France last year granted citizenship to 66,000 immigrants, although the figure is steadily being reduced; the government’s immigration policy is becoming more restrictive, and yet foreigners continue to be attracted to France.
Alexandra Gartu is Romanian. She and her French fiancee Florent are expecting a baby this April. On her 26th birthday, she got French citizenship.
She explained: “I decided to apply for nationality as a form of expressing myself in the country where I live, where I read the newspapers, where I know what’s going on. The procedure was supposed to be really simple, only a matter of going through the right channels, except that the first of these organisations made an error with one of the documents and I had to start all over again. It’s a three-month wait to get an appointment with each organisation, so it took longer than planned. But I was very pleased when I got the news I would be granted nationality before our little girl is born.”
Alexandra’s naturalisation process took two years. She arrived in France seven years ago to study and today she is an engineer. She and Florent plan to get married next year. She could have become French that way. Alexandra falls into the 40 percent of France’s naturalised citizens who do not come from Africa. Sixty percent come from there, and a large number of them from North Africa, from countries that were once under French colonial rule.
“It was quite moving to see people smiling. I wondered if it was because they’d got the nationality or because they’d made it through all the administrative steps,” mused Alexandra.
The application process is a nightmare, people waiting in line will tell you. They are not all treated the same way. Resident status has to be renewed every year for immigrants who are not from European Union countries. Other EU nationals do not need that documentation to live in France.
When euronews turned up at the prefecture in the southern French city of Lyon, the queue was shorter than usual because it was mid-February and 10 degrees below freezing. Again and again, people said the routine is a humiliation.
A man from Mauritania said: “We’re here to be sure we get in first. Renewing visas, getting the voucher… It’s really tiring.”
A north African in the queue told us: “They give you a numbered ticket inside, there are something like 100 for the whole day. We got here at 4.00am. If you arrive at 8.00am, there aren’t any tickets left. You just have to come back the next day. The time you waste not working means you lose money.”
Another who was waiting in line said: “Yesterday I was missing some photocopies and I asked if I could do them here, and they told me ‘No, you have to come back tomorrow’.”
There is little choice on how you go about getting a residence permit by the rules.
A Tunisian said: “I brought them a full, permanent contract. My boss has tried to hire me a few times, but it didn’t work. They told me ‘The only way is to get married’. So I got married. This is my wife, just ask her.”
euronews asked: “How do you feel about him saying ‘I had to find a French wife to get my papers’?”
The young wife replied: “I was for marriage anyway. I knew it was for the paperwork, but it doesn’t matter.”
Twenty-two thousand people got nationality through marriage in France last year. That was 27 percent of all the marriages in France in 2011, a commitment characterised by love and cultural richness. But to become French, some people crookedly manipulate others’ feelings.
When one person in a couple is pretending to care for the other, just to get papers, it is called a ‘grey marriage’.
Mina is an example of someone who fell for it, believed a man from Algeria had fallen in love with her. She has Algerian roots herself, and she trusted him. Most of those tricked into a grey marriage are originally immigrants or are second generation – 80 percent. Mina was in her forties, divorced, and had a job, a home, a car.
Mina talked about her experience: “He called me every day, we called each other, he sent me letters, presents. He was truly generous, showing he cared about me. He told me he was separated from his wife and was going to divorce her. In fact they never cut ties. His goal was first to get the 10-year residence permit and bring his son over. When the boy got his papers, then he would ask for a divorce in France, and say that I was the one at fault, so I had to leave our home, and he would keep it. Then he would remarry his ex-wife and bring her over under the French rules on reuniting families. He was playing a role, but that doesn’t make it any easier because you put your heart into it. It was a psychological beating. It’s as if you’ve been raped. This phenomenon has become an epidemic, and if it goes on, everyone, unfortunately, is going to be wary of the real mixed marriages that are sincere, and they are going to find it difficult to obtain papers.”
Mina is fighting to have the marriage annulled and get a ruling against her fraudulent husband. A marriage under pretence like this is punishable in France by five years in prison and a 15,000 euro fine.
France is still a land of asylum. Its geographic position in Western Europe makes it the continent’s primary landing ground.
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the world has 44 million displaced people and asylum-seekers. They are often fleeing war and poverty. In 2011, France registered 57,000 asylum requests. France gets 20 percent of all the applications in Europe.
An immigration policy specialist, Laure Chebbah-Malicet, said: “When you see people arrive here not knowing the French language at all, not knowing what France is like, I’m not sure they are really attracted to France. It’s the same as Germany or Belgium. It embodies European values.”
euronews asked: “What does France have going for it, compared with other countries?”
Chebbah-Malicet replied: “Either it’s closest to where they land, or it’s because there are also organised crime networks that dispatch them somewhat everywhere in Europe, and some of them arrive in France by chance, not necessarily even knowing where they’re going to end up. I still don’t get the impression that France is necessarily the country they’ve always dreamt of going to, and they’re often unaware of the reality of how it’s going to be after they’re taken in – the procedures, and what they are told.”
For some, the French dream ends at the administrative detention centre at Lyon airport. There are 27 like it in France. Behind the fences, clandestine immigrants are held for up to 45 days, before being deported.
In 2011, there were nearly 33,000 expulsions, which is 17 percent more than the year before. For those 33,000, France chose not to be a land of asylum.