By Elsa Court
Revising for the Life in the UK test (at a leisurely pace, between February and April this year) made me — along with other EU nationals — think about the question of merit. To paraphrase Federica Cocco, who wrote about the test last year in the Financial Times, you get to a point where you wonder just how many hoops you are willing to jump through in order to become a British citizen. Knowing that I met the requirements to apply for citizenship, I also knew that my capacity to answer the questions on the day of the test would determine whether or not I now deserved to become a citizen.
On May 28, two days after Mamoudou Gassama, an undocumented immigrant from Mali, rescued a little boy from falling off a fourth-floor balcony in Paris, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, promised to grant the 22-year-old French citizenship as a mark of gratitude for his heroic deed. Politicians on the left rejoiced in this decision on public radio, while writers and journalists in France and elsewhere outlined the awkwardness of granting French citizenship as if it were a sign of distinction based, in this case, on a demonstration of exceptional courage and strength.
“The question I am now asking,” wrote philosopher Thomas Schauder in Le Monde in June, “is does one need to be ‘deserving’ of French citizenship?” After all, most of us are French because we were born in France, and therefore have no merit to speak of. On this premise, it appears Gassama was not granted citizenship on merit, but because his naturalisation on the basis of heroism could significantly validate the meritocracy that is essential to France’s “republican narrative”, a narrative that is particularly significant to Macron’s presidency.
Three years earlier, François Hollande had granted citizenship to Malian immigrant Lassana Bathily for his “acts of bravery” at the time of the Hyper Cacher attacks near Porte de Vincenne. One of the notable episodes of Hollande’s presidency remains his proposal, soon after the later attacks of November 2015, to implement legislation to withdraw French citizenship from convicted terrorists, a project that never came to fruition.
Witnessing these debates arising somewhat awkwardly in the French press while Macron toughens immigration laws, I am reminded of a similar story that unfolded in the UK media last year.
In February 2017, Zimbabwean national Robert Chilowa rescued two children from a house fire in Withington, Manchester. Chilowa, who had lived in the UK for more than 10 years, then received an order to leave the country in early March, only weeks after the event. Thousands signed a petition addressed to Amber Rudd, the home secretary at the time, calling on the government to allow Chilowa to stay in the country. According to John Leech, a former Liberal Democrat MP who leads the opposition on Manchester City Council, Chilowa’s case has not been closed. He is still living in the UK while he awaits a decision.
While the French Code Civil makes provision for special cases whereby French-speaking internationals are rewarded with citizenship for honourable deeds, the petition for Chilowa only mentioned the fact that his heroic endeavour demonstrated his “good character”, which is one of the requirements for citizenship in Home Office guidelines. It appears, however, that good character alone is not sufficient, no matter how remarkable the proof.
My life in the UK is rooted in a set of privileges I acquired before entering the country several years ago: EU citizenship; an affiliation with a Parisian university, which, through the Erasmus exchange scheme, gave me the right to study in London free of tuition fees; and the economic means to live in London as a student for a while. Based on this comfortable foundation, it strikes me that all I have ever had to do to show that I was “deserving” of British citizenship was to never do anything to disprove that I am an individual of good character. Like me, many EU citizens must have taken for granted, until recently, the citizenship rights with which they were born. It will be interesting to see how we, the entitled, react to having our long-held freedoms questioned.
Photographs: Charlie Bibby/Financial Times; Thibault Camus/AFP/Getty Images; Pat Hurst/PA