How to Be French

Nationality in the Making since 1789

How to Be French

Book Pages: 456 Illustrations: 3 maps Published: December 2008

Author: Patrick Weil

Translator: Catherine Porter

History > European History, Law > Legal History, Sociology

How to Be French is a magisterial history of French nationality law from 1789 to the present, written by Patrick Weil, one of France’s foremost historians. First published in France in 2002, it is filled with captivating human dramas, with legal professionals, and with statesmen including La Fayette, Napoleon, Clemenceau, de Gaulle, and Chirac. France has long pioneered nationality policies. It was France that first made the parent’s nationality the child’s birthright, regardless of whether the child is born on national soil, and France has changed its nationality laws more often and more significantly than any other modern democratic nation. Focusing on the political and legal confrontations that policies governing French nationality have continually evoked and the laws that have resulted, Weil teases out the rationales of lawmakers and jurists. In so doing, he definitively separates nationality from national identity. He demonstrates that nationality laws are written not to realize lofty conceptions of the nation but to address specific issues such as the autonomy of the individual in relation to the state or a sudden decline in population.

Throughout How to Be French, Weil compares French laws to those of other countries, including the United States, Great Britain, and Germany, showing how France both borrowed from and influenced other nations’ legislation. Examining moments when a racist approach to nationality policy held sway, Weil brings to light the Vichy regime’s denaturalization of thousands of citizens, primarily Jews and anti-fascist exiles, and late-twentieth-century efforts to deny North African immigrants and their children access to French nationality. He also reveals stark gender inequities in nationality policy, including the fact that until 1927 French women lost their citizenship by marrying foreign men. More than the first complete, systematic study of the evolution of French nationality policy, How to be French is a major contribution to the broader study of nationality.


How to be French succeeds in providing a convincing account of the development of French nationality law that revises much previous knowledge on the topic. It is carefully referenced and chronologically broad in its coverage, and, while dense in places, it should nevertheless attract a wide readership. Its comparative framework will interest scholars of Germany, Algeria and other nations, as well as historians of France, legal historians and all those interested in issues of identity. Above all, this book illuminates the history of French nationality law at the very moment that issues of citizenship and nationality return to the forefront of political debate in contemporary France.” — Alison Carrol, History

“[A] densely organised and thoroughly researched analysis of jurists' debates and legal decisions since 1789. The book is clearly signposted and written—and very carefully translated by Catherine Porter. . . . [Weil’s] dispassionate and scholarly book sheds much-needed light on the complex legal aspects of the question for these post-colonial times.” — Sian Reynolds, Times Higher Education

“[A] remarkably comprehensive study of the controversial issue of nationality in France. . . . How to Be French will by no means end the debate between those who seek to link nationality to ethnicity and parentage and those who emphasize birthplace, residence, and choice. But it does inform that debate as no previous work has.” — Philip H. Gordon, Foreign Affairs

“[O]ffer[s] a frank and honest historical context, on which scholars can call upon and build on. In short, this is an indispensable work for anyone working on France, and for the amount of work that has clearly gone into gathering so many sources together, in such an accessible format, Patrick Weil deserves to be commended.” — Joseph Downing, Nations and Nationalism

“The appearance of an elegantly translated English edition [of How to Be French] is an event to be welcomed by historians and teachers everywhere. . . . Weil’s book contains a powerful argument about what is distinctive about the history of French nationality legislation: this body of law does not lend itself easily to any particular ideology, racial or otherwise.” — Joshua Cole, Journal of Modern History

“Catherine Porter’s fine English translation of Patrick Weil’s groundbreaking Qu’est-ce qu’un français, originally published in 2002, will interest historians and political scientists of nationality, especially those who question the links often made between political ideology and legislation. Weil’s book is both a minutely detailed account of French nationality law (relying on previously unused material) and a more comparative discussion of conceptions of the nation and nationality law in Europe and North America, as well as a consideration of the effects of such laws.” — Naomi Davidson, French History

“In How to Be French, Patrick Weil has produced an admirable book. He as also written a very important book, one which will serve as the standard work of reference on issues relating to French nationality for some years. His scholarship is a model of clarity and his judgments are never less than wise and well-informed.” — Jeremy Jennings, Journal of Law and Society

“Patrick Weil’s rich, erudite, scrupulously documented, and often fascinating book will surely be the authoritative work on French laws and debates around nationality and citizenship policy for some time to come. Given the special importance of France’s postrevolutionary history in this arena, it should also prove indispensable for those working more broadly and theoretically on questions of nationality, including its intersections with the politics of empire, race, and gender.” — Jennifer Pitts, American Historical Review

“This book is an important contribution to our understanding of French nationality law from the eighteenth century onwards.” — Michael Rowe, European Review of History

“This thorough and deeply researched analysis of the legal and practical issues involved in nationality law today and during the past two centuries will be essential reading for scholars in many fields for years to come.” — Denise Z. Davidson, Journal of World History

