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France: A country, and party, shaken to its core Add to ...

The French President’s traditional New Year’s Eve address to the country will be anything but festive this year. It has been an annus horribilis in France. Two terrorist attacks that rocked the republic in 2015 continue to shake the country to its core. Nothing is as it was.

That includes the government of President François Hollande. A Socialist whose party has traditionally stood for republican values of equality, Mr. Hollande has turned into a national security hawk preaching safety over civil rights. Hanging heavily over his televised remarks from the Élysée Palace will be the constitutional reform package he tabled two days before Christmas that would allow the state to strip French citizenship from native-born dual nationals convicted of terrorism. It has pre-empted any chance of a holiday reprieve from acrid political debate.

It is a debate somewhat familiar to Canadians, who will recall controversial changes to the law made by former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government that empowered the immigration minister to revoke the Canadian passport of dual citizens convicted of terrorism. In September, the Tories moved to invoke the new power against a member of the so-called Toronto 18, who plotted terrorist attacks in 2006, prompting then-Liberal leader Justin Trudeau to stake his ground: “You devalue the citizenship of every Canadian in this place and in this country when you break down and make it conditional for anybody.” Now, Prime Minister Trudeau has vowed to repeal the provision.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls mustn’t have received the memo. In posting on Facebook on Monday to defend his Socialist government’s plan, Mr. Valls cited Canada as one of the democratic countries “close to France” that can revoke the citizenship of dual nationals convicted of terrorism, provided such persons are not left stateless in contravention of international law.

The debate about revoking the citizenship of convicted terrorists has heated up almost everywhere in the West with most countries – including Australia just this month – taking a hard line against dual nationals who have travelled to Syria or Iraq to join the Islamic State and who would attack their home country in the name of radical Islam. But the debate has a particular resonance in France, where, until recently, Mr. Hollande and Mr. Valls stood steadfastly on the other side.

For the French left, the idea of stripping any French citizen of his or her passport is a violation of republican principles and reminiscent of the worst abuses of the Vichy regime that ruled parts of the country during the Nazi occupation. The Vichy government revoked the French citizenship of, among others, Algerian Jews and members of the resistance, including Charles de Gaulle.

Until now, the law has provided for the revocation of the French citizenship of immigrants who have been naturalized for less than 15 years who commit crimes contravening the “fundamental interests of the nation.” But the provision has strict limits and has not been invoked in years. When former centre-right president Nicolas Sarkozy tried to toughen the law in 2010, Mr. Hollande balked.

Back then, Mr. Hollande co-signed a letter in the left-leaning Libération newspaper calling Mr. Sarkozy’s proposal an “infringement of the constituting principles” of the republic, including the “decent and equal treatment of all.” One his co-signatories was Stéphane Charbonnier, the irreverent Charlie Hebdo cartoonist killed by French-born radicalized Muslims last January.

If the tables have turned it is because Mr. Hollande, the most unpopular president in the history of the Fifth Republic, is scrambling to respond to a sharp rightward shift in public opinion. Surveys show more than 80 per cent of French voters support the hard-line approach, amid reports that 1,000 French citizens have gone to join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, while an estimated 250 have returned home.

Mr. Hollande’s proposal to strip dual nationals convicted of terrorism of their citizenship goes further than anything considered before in that it would apply to those born in France, not just naturalized citizens, and would be included in the French constitution, shielding it from legal challenges. But if public opinion seems largely on side, the move threatens to tear his Socialist Party apart. In the past week, many party officials and Socialist politicians have denounced Mr. Hollande and Mr. Valls as traitors.

Mr. Hollande’s moves have delighted one politician, however. National Front Leader Marine Le Pen tweeted that his reforms are “the first effect of the 6.8 million votes” her anti-immigration party won in this month’s regional elections.

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