I was naturalised by marriage, which seems to be one of the less complicated routes. You have to prove the “material and emotional” reality of your relationship going back at least 5 years. My wife and I have been married for 14 years, have two kids, own a house together in France, and are lucky enough to have been able to keep a lot of papers like old electric bills from when we lived in Germany, all of which must have helped. It must be much harder for people who are less privileged, haven’t been married as long, had to leave papers behind in war-torn countries, etc.
It took me about a year, and cost about €700, to get all the necessary documents from five different countries and get them translated into French. It was like having an extra part-time job.
Having got all the papers together, I had to make an appointment for me and my wife to submit them in person. But the French bureaucracy is understaffed, and the naturalisation office at the local préfecture simply didn’t respond to my requests for an appointment. I found out about something called Le défenseur des droits, which is a French state agency that helps people who are having trouble with state bureaucracy. (I read a sociological study on this agency, and it seems that there are countless egregious cases of administrative negligence and obstinacy that end up being solved only when Le défenseur des droits intervenes. But people who apply to Le défenseur des droits tend to be educated, like me. So this is another example of how privilege helped me.) Le défenseur des droits took on my case and I got an appointment in July 2018, and to our great relief, the préfecture said that our papers were in order and gave us an appointment for an interview in October.
At our naturalisation interview in October 2018, the interviewer had to ask us some silly standardised questions to determine whether our marriage is real, like “What was the last present your spouse gave you?” They also wanted to check how integrated I was in French society, and asked, for example, “What are the nationalities of your friends?” and “What do you do at weekends?” I told them I haven’t lived in France long enough to make new friends here, and tend to spend weekends taking care of our two young children.
After that, the only worrisome moment was receiving a letter in March 2019, saying that I had to send them copies of my parents’ birth certificates, and that if they didn’t receive these documents by the end of April, my whole application would be declared invalid. Luckily, my mother is still alive, and my father’s widow has a copy of his birth certificate, and they were both able to scan these documents and email them to me. The process for getting the birth certificate of a deceased relative in the US can be long and complicated, and can require a lawyer. And that’s in a relatively functional country like the US. What does someone do whose parents were born in Syria?
The notification that my naturalisation had been approved arrived in May 2019. So now I’ll have three passports: American, British, and French. My instinctive reaction is, “How many bloody passports do I need?” It seems absurd to have to do all this paperwork to get these magic talismans, without which you don’t have the same rights as other people. What’s more, those are three of the most valuable passports in the world, and I’m well aware that I’ve only been able to get them because of luck and privilege. The whole thing seems utterly unfair.
Of course it’s relief to know that our lives can now go on more or less as before. Do I feel French? The question doesn’t mean anything to me. France has been part of my life for a long time. I speak French almost well enough to pass for a native speaker, I have an MA in French literature and linguistics, and I can talk about Proust and play Debussy on the piano. My marriage has made me part of an extended family in France. What has changed is that, now I’m reasonably sure I’ll have the right to stay here in the future, I’m more motivated to get involved in things like volunteer work, social movements, and electoral politics.
In the back of my mind, too, is always the awareness that you never know which country might become a fascist dictatorship. My Jewish ancestors fled persecution in Eastern Europe to migrate to the US. Having three passports is a kind of insurance policy.
What does being British mean to me now? I wouldn’t want to live in London now, but I miss it. At least, I miss the open, welcoming, cosmopolitan London I knew. But that was years ago, and perhaps that London doesn’t exist anymore. Most of the people I knew in the UK have left. I would like to find ways to rebuild connections there, but don’t know how.
July 1, 2019