Macron needs to set his house in order before lecturing US

Macron needs to set his house in order before lecturing US
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French President Emmanuel Macron’s apparent barbs at President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' Lawmakers dismiss Chinese retaliatory threat to US tech MORE’s U.S.-first policies are staggeringly hypocritical. Macron criticized “isolationism, withdrawal and nationalism, [which] can be tempting to us as a temporary relief to our fears. But closing the door to the world will not stop the evolution of the world. ... We will not let the rampaging work of extreme nationalism shake a world full of hopes for greater prosperity.”

It is folly to label Trump’s policies as isolationism. The United States has many problems and needs to focus on remedying them before expending its resources on others without clear gain.


Similarly, it would be sensible for France to focus on its less-than-stellar record on human rights before lecturing others. Consider just the recent case of a woman who was denied French citizenship for refusing to shake the hand of a male government official. Her crime: she is not “assimilated” into French society.


The Algerian-origin woman is married to a French man and refused to shake hands with male officials because of her religious beliefs. The incident apparently occurred during a naturalization ceremony in Isère, France in June 2016, where she refused to shake hands with the secretary-general of the prefecture and another local official. She was doomed by a legal quirk whereby citizenship is only awarded at the conclusion of the event.

On appeal, the Council of State, the court of last resort, sided with the government ruling that her refusal to shake hands “in a place and at a moment that are symbolic, reveals a lack of assimilation.”

The government’s power to deny citizenship is grounded in the French Civil Code, Article 21-4, which provides that the government may “on grounds of indignity or lack of assimilation, other than linguistic, oppose the acquisition of the French nationality by the foreign spouse within a period of two years.”

Crucially, the civil code uses the word “may,” meaning that the government can exercise discretion in deciding when to oppose a person acquiring citizenship on the basis that he or she has not assimilated into French society. The decision by then-Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve appears to betray broader prejudice. At a minimum, it seems heavy-handed; at worst, it is a gross intrusion on individual autonomy.

France cannot hide from its poor record of pervasive racism and systemic discrimination. The U.S. Department of State’s 2017 Reports on Human Rights Practices in France documented “societal acts of violence against migrants, minorities, Jews, Muslims, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons.” It recorded “numerous anti-Semitic incidents.” Relevantly, the report noted “violence and discrimination against immigrants of North African origin, Roma, and other ethnic minorities,” and “discriminatory hiring practices in both the public and private sectors” against people from sub-Saharan Africa, the Maghreb, the Middle East and Asia.  

In 2017, the United Nations expressed concern about new anti-terror legislation having potential “discriminatory repercussions” for French residents, particularly Muslims.

To be clear, immigrants who refuse to abide by societal commitments enshrined in a country’s constitution and laws must not be given the privilege of citizenship. This is particularly apposite in domains essential to a civilized state, such as equality of gender, race and sexual orientation; freedom of association, speech, expression and religion; liberty; and fidelity to the rule of law.  

However, denying citizenship for refusing to shake hands with a male official is a bridge too far. There is no compelling state interest that warrants such coercion. To force an individual to shake hands with another person is to deny them their autonomy as a human. It is farcical for a society which claims to be free to take away such basic freedom in the name of assimilation. Intrusions on personal autonomy are justified when there is a compelling state interest — for example, asking a person to remove a face veil while testifying is justified because of the need to assess credibility and veracity. But a handshake, at best, is a custom or convention.

A state that treats its minorities as less than human and unworthy of citizenship will find them unwilling to assimilate. French lectures about “isolationism” and “nationalism” are likely to be dismissed by the rest of the world. President Macron needs to be inclusive at home for his words about inclusivity abroad to be taken seriously.

Sandeep Gopalan is a professor of law and pro vice chancellor for academic innovation at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He previously was co-chairman or vice chairman of American Bar Association committees on aerospace/defense and international transactions, a member of the ABA's immigration commission, and dean of three law schools in Ireland and Australia. He has taught law in four countries and served as a visiting scholar at universities in France and Germany.