citizenship is popular, if controversial, on the left. But even if Hollande pulls off his super-centrist image makeover, he probably can’t escape the country’s economic problems. Unemployment in France continues to rise, and voters are far more likely to care about that than an arcane citizenship bill. If Hollande pushes ahead, he may lose his base and alienate the very generation of immigrants whose integration is crucial in stopping the growth of extremism—and all for nothing.