‘France is our life’
French law allows naturalised citizens to be stripped of their citizenship if they commit a serious crime. Three days after the 13 November attacks in Paris, President Hollande announced that he wanted to extend the law to all citizens with dual nationality, a measure originally advocated by the Front National. The proposal will be debated in the National Assembly at the beginning of February.
Rachid Ait El Haj, Bachir Ghoumid, Attila Turk, Fouad Charouali et Redouane Aberbri are in their late thirties or early forties. Four of them were born Moroccan, one Turkish, but they have all spent most of their lives in France and acquired French nationality. Last October they found out they’d lost it. ‘I was at home with my daughter, watching BFM TV,’ Attila told me. ‘They said five men – including one Franco-Turk – had been stripped of their French citizenship. It had to be us.’
They were arrested in 2004, shortly after the Madrid train bombings that killed nearly 200 people, and charged with murder, in relation both to the Madrid bombings and to a series of suicide attacks in Casablanca in May 2003. Two days later, the murder charges were dropped. The five men were eventually convicted of ‘criminal association in relation to a terrorist undertaking’ because of their connections with members of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group; an offshoot of GICM had been blamed for the Casablanca and Madrid bombings. The court ruling, which mentions trips the men took to Afghanistan and Syria before 2001, makes it clear they had no direct involvement in any terrorist attack.
Bachir, Redouane and Attila were released from jail in 2009 or 2010. I met them in their lawyers’ office last month. They said they had rebuilt their lives since coming out of jail. They are all married, with children and steady jobs. Bernard Cazeneuve, the interior minister, ‘announced in the National Assembly that he had asked the prime minister to strip five terrorists of their nationality. Why is he still calling us that?’ Bachir asked. ‘He should say ex-terrorists,’ Attila said. ‘We served our sentence... For us, the page is turned. But apparently for the state this isn’t enough.’
William Bourdon is one of the lawyers helping them to fight the decision. Their conviction, he said, ‘opens a terrible Pandora box, because it opens the possibility of stripping of their nationality lots of young French people, Franco-Moroccan, Franco-Tunisian, Franco-Algerian, who are perfectly integrated in French society, but at some point made a bad choice, while being really far from any terrorist plans. And that would be catastrophic. That would be a victory for terrorism.’
The timing of the case was political, Bourdon said. The five men received letters informing them of the plan to strip them of their nationality in May 2015 – five or six years after they had been released from prison, but four months after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. They found out they’d lost their citizenship two months before the regional elections. ‘The press was informed of the decision before my clients,’ Bourdon told me. ‘This says everything. This shows the decision was aimed at winning over public opinion. The government is so scared of being accused of weakness that it’s caught in a spiral of heavy-handed security measures that leads to mistakes.’
An article in Le Monde on 7 October, before the five men were notified they were about to be stripped of their nationality, described them as having been convicted ‘for the Casablanca attacks’. It also said that ‘the authorities don’t hold out any hopes of rehabilitation: they think that these naturalised nationals of other countries have in no way given up their sympathy for the “radical Islamist movement”. They base their suspicions partly on the men’s circle of acquaintance, which includes several figures in the jihadist movement.’ The defence lawyers have used the piece to request documents that they never received from the prosecutor, including an anonymous two-page memo on each of the accused, which a member of the defence team describes as ‘perfunctory’.
The public prosecutor's office refused to answer my questions, on sub judice grounds.
If the loss of their nationality is confirmed, Bachir and his associates will lose their right to work in France and will be expelled to Morocco, where they could be imprisoned, or, in Attila’s case, to Turkey. ‘It means being separated from our children, who are all French,’ Bachir said. ‘France is our life.’
‘Whether we want it or not we're French,’ Redouane said. ‘We will fight, we will get our papers back. As for my Moroccan citizenship, they can tear it apart, they can burn it, for all the good it did me... We grew up here, our personalities were shaped here. I don't know anything about Moroccan history, but I know all about Louis XIV, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.’