How to become naturalized French

Imagine you come across a guy with a Brooklyn accent, a beer belly and too short pants who’s drinking a coke with a very well done steak. Must be an American, you suppose. Maybe, maybe not. Actually, according to his passport he’s French. He could be one of an increasing number of Americans, here and elsewhere, who have traded in their US citizenship to become subjects of another state. A significant factor here has been the weakening dollar which boosts foreign currency incomes when translated into greenbacks and so makes more expats vulnerable to the attentions of the IRS. I read not long ago that the US Embassy in London gets two visitors a day calling in to ask about the effects of naturalisation (the Paris Embassy wouldn’t give a figure).

Joking is not recommended

Of course, it’s not only Americans who sign up to be French. Lots of people from the country’s former colonies are very happy to do so if they can. But every year in the Alpes-Maritimes, for example, a number of citizens of other West European countries go for “the tricolour option”. In some cases they then automatically lose their citizenship of birth – that’s true of German, Dutch and Swedes for example, but not of Brits; the situation for Americans was clarified in 1990 after previously being somewhat ambiguous: now a US citizen who takes foreign nationality only ceases to be American if he makes a formal request in that sense (if he doesn’t, of course, he remains on the books of the IRS). In the past one common motive for choosing to be French was to escape the weight of bureaucratic regulation applying to foreign residents (now much reduced for those from the EU). That was the case of an ebullient cockney estate agent I knew back in the Eighties: “It was just more convenient. I’ve never felt any different since I changed and I still support England and West Ham.”

So if you want to be French what do you have to do? You need to have lived in France for five years, not to have a serious criminal record and to speak decent French (you have to take a test). Pick up two copies of the seven-page demande d’acquisition de la nationalité française at your local préfecture or mairie, fill them out along with providing a mass of original documents – translated by a certified traducteur Expert Judicaire at your expense – your birth certificate, parents birth certificates, marriage/divorce certificates, a set of pay slips including a bordereau de situation fiscale from designated local tax offices, etc. When these have been looked at there’s a personal interview (I’m told joking is not recommended) and then you wait while police background checks (again to be provided at your expense) are completed. It takes about five years for a decision to be made and if you get the okay – about one in five applications is refused – you are summoned to a solemn ceremony (this was introduced just two years ago) where the Prefect or his representative makes a speech of welcome and they play the Marseillaise. And those refusals? It doesn’t help to come from somewhere like Colombia, for example, or to be evasive about significant chunks of your past. Another thing you can do is to take a French spouse. In that case the whole procedure is to some extent simplified but a successful outcome is not guaranteed. However you get there, as we noted last time, once you’re a French citizen you can stand for mayor of your commune. Or President of France.

From Riviera Reporter Issue 126: April/May 2008