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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Am I eligible for French citizenship?

Getting French citizenship gives plenty of advantages but it is not a quick or easy process - here's how you can apply.

Am I eligible for French citizenship?
Please note - you don't get the president at all citizenship ceremonies. Photo: AFP

The positive side of this would be that you would gain full and unlimited rights to remain in France as well as – as a citizen of the EU – the right to live and work in any of the 27 other EU countries.

QUIZ: Do you know France well enough to become French?

But the process itself is not a simple one.

Who is eligible?

There are two main routes to applying for citizenship – through residency or through marriage – and if you have a French parent it is also possible to obtain citizenship that way.

Residency

If you are applying through residency you need to have been resident in France for at least five years.That can be reduced to two years if you have completed postgraduate studies at a French university.

Those applying via residency will also need to prove they can speak French to B1 level, they have an adequate knowledge of France, its culture, history and politics and also show they have integrated into and appreciate the French way of life.

They will need to show they have a clean criminal record (for those who have less than 10 years residence in France) and that their tax payments are up to date, including tax return notices for the three years prior to filing the application for French citizenship. They will also need to prove they are financially sustainable. In other words they have a job or some other form of income.

Marriage

If you are applying through marriage you need to have been married for four years, but do not actually need to be living in France. 

If you have children born in France you can apply for citizenship on their behalf once they turn 13, and if you get citizenship your children are also given citizenship.

Family

If you have a parent who was a French citizen at the time of your birth, you can obtain citizenship through ancestry. If you apply this way you will need full documentation for yourself and your French parent, and they will also need to prove that that have maintained some ‘connection’ with France in the past 50 years – this could be evidence of their residency in France, registration with a French consulate or a voter registration to show they have voted in French elections.

Others

There are some other less common ways to get citizenship. One is to join the French Foreign Legion, as anyone who serves five years in the Legion or who is injured on active service qualifies for citizenship (although you might want to check out what their training involves first) and the other is to perform an outstanding service for France.

Some people who have achieved something superb are offered French nationality and foreigners who worked on the frontline during the Covid pandemic have been offered fast-track citizenship

What do I need to do

You need to apply through your local préfecture and, as with most French bureaucratic tasks, the process is long and involves a lot of paperwork.

For residency applications you will need;

  • Two copies of the completed application for citizenship called the “demande d’acquisition de la nationalité francaise”
  • Copy of your passport
  • An original birth certificate (a certified translation is required and depending on the place of birth an Apostille/legalisation could also be necessary)
  • Copies of your parents’ birth or death certificates as well or marriage certificates or divorce decree IF these are showing the full details of the date and place of birth.
  • Rental agreement or proof of home ownership in France
  • Last three tax returns
  • December and January payslips from the last three years
  • Certificate to show you have B1 level of French (unless you have studied in a French school or University, or have a diploma from a French speaking country)

People applying via marriage or family will need marriage/birth certificates.

You may also need need supplementary paperwork as requested by the préfecture depending on your situation and any documents that need translating must be done by a certified translator. Find out more about the rules of certified translation here.

How long does it take?

It’s not a quick process – the average length of time from application to citizenship is between 18 months and two years, but it varies depending on where you are in the country.

Once you have submitted all the paperwork and any outstanding details have been checked, you will then be summoned to an interview. Here you will be required to demonstrate a reasonable knowledge of France and its culture and also show that you have a genuine commitment to France.

It’s not enough to say that you’re applying just because you want to go in the shorter passport queue, you need to demonstrate that you genuinely value France and want to become French.

The interviews themselves vary from place to place and interviewer to interviewer – some people report a fairly simple process and a short chat, others are grilled on every aspect of France’s history and culture so it’s best to be prepared and read up on the Livret de Citoyen (citizens booklet) – which you can download here.

Naturally, the interview will be in French.

READ ALSO 10 reasons why you should consider becoming French

How good does my French need to be?

You will need to provide a certificate showing that you have a formal language qualification to B1 level, which is described as intermediate – a person who is able to handle day-to-day matters in work, school and leisure.

The language rules have recently been toughed up with a requirement for a written test in addition to the previous speaking, listening and reading tests.

The exemption for over 60s has also been removed. 

How much does it cost?

The official application costs just a €55 timbre fiscal, but the real cost is likely to be much higher taking into account the cost of getting certified translations of all your documents. 

Can I be turned down for citizenship?

Yes, it’s not just a question of ticking the right boxes, authorities can and will turn you down if they feel you are not truly committed to the French way of life or are just applying for administrative convenience.