“Weil takes the reader authoritatively through the major turning points in French nationality law. His book establishes firmly that it has changed ‘more often and more significantly than [in] any other democratic nation’ since French nationality was first defined explicitly in the constitution of 1790. . . . Weil punctures myths with relish, and one of them is the reputed universalism and openness of French nationality law. He notes that even in periods of openness, it excluded some categories of persons.” — Robet O. Paxton, New York Review of Books

“Weil’s book is both a minutely detailed account of French nationality law (relying on previously unused material) and a more comparative discussion of the conceptions of the nation and nationality law in Europe and North America, as well as a consideration of the effects of such laws. . . . Although Weil’s painstaking reconstruction of the trajectory of French nationality law has already made [How to Be French] an essential book, his methodological claims are equally important contributions.” — Naomi Davidson, French Studies

“Weil’s book, deftly translated by Catherine Porter, constitutes not only the definitive work on the history of French nationality laws but also a study that by any standards ranks as an outstanding piece of scholarship. Built on extensive archival work and encyclopedic knowledge of its subject matter, the book combines an often gripping history of French nationality laws with revealing comparative analyses referencing other Western states and a wealth of information in its appendixes that offers ready access to virtually every aspect of the subject. . . . [T]his invaluable study is certain to remain the standard work on the subject for many years to come.” — Alec G. Hargreaves, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

“Without ever losing view of the major evolutions, Patrick Weil crosses the political regimes, the thoughts of the time and the breaks of French history, without ever eluding sensitive subjects such as the women or the Muslims of Algeria. The important concepts are explored—Jus Sanguini, Jus Soli, double Jus Soli, naturalization—showing the progressive constitution of a complex right. Overall, this is an excellent book, presenting an exhaustive study that explains the legal background to acquiring or losing French nationality. A glossary, maps and documents are also included. . . . Weil’s profound knowledge on the topic makes this book an essential reading to those interested in the complex aspects of the question.” — Sylvie Bernard-Patel, Ethnic and Racial Studies

How to be French is a critical history of nationality law and politics that illuminates decisive moments in the making of French nationality while making new and sophisticated theoretical claims about the articulations of nationality, the state, and history itself. This is a stupendous achievement by one of the most important French scholars and public intellectuals writing today.” — Peter Sahlins, author of Unnaturally French: Foreign Citizens in the Old Regime and After

How to Be French is a pioneering study of the fabrication of official ‘Frenchness’ since the Revolution of 1789, marshaling a plethora of fresh evidence and rereading more familiar sources in the service of an original, thoughtful, and provocative analysis. Patrick Weil is the most knowledgeable and insightful student of the institutional and judicial character of the French social tissue—of the political construction of cohesion in a land of immigration. He reminds the French of certain jagged truths they would prefer to forget; soberly, he draws lessons of great pertinence to other societies struggling to make multiplicity and heterogeneity work.” — Steven Laurence Kaplan, Goldwin Smith Professor of European History, Cornell University

“This remarkable, award-winning book is sure to be extremely well received by English-language audiences. It provides a detailed, rigorous, chronologically wide, broadly comparative, and fascinating history of French nationality. How to Be French profoundly revises previous knowledge on the topic, and its comparative framework makes it essential reading not only to scholars of France but also to those interested in Germany, the United States, Algeria, and beyond.” — Eric T. Jennings, author of Curing the Colonizers: Hydrotherapy, Climatology, and French Colonial Spas


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Patrick Weil is Senior Research Fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research (University of Paris, Sorbonne) and a professor at the Paris School of Economics. The author of many books, he was a member of France’s Governmental Advisory Council on Integration from 1996 to 2002, and a member of the Presidential Commission created by President Jacques Chirac on the “implementation of the principle of secularism within the French Republic” in 2003. In 1997, following a request from Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, he produced two influential reports on nationality and immigration legislation. Under its original title, Qu’est-ce qu-un Français, How to Be French won the François Furet prize.

Catherine Porter, Professor Emeritus in the Foreign Languages Department at the State University of New York, Cortland, won the Chevalier d’Or des Palmes Académiques for advancing Franco-American relations through translation and teaching.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acronyms and Abbreviations vii

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

Part One. The Construction of Modern Nationality Law in France

1. From the Old Regime to the Civil Code: The Two Revolutions in French Nationality 11

2. The Triumph of Jus Soli (1803-1889) 30

3. Naturalization Comes to the Aid of the Nation (1889-1940) 54

Part Two. Ethnic Crises in French Nationality

4. Vichy: A Racist and Anti-Semitic Nationality Policy 87

5. The Difficult Reestablishment of Republican Legislation 125

6. The Algerian Crisis in French Nationality 152

Conclusion to Parts One and Two 168

Part Three. Nationality in Comparison and In Practice

7. Jus Soli versus Jus Sanguinis: The False Opposition between French and German Law 173

8. Discrimination within Nationality Law 194

9. How Does One Become or Remain French? French Nationality in Practice 228

Conclusion 250

Glossary 255

Notes 263

Maps and Documents 375

Bibliography 409

Index 427
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4331-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4348-6
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