In August, an Albanian man told a French newspaper that his French citizenship application was rejected because of unjustly difficult cultural questions.
The 25-year-old, who has lived in France for 12 years, said he was asked about past French ministers and details from French history.
The news caused a storm on social media, where many French citizens said that they would not be able to gain citizenship themselves if they had to answer similar questions.
The questions cited allegedly included: identifying who is Edith Cresson [France’s first female prime minister], the man’s opinion of footballer Karim Benzema, the location on a map of Arromanches [the 465 resident village is in Calvados in Normandy, associated with the Normandy Landings in World War Two] and who ordered the construction of the Arc de Triomphe (Emperor Napoleon).
Not only are these questions beyond what is expected from an applicant, the way they were asked was unlawful, said Jules Lepoutre, law professor specialised in French citizenship at the Université Côte d’Azur.
Some knowledge is expected
“Since 2012, after an instruction by [then Minister of the Interior] Manuel Valls, the cultural section of a citizenship interview must not take the form of an interrogation,” Prof Lepoutre said.
“To become a citizen, an applicant’s integration into French society must be assessed, in part through culture and history but since that instruction, it must be done seamlessly through conversation, not hard questioning.”
It is also illegal to deny citizenship if some of the applicant’s answers are wrong, hesitant or approximative. The cultural assessment is not a test but rather a measure of whether the applicant has tried integrating into French society.
Under most circumstances, the minimum residency period to become eligible is five years. In that time, most applicants will have passively assimilated enough French culture to pass the cultural assessment with flying colours.
The ‘Livret du Citoyen’ gives a list of knowledge expected from applicants. The latest edition, published in 2022, features information such as the structure of the French government, French regions, and a few key events and figures such as Charles de Gaulle or the creation of the EU. It does not mention any French prime ministers.
This cultural knowledge of France is the same that is expected of French students after high school. Recognising Edith Cresson as a former Prime Minister should therefore not be expected.
“You can’t be entirely clueless, but you just have to show that you talk to other French people regularly, that you consume French media, that you follow French news,” Prof Lepoutre said.
Language and income are more common factors for rejection
Therefore, as regards the story reported by Le Parisien, either the young applicant’s testimony is incorrect – and he was rejected for other reasons – or he appears to have grounds for appeal. In this later case, a second examination could end up granting him citizenship.
There is no official data on the success rate of applicants, which means there is also no data on which criteria causes rejections. Applicants who are rejected are not informed of why.
Prof Lepoutre believes that between 70 and 80% of all eligible applicants successfully gain their French citizenship. Among those rejected, he said that the cultural assessment is a very minor factor.
“The French government is very secretive about this process, but from personal experience, a majority of rejections are either linguistic – a lack of mastery of French – or financial – applicants who don’t have the means of supporting themselves.”