In total in 2018 around 30 percent of citizenship applications were refused, many of them on language grounds but in 2019 a nurse was turned down because she had worked too many hours – and therefore broken the Labour Code – and in 2018 an Algerian woman was denied citizenship because she refused to shake the male official’s hand.

If you are rejected you will be informed either in person or by registered letter, and the préfecture must give a reason for refusal.

If you feel that is unfair you can challenge the decision at the Tribunal de Nantes.

If you are accepted for citizenship you are invited to a ceremony where you will be given a brief presentation on the French way of life, awarded your certificate and invited to sing La Marseillaise (in a group, no solo performances are required, thankfully).

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CRIME

What to do if you are arrested in France

Everything you need to know if you find yourself in handcuffs in France.

What to do if you are arrested in France

France’s legal system is born out of its Code Civil, and for criminal proceedings, the relevant legal infrastructure is the Code pénal.

The way the system works is very different to many anglophone countries, so if you are arrested do not expect events to follow the pattern you would expect in your home country.

Here are some of the scenarios you might find yourself in, and what to expect:

The police have stopped me:

There are a few scenarios here, they could give you an amende (fine), it could just be a contrôle d’identité (ID check) or contrôle routière (traffic stop) or you could be under arrest. 

READ ALSO Your questions answered: Legal rights as a foreigner in France

Fine – If they have stopped you to give you an amende, this is likely because you committed a minor infraction. 

This could be a traffic related offence – maybe you went through a red-light while riding your bicycle – or a minor crime such as littering.

The amount of the fine will depend on the severity of the infraction, which is at the discretion of the police officer. In most scenarios, the officer will ask for proof of identity, your address, and then the fine will be sent to your home. You’d be advised to pay it right away, because if you delay the fee can be increased.

Be aware that police officers will not ask you to hand over cash on the spot. It’s unfortunately true that scammers prey on tourists by pretending to be police and asking for cash ‘fines’ – a legitimate officer will not ask for this.

If you’re on public transport, transport police such as the Paris-based RATP Sûreté are also empowered to stop you and to issue fines if you have committed an offence such as travelling without a ticket. 

READ ALSO ‘Don’t mess with French cops’ – Tips for dealing with police in France

ID check – The other scenario where you could be stopped by a police officer is during a contrôle d’identité (identity check). This is when a police officer stops to check your identity, and it can only happen under certain conditions: they suspect you have committed or will commit a crime, you are in a ‘dangerous’ location where crime is known to occur, the public prosecutor has ordered an area to be watched, or you are operating a motorised vehicle (contrôle routière).

If you refuse to provide proof of identity, the police can find you guilty of refusing to obey or find you guilty of contempt and rebellion. If you do not have documents on your person to prove your identity, the officer can take you to the police station to check your identity there.

Many activists and NGOs argue that police practice racial profiling when they perform ID checks and it’s unfortunately the case that these ‘random’ checks do seem to happen more frequently to people of colour.  

Arrests – Finally, an officer might arrest you.

The French criminal code allows police to arrest and detain (for a limited period of time) any person against whom there exists one or more plausible reasons to suspect that they have committed or attempted to commit a criminal offence – this is at the discretion of the officer so it can cover a pretty broad range of circumstances.

Detention

The French police are allowed to detain you if the police suspect you have committed or could commit a crime that is punishable by jail time. This means they cannot detain you for something that is punishable simply by a fine, but no arrest warrant is required in order to detain you.

If police detain you, you need to be aware of your rights: 

  • Right to interpretation and translation if needed
  • Right to information (you have the right to know the exact legal definition of what you’ve been accused of)
  • Right to legal assistance (from the moment of arrest)
  • Right to have someone, such as a family member, be made aware of your arrest
  • Right to have an opportunity to communicate with your family
  • Right to be in contact with your country’s consulate and receive visits if you are arrested outside your home country
  • Right to the presumption of innocence
  • Right to remain silent and the right against self-incrimination
  • Right to be present at your trial
  • Right to consult police documents related to the investigation such as: the transcript of police interviews, medical certificates and notice of the rights in custody

In most circumstances you can only be held a maximum of 24 hours.

This can be extended if the crime you’re accused of is punishable of more than a year in prison. If so, the initial period of custody can be increased by 24 hours (up to 48 hours in total). In order for it to be extended, a public prosecutor must deem it necessary.

If the crime you are accused of is punishable by more than 10 years in prison, or relates to organised crime, initial detention can be up to four days, while those suspected of terror offences can be detained for a maximum of 144 hours (six days).

