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  • How to Be French: Nationality in the Making since 1789
  • Denise Z. Davidson
How to Be French: Nationality in the Making since 1789. By Patrick Weil. Translated by Catherine Porter. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008. 456 pp. $89.95 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

In How to Be French, Patrick Weil, France's preeminent historian of citizenship and immigration, traces the evolution of nationality law [End Page 765] since the French Revolution. Based on decades of research in a wide range of archival sources housed in France, Germany, and the United States (the endnotes, maps, and reproduced documents fill more than 150 pages) along with interviews with jurists and politicians, the book is full of illuminating details, penetrating analysis, and an impressive breadth of knowledge. Weil, who authored reports that shaped French legislation in the late 1990s, uses his history to address contemporary concerns about the discriminatory treatment of immigrants. Difficulties among second- and third-generation immigrants of North African descent who seem unable or unwilling to assimilate into the French nation serve as a backdrop to the story Weil tells in this study. The book has three parts, each with three chapters. The first part covers the period from 1789 to 1940; part 2 treats the period from Vichy to the 1970s; and the last part, "Nationality in Comparison and in Practice," includes a comparative chapter on Germany and France, a chapter on how various groups have suffered from discrimination in nationality law, and a closing chapter on current practices and policies.

This already influential book deserves a wide readership now that it is available in this careful and readable translation by Catherine Porter. The French version, Qu'est-ce qu'un Français? Histoire de la nationalité française depuis la Révolution (Gallimard, 2005), won two major prizes. Weil has authored numerous books and countless articles, many of which are comparative in nature, with several published in English. Although he focuses mainly on France here, one chapter compares France and Germany and makes references to other countries as well. Here, Weil takes on the argument made by Rogers Brubaker in Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany (1992), which contrasts the French "model" of citizenship as based on jus soli (rights based on birth or "soil") and the goal of assimilation, and the German "model" as based on jus sanguinis (rights based on bloodline or parentage) and skepticism about assimilation. Weil insists, however, that the Prussians (and then all of Germany after 1871) took their blood-based model of citizenship from the French. It was only later that the French switched to the jus soli model. Unlike the United States, however, the French established what Weil calls double jus soli, where children born in France to foreign parents could request French citizenship, but the next generation was automatically and irrevocably French.

One interesting feature of the French case is the frequency with which laws on citizenship and naturalization have changed over the past two hundred years. Prior to 1789, there was no explicit definition of a French person. Jus soli dominated, as the foreign-born child of French parents needed to request a lettre de nationalité from the king to [End Page 766] ensure their inheritance rights, but the French-born child of foreigners did not need to do so. The French revolutionaries associated jus soli with feudalism, and revolutionary legislation moved to reinforce parentage and residency. Laws passed in the spring of 1790 made explicit for the first time the process through which foreigners could become French. These rules changed repeatedly until the Civil Code of 1803 created a system that would last several decades. While Napoleon Bonaparte argued for jus soli, other contributors to the code opposed jus soli, and in the end they won as the code instituted jus sanguinis "as the exclusive criterion for attributing the quality of being French at birth" (p. 29). As Weil explains, "this break with jus soli, the reinterpretation of Roman law in the form of jus sanguinis in the name of the nation as the political extension of the family, marked the beginning of a lasting revolution. It inaugurated the era of modern nationality...


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