French citizenship, reward or punishment in fight against terror

Lassana Bathily, who was granted French nationality, with Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.
Lassana Bathily, who was granted French nationality, with Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve. AFP / ERIC FEFERBERG

The historic nature of French citizenship, which has been a lodestone to other nations around the world since the Napoleonic civic code, came into the spotlight on Friday after France’s highest court said it is lawful to rescind the citizenship of a French-Moroccan man convicted of terrorism.


France’s Conseil Constitutionnel – or Constitutional Council – said that the battle against terrorism permits the courts to strip Ahmed Sahnouni, 44, of his citizenship, prompting his lawyer to denounce the ruling as “discriminatory”.

“It creates two different categories of French people – those who are born here and those who receive French nationality,” Sahnouni's lawyer Nurettin Meseci said in a telephone interview, adding that his client could face up to 20 years in prison if sent back to Morocco.

However, France’s top legal body said after its ruling that the difference in treatment between French-born and naturalized citizens does not violate France’s principle of equality – on the basis that the gravity of the act outweighs the severity of the punishment.

While Sahnouni is only eighth person to be stripped of his nationality since 1973, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said such a measure would be used again.

Prime Minister Manual Valls also welcomed the move saying, "We should not, in any case, deprive ourselves of lawful means to ensure our values are respected.”

Under France’s civil code, Article 25, officials can revoke a person’s French passport if they commit an egregious offense deemed an “act of terror” within fifteen years of being granted citizenship. However, the law only applies to dual-nationals so it does not render them stateless, which would breach international conventions signed by France.

In the aftermath of the recent attacks that claimed 17 lives before the three attackers were shot dead, France has announced sweeping measures – from increasing police equipment, recruiting more intelligence officers, to easing restrictions around phone-tapping and working with internet companies to identify threats online – to tackle homegrown terrorism. It will cost some 425 million euros over the next three years.

Central to many anti-terrorism plans, replicated worldwide, is the debate around striking a balance between preventative measures and surveillance with respecting individual rights and privacy. In Europe and particularly France –which has been a major leader in advancing the principle of equality before the law for more than two centuries –this debate will undoubtedly continue for some time.

A parallel conversation has also emerged on whether dual-nationals responsible for committing violent acts – like that on Charlie Hebdo – should be able to remain citizens of the country against which they strike.

A recent Ifop poll, found that 81 percent of the French public are in favor of revoking citizenship of people who carry out terrorist attacks on French soil. The rates of approval reach even higher amongst respondents identified with France’s right-wing parties.

Sahnouni, who was born in Morocco and naturalized by France in 2003, was arrested in the outskirts of Paris on April 30, 2010. He was arrested for allegedly raising funds for an Al-Qaeda linked group and overseeing the recruitment of aspiring jihadists to Afghanistan, Iraq, North Africa’s Sahel region and Somalia.

Sentenced to seven years in jail, he was stripped of his French nationality the following year and is due for release at the end of 2015.

Meseci says his client has changed during his time behind bars, but that he was not surprised at Friday’s decision because of the current climate in France.

“He just wants to be with his family in France and nothing else,” Meseci said. “The role of prison is to make them a better person than when they came in. It worked for my client.”

Meseci challenged the revocation of citizenship because he said it was being used as a pretext to ultimately send Sahnouni back to Morocco.

“He would be tried twice for the same thing,” Meseci said should Sahnouni be expelled to Morocco.

While Meseci said his clients sees importance in remaining French, Paris lawyer Matthias Pujos said revoking citizenship for people convicted of committing an act of terror often risks falling short of being a deterrent to acts of terror.

“The last thing people, who commit an act of terrorism, care about is their French nationality,” Pujos said. “They are just focused on what they need to do and I think French nationality would be their last preoccupation.”

This suggests that the social contract made between citizen and state when the person became French broke the moment someone began plotting an attack.

Pujos adds that its contribution to security also depends where the person’s second nationality is. For example, if the second passport is from a country from within the Schengen zone, the person could still easily return to France to carry out an attack.

Citizen revocation could prove more successful in making a place safer if it’s coupled with other tactics, such as sharing air passenger information, said Pujos. However, other questions arise around the implications of displacing a problem, rather than dealing with it.

Yet, France is not alone in deploying legislation that revokes citizenship. In December 2013, for example, British Home Secretary Theresa May said citizenship was a “privilege, not a right,” as she moved to step up powers to remove British nationality on the grounds of national security.

In addition to the Britain, a slew of other European nations, including Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia, the Netherlands, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Romania, Slovenia, and Switzerland all have legal clauses – with varying caveats – that allow for the removal of citizenship, according to the European Union Democracy Observatory on Citizenship.

But, citizenship revocation has not only been added to the tool-kit of counter-terrorism measures. It’s being used both as a carrot and stick – a reward for achievements and a means for punishment.

Take Lassana Bathily – known in worldwide media as the “Muslim hero” of the Paris Kosher supermarket siege – who was granted French nationality for his “bravery” and “courage” earlier this week.

The 24-year-old market employee made international headlines after he saved the lives of trapped shoppers by hiding them in the stockroom’s walk-in freezer.

Bathily turned off the freezer and the lights and told everyone to stay calm before he returned upstairs to face hostage-taker Amedy Coulibaly.

Four people were still killed in the siege, but Bathily’s life-risking actions were praised extensively by French authorities and he was granted a French passport.

“People are all equal to me and skin color isn’t an issue,” Bathily said during a ceremony in Paris on Tuesday, offering a bold reminder of the country’s foundation. “France is the country of human rights.”

That it remains so will be the challenge as the country attempts to move on from January's tragedy.


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