Can You Really Become French?

Do you want to become French? It may be easier than you think. Patrick Weil tells us that George Washington was made an honorary French citizen in 1792, and that Bill Clinton, born in Arkansas on what had once been French soil, as part of the Louisiana Territory, was until recently eligible to apply for French citizenship (he did not do so).

At times, however, it has been hard to become French. The welcome depended not on some fixed French national character but on the country’s perceived needs at the moment. Weil takes the reader authoritatively through the major turning points in French nationality law. His book establishes firmly that it has changed “more often and more significantly than [in] any other democratic nation” since French nationality was first defined explicitly in the constitution of 1790.

Weil begins with the revolutionary legal authorities who first codified French nationality law. They did so, not surprisingly, in opposition to the monarchy’s practice of considering anyone born on French soil the king’s subject. Far from being eternally wedded to the doctrine of jus soli—nationality determined by place of birth—the French, contrary to received wisdom, invented, in 1790, jus sanguinis—nationality determined by paternity. This definition was enshrined in the Civil Code of 1803 and then was adopted by almost all other European states as the influence of the Civil Code spread across the continent.

Weil declines to draw sweeping conclusions about national political culture from these two definitions of nationality. He demonstrates convincingly that no necessary link connects jus soli with open societies and jus sanguinis with racist and exclusionary ones, as has been maintained by some scholars. Dissatisfied with “the study of some isolated element that has no meaning in itself—jus soli, for example, or jus sanguinis,” Weil reaches more deeply to consider how nationality laws have applied in practice, by looking at their “configuration in action and in comparison.”

The French adopted jus soli only in 1889. That change came about in response to France’s first period of mass immigration. Large numbers of Italian and Spanish laborers entered France in the 1880s looking for work, joined by Jews fleeing the pogroms of tsarist Russia. By 1889 the foreign-born had grown to 3 percent of the population. At this moment France became for the first time a nation of immigrants, and indeed the foremost one in Europe, though it has long been reluctant to acknowledge itself as such. Twenty years ago Gérard Noiriel, attempting in a landmark book to awaken France to its true identity as a nation of immigrants, claimed famously that one French person in three had, if one went back three generations, a foreigner in his or her immediate family.

The French legislators of 1889 worried about clusters of foreigners in the major cities and along the borders, especially at a time of economic depression and low native reproductive rates. They were especially concerned that the children and grandchildren of …

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