Citizenship deprivation in a context of terrorist violence: (multiple) membership and citizenship in France and the Maghreb

Delphine Perrin (Aix Marseille University)

Since the turn of the millennium, citizenship deprivation, which had previously seemed to be falling into abeyance, has experienced a remarkable resurgence in Western countries, especially in relation to the threats posed by terrorism and terrorists: the act of terrorism as an additional legal ground for citizenship deprivation has been introduced in a growing number of states; actual deprivation measures have multiplied; and reforms have sometimes widened, or attempted to widen, the scope of deprivation powers more generally.

The draft reform of the French Constitution debated in 2015 and eventually abandoned some months later is an illustration of such attempts. This aimed to remove the restriction of deprivation powers to nationals ‘by acquisition’ and to extend it to French nationals ‘by origin’ who were guilty of crimes ‘constituting a serious attack on the life of the nation’, including terrorist acts, provided they also held another citizenship. In April 2021, Algeria likewise abandoned a bill which would have made provision for the deprivation of citizenship, either ‘acquired or by origin’, from any Algerian committing abroad acts ‘willfully causing serious damage to the interests of the State’, attacking national unity or ‘activating or adhering to a terrorist organization, as well as those who finance it or who defend it’. The ultimate abandonment of these projects is indicative of the sensitivity of the debates, which touched on national identities and social cohesion.

As in France, the Maghreb citizenship codes provide for the possibility of citizenship deprivation, though this became unconstitutional in Tunisia in 2014, and only Morocco has added the specific ground of terrorist acts. The Maghreb states are obviously also both victims of terrorism and suppliers of jihadists in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. As such, they may be tempted to deprive the perpetrators of their citizenship, as provided for by Morocco in 2007, and as was debated in Tunisia in 2017. They are, however, affected differently than Europe in at least two ways. First, when terrorists have a Maghrebi citizenship, it is usually a citizenship by origin and thus not subject to deprivation. Second, individuals deprived of a European citizenship, particularly in France, are typically returned to the country of their ‘other’ citizenship, even if they have never lived there, which is sometimes in the Maghreb.

This short blog post presents some reflections on the evolution of legal frameworks and political debates relating to citizenship deprivation in France and the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia).[1] It explores two stumbling blocks – the restriction of citizenship deprivation to those who hold another citizenship and to citizens by acquisition – which are widely shared across the world. The blog concludes by exploring what it terms the new ‘identity turn’ in questions of deprivation.

The restriction of citizenship deprivation to ‘multiple’ nationals: a shared legal and ethical principle?

Under the rule of law, the deprivation or loss of citizenship should only concern nationals with at least one other nationality, in order to avoid statelessness. The difference in the treatment of those with more than one citizenship thus finds its justification in respect for fundamental rights. During the French reform project, the link between multiple nationality and terrorism was the subject of numerous debates, with some denouncing the differential treatment as a breach of equality, while others promoted the narrative that terrorists are usually dual nationals, even though the majority of the perpetrators of attacks in France had only one nationality. The legal and ethical need to limit citizenship deprivation to dual nationals led to them being stigmatized by the purported link with terrorism, in particular those holding the citizenship of a Muslim country.

Unlike French law, Maghrebi legislation does not make the deprivation or loss of citizenship conditional on the possession of another citizenship. It can thus result in statelessness. This legislative gap reflects a general lack of legal protection and consideration of fundamental rights in the region. It also reflects an unthought: Maghreb governments do not (or rarely) engage in citizenship deprivation and have even restricted the possibilities of forced loss of citizenship in recent years.

In Tunisia, any possibility of banishment was prohibited in 2014: Article 25 of the Constitution states that ‘it is forbidden to withdraw Tunisian citizenship from any citizen, or to exile or extradite him or to prevent him from returning to his country’. With the reform of its citizenship code in 2005, Algeria eliminated the forced loss of citizenship, though still maintained the possibility of deprivation. Strikingly, the bill presented by the Algerian Minister of Justice in 2021 provided for the possibility of deprivation powers to be applied to nationals by acquisition and origin for acts ‘committed abroad’. As with the modification of the Constitution in 2016,[2] which excluded multiple nationals from high office, the diaspora rightly felt targeted, prevented from intervening in the internal affairs of the State, in particular to support the popular Hirak movement.

The restriction to nationals by acquisition: the ‘spirit’ of citizenship deprivation?

In France and the Maghreb, citizenship deprivation only applies to nationals by acquisition,[3] unlike citizenship loss (voluntary or forced), which extends to nationals by origin, though is deemed to no longer exist in Algeria and Tunisia.

As Pierre-François Gonidec has observed, ‘In French law, deprivation is essentially a means of eliminating from the national community undesirable elements whose conduct has proved that French nationality had been granted to them prematurely’.[4] The early ‘spirit’ of citizenship deprivation, which appeared at the beginning of the 20th century, was therefore to protect the nation from those who had acquired nationality too easily. However, in France, citizenship by acquisition is not limited to naturalised persons, i.e. adults who came to the country later in life. Rather, it also covers acquisition by marriage, as well as by declaration after decades of living in France and even automatic acquisition at the age of 18 for children born to foreign parents and raised in France.

