How good does your French need to be to get citizenship?

How good does your French need to be to get citizenship?
If you can understand this, well, that's a start. Photo: AFP
France has announced that it will making more stringent the language requirements to get French nationality. But in reality how fluent does your French actually have to be?

What is the requirement?

In order to become a French citizen there are of course a number of criteria that you need to fulfill. Full details on the process here but if you are applying through residency you need to have been here five years and be able to provide all sorts of paperwork to prove that you are able to support yourself and are leading a law-abiding lifestyle.

In addition to this, you need to be able to speak French (not unreasonable really, once you are a citizen you can then be called up for jury duty so you could potentially be deciding on the course of someone's life).

From April 2020, the French government will be making the language requirements for citizenship tougher in order, they say, to improve social cohesion.

So just how good does your French need to be? Well the level required is B1 under the European CERL framework.

B1 language level is defined as someone who is is able to handle day-to-day matters that arise in school, work or leisure. 

They should be able to get by while travelling in an area where only French is spoken, and should be able to describe events and justify things like opinions, plans, or even ambitions. 

It's generally seen as comparable to the British AS level.

READ ALSO The nine French words you need to be very, very careful when pronouncing

In addition to the language, you also need to know about French culture. Photo: AFP

And what's changing?

Well the level of B1 is staying the same, but while at the moment you only need to do a listening and oral test, from April you will need to also do a written test.

So if you're not sure how French words are spelled, where accents go and prefer to just mumble when you're not sure if a noun is masculine or feminine, this could be a problem for you.

What do the tests involve?

If you already have a degree from a French university or a language diploma you won't need to do extra tests, but assuming you have no formal language qualifications of the type recognised by French authorities you will have to go and sit several tests.

The certificate you present to authorities when you make your citizenship application also cannot be more than two years old.

The tests you need to take are:

  • Oral comprehension – 25 minutes. This test involves listening to a tape and answering questions about the content, usually multiple choice answers
  • Oral discussion – 10 to 15 minutes. This is a one-on-one interview with an examiner who asks you progressively more difficult questions, towards the end of the chat you are also given the opportunity to ask questions or start a debate with your examiner on the topic
  • Written test – comprehension 45 minutes and writing 30 minutes. This is the new bit and in it candidates will be expected to read a selection of French texts (newspaper articles, memos, adverts etc) and answer questions about their content, then write a piece on a given topic in a specified style (formal letter, email, memo, news report etc).

The costs can vary depending where you do them, but €140 for all four parts is standard. You do not have to take all the parts at the same time, but all your certificates need to be less than two years old when you present them to the authorities.

READ ALSO The most common and embarrassing French language problems laid bare

Photo: Alberto G/Flickr

Who has to do them?

Not everyone has to take a new test, there are some French qualifications that are accepted including a degree from a French university and a language diploma.

Currently other people are exempted too – anyone over 60 or anyone with a disability or chronic health condition.

However from April 1st those rules are getting tighter too – the French government site simply says that 'certain exemptions' will be removed.

However the Préfecture de Police – which handles applications in Paris – goes further, stating that: “Anyone aged 60 and over will also be required to prove their level of French language skills by providing written and oral proof of B1.” 

And is that the only language test?

Not quite. As part of the citizenship process, you are also required to have an interview at your local préfecture (or the Préfecture de Police if you are in Paris) where they test you on your knowledge of French history, culture and values.

This isn't a formal language test but the interview is of course conducted in French and if you language seems to be far below the standard required you could be rejected.

In neighbouring Switzerland (where the process for getting citizenship is extremely tough) a woman who passed the language test and made it all the way to the interview stage was rejected because she apparently said 'uh' 200 times during the interview.

What about residency?

There is no formal language requirement for the carte de séjour residency card or for a visa, so you only need to start taking tests if you want to actually become French. That said though, the majority of the application process for residency (with the exception of the online process for British people already resident in France before the end of the Brexit transition period) are of course in French.

You will also have to go to the préfecture to provide fingerprints, so if your French is at a very basic level it would be a good idea to have a French-speaking friend help you with the process to make sure you have understood everything correctly.



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