Court hearing

If the offence you are accused of is too serious to be dealt with by way of a fine, you will need to appear before a court.

If you’ve found yourself in this unfortunate situation, you should know that your hearing could either take place immediately at the end of your time in police custody or it could be sometime in the distant future – maybe even years later if it’s a complex matter.

The location of your hearing will depend on the severity of your offence: petty offences (contraventions) are typically dealt with in police courts (tribunal de police) or ‘jurisdictions of proximity’ (juridiction de proximité).

For misdemeanour crimes such as theft, you would likely go to a correctional court (tribunal correctionnel), and for the most serious offences such as rape or violent crimes you would be tried in a criminal court called a cour d’assises or la cour criminelle

If you have a ‘fast-tracked proceeding’ (comparutions immediates), this is because the public prosecutor has chosen this avenue.

Typically, it only happens in very straightforward cases, and it would involve your case being heard immediately at the end of your time in police custody (garde à vue). You cannot request a fast-tracked proceeding yourself. You should be advised that in these situations, it means that there is very little time to prepare a defence. You can request more time, and of course, you can request a lawyer. A fast-tracked proceeding will happen in the tribunel correctionnel.

There is also the option of a “Comparution sur reconnaissance préalable de culpabilité” (CRPC), which is a pre-trial guilty plea procedure. In order to go through this procedure, you must have the assistance of a lawyer

Ongoing detention

If your offence is too serious for an immediate court hearing, you will need to wait for a court date.

In most cases you will be released from custody while you wait for the hearing under contrôle judiciaire, which is similar to bail and often involves certain conditions such as not attempting to contact the victim or witnesses in the case.

In certain circumstances the judge can institute a caution, which is a sum of money that must be paid to ensure that the person be present at the proceedings, but paying money for bail is much less common in France than it is in the USA.

If you are a foreigner you will likely have your passport taken and be forbidden from leaving the country. If you do not have a permanent residence in France, the court can assign you one and demand that you stay in France until your hearing date.

If you commit further offences, or try to contact witnesses or victims while waiting for your hearing, or breach any of the conditions, you are likely to be brought back into custody.

I want to contact my embassy

You have the right to contact your embassy at any point after an arrest, though you will need to expressly request this, they will not be automatically contacted when you are arrested.

The role of the Embassy is much more limited than many people think – the Embassy is there to ensure that you are not being mistreated because of your nationality. As long as you are being given the same rights as a French national in the same scenario, The Embassy will not intervene on your behalf.

The Embassy does not have the power to tell a court whether you’re guilty or innocent, to provide legal advice, to serve as an official interpreter or translator, or to pay any legal, medical, or other fees.

They can, however, help you to find the above services, and most embassies have a list of English-speaking lawyers. 

If you have been incarcerated, depending on the country you come from, the French government might be required to inform your country of your incarceration. For US citizens, this requirement exists with your permission, and for UK citizens the obligation to inform exists even without your permission.

I would like legal assistance

You can request a lawyer at any time when in police custody in France.

As mentioned above, your embassy is a great resource for finding an English-speaking lawyer. Most embassy websites will have extensive directories for lawyers.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How to find a lawyer in France

You can also check the local “tribunal d’instance” (your local courthouse), your département’s bar association (le batonnier/ Barreau), or consult websites, such as AngloInfo, which compile directories of English-speaking lawyers. 

If you cannot afford legal representation and need legal aid, you must be able to prove that you are low income. You can contact the Maison de Justice, which is the courthouse. Your département or region should have a website explaining the legal aids near you. This is Paris’ for example, HERE

Key Vocabulary

Appeal: appel

Bail: contrôle judiciaire

Bar Association: l’ordre des avocats/ barreau

Charge/Indictment: Accusations

Embassy: Ambassade

File: Dossier

Investigative Judge: Juge d’instruction

Judge: Juge or Magistrat

Lawyer: Avocat – keep in mind, when addressing a lawyer you should use the honorific Maître (the same title applies for male and female lawyers)

Judgment: Jugement

Legal Aid: Aide juridictionelle

Criminal offence: infractions

Felony: un crime

Misdemeanour: un délit

Petty crime: contravention

Police Custody: garde à vue

Public Prosecutor: Procureur de la République

Sentence: Peine

Warrant: Mandat

Witness: Témoin

Expert help for this article was provided by Maitre Matthieu Chirez, who is a practicing lawyer at J.P. Karsenty & Associates and is specialised in criminal law. You can access the firm’s website HERE.

Please note that this article is not a substitute for legal advice and if you find yourself in trouble with the French legal system you should always get professional help.

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