The latter applied in the case of five individuals deprived of their French citizenship in 2015, who had been linked to the Casablanca attacks of 2003 and convicted by the Paris Criminal Court on 11 July 2007. Two of them, who had been born and raised in France, became French citizens when they came of age. The other three, born in Morocco, had known no other home than France.[5] We can discern the discrimination felt by these French nationals, who like French nationals by origin had only ever known France as home,  but nonetheless risked being deprived of their citizenship, solely because of their parents’ background.

The French draft constitutional reform, if it had been successful in the form proposed by the executive, would have reduced this inequality by placing all French (multiple) nationals at risk of deprivation. In any case, the government’s attempt to use the Constitution, the apex of the legal hierarchy, to address citizenship deprivation on counter-terrorism grounds – merely a ‘symbolic’ measure according to the Prime Minister – revealed the stigmatization affecting a significant part of the population in France, i.e. the descendants of Muslim immigrants.

In the Maghreb, the scope for deprivation is very narrow given the limited possibilities for acquiring citizenship in the first place, a consequence of restrictive administrative policies, as well as the lack of legal routes. Furthermore, naturalised persons are subject to a period of probation, during which they remain excluded from certain functions and capacities (though this provision was repealed in Algeria in 2005).

This demonstrates how high the bar of integration is set: a person must first prove five to seven years of residence (and in administrative practice often double) – albeit less by marriage –, as well as assimilation into society (no criminal conviction or violation of morals), and they still risk having their nationality withdrawn for ten years after they acquired it. In the Maghreb, as in France,  citizenship deprivation thus hardly seems a remedy for premature or ‘easy’ citizenship acquisition. It rather reflects the impossibility of integration into a national body mystified as pre-constituted and permanent. Nonetheless, recent debates on citizenship deprivation have focused more on nationals by origin than nationals by acquisition.

Two concluding points: an identity turn

The fact that people deprived of their French citizenship should be expelled to the country of their other citizenship, even when they have never lived there, has prompted reactions in France and in the Maghreb, especially since these expulsions sometimes override decisions of the European Court of Human Rights[6] and since France thus seems to deny any ‘Frenchness’ in terrorism. Algeria and Morocco willingly (albeit discreetly) ‘take back’ their actual or paper nationals, some of whom are also wanted in the context of their own criminal proceedings or who could in any case contribute to the fight against terrorism. Nonetheless, a majority of Tunisians refuse to receive terrorists whom they consider to be the product of European societies and their inequalities. In Tunisia too, a debate similar to that in France has arisen over the question of the return of jihadists – and/or their families –  from Iraq or Syria, with some supporting the withdrawal of their citizenship and others arguing for the maintenance and respect of Article 25 of the Constitution.

These jihadists being nationals of origin, this leads to the second concluding reflection. In France, Tunisia and Algeria, recent debates concerning citizenship deprivation have gone beyond the issue of terrorism and the framework of nationals by acquisition to highlight broader societal fractures and fragilities in national cohesion. By extending to all nationals, including those by origin – and thus calling into question the ‘perpetual link’ between the citizens and the state in the Maghreb, similar to the French conception of the nation – the debates have pointed to the rejection of a part of the citizenry (Muslims in France or residents abroad in Algeria). In this way, they have not only highlighted weaknesses in national building, but also demonstrated that an ‘inner other’ has been designated as an identity threat.

This blog is an updated summary of Delphine’s earlier paper « Réflexions sur le déchéance de nationalité en contexte terroriste – (pluri)appartenance et citoyenneté en France et au Maghreb », L’Année du Maghreb, 22 | 2020, pp.233-250

[1] The legal frameworks referred to in the article are, for France, the Civil Code (many times amended, last modification on February 14, 2020), for Algeria, ordinance n ° 70-86 of December 15 1970 on the Algerian Nationality Code, as amended (last modification by ordinance n ° 05-01 of February 27, 2005); for Morocco dahir 1-58-250 of September 12, 1958 on the code of Moroccan nationality as modified by dahir 01-07 of March 3, 2007; for Tunisia, decree-law n ° 63-6 of February 28, 1963 as amended (last modification by law n ° 2010-55 of December 1, 2010).

[2] Article 63 of the Constitution modified on 6 March 2016.

[3] The French Civil Code (art.25 and 25-1) provides that an individual “who has acquired the quality of French” may be deprived of citizenship within fifteen years following the acquisition, if he is convicted of a crime or an offense constituting an “attack on the fundamental interests of the Nation” or an “act of terrorism”, and within ten years for other reasons. In the Maghreb, deprivation is also limited to people who have acquired citizenship, within ten years after acquisition.

[4] gonidec Pierre-François, 1961, « La nationalité dans les États de la Communauté et dans les Etats ‘marginaux’ », AFDI, pp.814-835: 829

[5] They were childhood friends from neighbourhoods in the western suburbs of Paris. ECHR press release of 23 May 2017 on the Ghoumid v. France (no 52273/16) and following ones introduced on September 2, 2016.       

[6] This was the case of Ahmed Sahnouni, convicted in 2013, deprived in 2014 and deported in 2015 to Morocco where he was wanted, despite the request for suspension from the ECtHR; also Mohamed Ali Arous, deprived and deported to Algeria in 2015.