Emmanuel Macron has been accused of walking a dangerous legal and political tightrope with a proposal to restrict access to French nationality for people born on the Indian Ocean island of Mayotte to immigrant parents.
The far right has welcomed the move, which critics say breaches fundamental constitutional rights, and insisted it should be applied to the whole of France.
The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, announced the change during a visit to the island, the country’s poorest region, at the weekend after three weeks of protests.
“We are going to take a radical decision. It will no longer be possible to become French if you are not the child of a French parent,” Darmanin said, adding that the measure would reduce “the attractiveness” of the archipelago for prospective immigrants.
“It is an extremely strong, clear, radical measure, which obviously will be limited to the Mayotte archipelago,” Darmanin said.
France currently grants citizenship through parentage (“droit du sang”) and birthplace (“droit du sol”). The proposal risks further ramping up tensions in France after the adoption of a new immigration law.
On Monday, the former far-right presidential candidate Éric Zemmour told French radio the Mayotte measure was inadequate and should be extended to the whole of France.
Zemmour, who like the far-right Rassemblement National (RN) led by Marine Le Pen has made immigration his political hobbyhorse, said: “He [Macron] speaks a lot and doesn’t do much. We need to abolish [the droit du sol] throughout France.”
Boris Vallaud, the head of the Parti Socialiste’s parliamentary group, said it would oppose any moves to change the constitution and that the birthright citizenship rule was “non-negotiable”.
“Will this constitutional revision of the droit du sol change the situation in Mayotte in any way? I do not believe so, which is why I’m not in favour of revising it. Mayotte is already subject to a legal system that is much more strict for obtaining French nationality than in the rest of France.”
Mayotte is made up of two islands that voted to stay part of France in 1973. The others in the surrounding archipelago sought independence, becoming the Comoros Islands.
An estimated 150,000 people have moved from Comoros to Mayotte to try to escape poverty. According to France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (Insee), more than 40% of the islanders survive on less than €160 (£137) a month. Nearly half do not have French nationality.
Aurélien Taché, an MP in the leftwing alliance Nupes, said the proposed constitutional change would “open a Pandora’s box” to the far right abolishing birthright citizenship across France if it came to power.
“Why should a département governed by the ordinary law of the French Republic have a different law applied to it than other départements?,” Taché wrote on X.
An Ifop poll published on Monday suggested up to 29% of voters intended to vote for the RN in June’s European elections compared with 19% for Macron’s Renaissance party. Gabriel Attal’s nomination as prime minister had no major effect on voting intentions, the pollsters found.
In an editorial on Monday, the investigative news website Mediapart wrote that revising the constitution would be “against [France’s] history, dangerous for us all and useless with regard to its objective of limiting irregular immigration”.
France Info wrote that Macron was “walking a tightrope” in taking such a “political and legal risk”.
“The droit du sol is at the heart of the legal definition of nationality in our republican body. To abolish it, even on an exceptional basis in a single department, is to undermine one of the foundations of our law. And it calls into question the principle of equality of citizens throughout the territory,” it said in its editorial.
To make the proposed change, there will need to be a referendum or a “congress”, a procedure that requires the same text to be adopted by both houses of parliament and approved by three-fifths of parliamentarians. This would require the French right to approve the text and no split in the government similar to that seen in December over the contested immigration law.
According to Insee, the 375sq km island of Mayotte is home to about 310,000 people, but officials say this figure is seriously underestimated.